Driving for a Living: Driver #69, Part 2 is an excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California that covers my time as a driver messenger.
To see Part 1 of my driver messenger stories, go here: Party on the Freeway
To see Part 2 of my driver messenger stories, go here: Driving For a Living
Still a driver messenger. I’m living on Abbot Kinney on the bottom floor of a duplex. The neighborhood is middle class, it hasn’t shot through the roof yet – but will. For now, it’s not dangerous anymore and that’s the best that can be said about it.
I take Abbot Kinney to Brooks to Main, and hit the Surf Liquor for the smokes. The Santa Ana winds are blowing and there’s grit in my eyes when I get out of the car. I sneeze and run inside. Buy what I’m supposed to and keep the receipt, as I know I’ll be reimbursed.
I keep wondering how old she is. Will I get there to find a grandmother? Or a rebellious teen? And why is she in the hospital?
I’m sore as hell from the waist down and sitting today is excruciating. I dream of an active summer job. Something outdoors. Life has become drearily mundane. I’m putting on even more weight and money occupies all of my waking thoughts. Terrible. There’s got to be a way out.
I squeal onto the 10 and try to shorten the time. In four minutes I’m getting off on Arizona, I make all the green lights, and I see visitor parking first and a clear path to the hospital entrance. With the cigarettes wrapped in a paper bag and taped shut and the order sheet on top, and my biggest, easiest to use pen ready to go – I hop out of the car. There’s a page from Paul saying I’m supposed to ask for Nina. And so at the desk, I do. They point me down the hall.
Nina is frail and on oxygen.
She’s in her late fifties, and arthritic, and there’s no surface in her room for her to sign the paper on. I finally provide a few aaaah sticks on my hand to give something for the carbon copy to show up against. She’s wheezing, and I’m thinking about all the other things that I wouldn’t do for one hundred and twenty dollars.
“You’re a doll, sweetie. Thanks for coming.” She says to me in the raspy voice of a woman that’s been smoking since before she hit double digits, and beams. And then her face falls “Oh no honey, I forgot to ask for a lighter.” She is crushed, and literally crying, and hacking, and coughing.
I feel in my pocket for my trusty joint case and the lighter that’s in it. I pull it out, open it, and hand her the lighter, an orange Bic mini.
“Here, Nina, here.”
She grabs my hand when taking the lighter.
“Thank you, bless you. Thank you so much. You’re kinder than my own kids. Thank you.” She repeats it. I look her in the eyes and see more gratitude than I can take in. I scoot out of the room before I have to see her actually light up.
When I get back to the car I take the pack of cloves out of the glove box and throw them in the trash receptacle outside the hospital. For the rest of the day I’m lighting joints off the built in cigarette lighter in the car. I didn’t even realize that vehicles still had them until today.
It’s a full day, a Friday – these are always the busiest as everyone rushes to deliver everything before the end of the work week. At the last minute. And these are always the days with the angriest and most ungrateful recipients. In that way, at least, beginning the day with Nina is a blessing.
The end of each day is the same. I shower. The sweat, the road, the stench of gasoline all swirl down the drain. Once or twice a week Tommy Boom-Boom comes to visit and hop in this shower with me, but not today. I am happy for the days when I get to end work close to home, as I do not get paid for driving time and unlike most commuters mine is wild and unpredictable. Paul has pity on me today though, and my day ends half a block from home. I am weary and grateful, and hit the Medicine Man for a quarter ounce of weed. Thanks Nina.
Being on the road more often means more traffic tickets, more accidents, and car failure. I now live in the world of transportation and automotive. Work this job for under six months but manage to get two speeding tickets. I attend traffic school to keep the points for the second one (fifty-two in a thirty-five zone on Sunset in Pacific Palisades) from going onto my license. There are endless numbers of traffic schools in Los Angeles. Every variety, in every language. They have all sorts of themes, from yoga to goth. I choose the Improv Comedy traffic school, figuring it’s best if I can at least have a few laughs.
