Party on the Freeway: Driver #69, Part 1 is an excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California.
The criteria I use to choose jobs becomes fixed into those that have no supervision and some control over a schedule. The last thing I want is to show up at an office at a time and a specific place every day. I am allergic to water cooler conversation, artificial lighting, and industrial textiles. Would rather shovel shit. I would rather steal. Would rather spend ten hours a day sweating in Los Angeles traffic because I don’t want to waste gas money on using my air conditioning, driving an average of a hundred and fifty miles within Los Angeles County limits. And so, that is what I end up doing.
During film school I total my car.
My parents buy me a replacement car of their choice: a root beer colored Saturn SL-1 with a tan interior. It drives like shit. It’s light, and the exterior is made of plastic over Styrofoam. I’ve already gotten into an accident and the thing bounces back like Rubbermaid. I’m supposed to have had the Styrofoam in the damaged rear end replaced, but I didn’t and pocketed the thousand dollars in insurance money instead. I’m young and so the fact that this means I’m driving an uninsulated trash can around the freeways of Los Angeles at seventy-five miles per hour doesn’t phase me. The car drives fine, and gets decent gas mileage.
I am back to the newspaper want ads and Craigslist, as we are on the cusp of losing usefulness in paper ads for the true sunlight of the information age.
We are past the dawn, but only just into the day.
There are sections both online and offline for driver messengers. I’ve always thought this would be easy as I enjoy driving, so call a few outlets. Immediately on hearing my voice they ask me in for an interview. The boss tells me initially over the phone “We’ve only ever had one woman driver and we don’t have her anymore. It makes no difference to me. I trust women more. Come on in.”
Headquarters is in the Valley, in the area between Woodland Hills and Encino. I brave the 405 at morning rush hour and come in to a nondescript strip mall. The door is marked with small letters that say “LA Delivery” and the rest of the front window is tinted dark, opaque. Inside are desks, covered in mounds of papers. One has a radio on it and serves as dispatch. The other desk has a phone – where the boss takes orders. The walls are done in cheap wood paneling, and there’s a beige industrial carpet fraying with each opening of the door. I meet the boss, a short, rumpled, no nonsense businessman who gives his life to his company. He introduces me to Paul, the dispatcher, long black hair, deadpan – he reminds me of Steven Wright