Here they have comics teach traffic school, and they get paid.
I learn that between the hours of midnight and five am on the streets of Los Angeles, fifty percent of the drivers are drunk and then fifty percent of those are on two other drugs, the most common being speed and weed. That it’s possible to stretch plastic wrap over the front and back license plates to keep the red light cameras from making out the plate, it causes their flash to reflect back and the numbers usually aren’t readable. I also learn that the second lane from the right is the lane where one is statistically least likely to be pulled over. All of these things prove actually useful to my career.
The job wears on me. I am still gaining weight, and have a history of weight problems and successes, and each pound of flesh adds a ton of depression. My body is suffering, and I yearn for being outdoors and active as I was when I petitioned. I realize that I can’t keep doing it anymore, even though there are some things I like about it. The regularity of the pay is nice. And occasionally I have breaks between runs and I’m near someone I know. I’ve run into friend’s houses or visited them at work or had lunch at restaurants where they served or cooked.
However, I still don’t like the job anymore.
I feel as though I’ve lost my identity, and taken on that of the Los Angeles streets. I’ve bled out through my windshield and blended into the endless unfurling of the urban sprawl. Become however people see me. I’ve become my uniform. The shape of a car seat. I’ve become my car itself.
My car acts up. I take it into a mechanic and it ends up being seven hundred and fifty-six dollars. Luckily Tommy Boom-Boom puts it on his credit card. I borrow money from my parents to pay him back. I don’t even know what’s wrong with the car. I’m in denial of how much maintenance is really needed to have this job. On some level I know I’m not doing enough. I can feel my steed faltering underneath me.
My mirrors are constantly falling off or being destroyed from hasty parking near giant pillars that protect parking garages in California from being demolished by earthquakes. So many pillars, everywhere. I get pulled over and am issued a fix-it ticket for my hanging mirrors, I’ll have to pay if I don’t get my mirrors replaced by a specific period of time. And no, according to the issuing officer, duct tape will not cut it this time.
Once they are fixed, unceremoniously bolted back on in ways that make them even more susceptible to damage in that they no longer have any flex, I see an officer on the street while making a drop and run after him. Luckily for me he reacts well to that.
“Excuse me officer, could you sign off on this fix-it ticket?”
He looks me up and down, and sees my uniform. I see the recognition of a fellow working human, another on the streets all day, I see that blue collar respect.
“Sure, where’s your car, I better see that it’s actually fixed, right?” He smiles. I’m relieved.
I take him to my car and he signs off. This saves me hours of time in traffic, parking, and the slow drip of human traffic through the bureaucratic architecture of the City of Los Angeles.
I learn to change my own oil.
I go to Chief Auto Parts to pick up a tool to change the filter for ten dollars, and the filter itself for five dollars. Drive my car up diagonally onto the sidewalk and scooch myself under it, having no lift and not trusting myself with a jack. I am astonished and empowered to learn that changing my oil consists of unscrewing one screw, and allowing the oil to drain out. I can’t believe I’ve been paying thirty-five dollars for that service every few weeks. The hot flow of liquid is kind of a turn on. I let it pour over my hand for a moment before it collects in an oversized Tupperware. End up not disposing of this Tupperware ever, and leaving it in the garage when I move. I screw on the new filter, add new oil, and repeat this process monthly.
Unfortunately I never learn how to do any other kind of maintenance, and manage to run my car into the ground.
It’s the transmission that goes, there’s metal in it by the time I take it in to be serviced. It’s beyond hope, and the slips are so great that it’s no longer safe to drive it on the freeway. I can’t be competitive driving only on the city streets, and so this is the end of that job. It ends suddenly, and I am sad that I wasn’t able to foresee it, but relieved to be done with it.
The boss and Paul are very sad to see me go. The boss even tries to hire me to work in the office or work dispatch, but I point out to him that I no longer have a vehicle in which to commute. He tells me if I ever change my mind or need anything – he’ll be there for me.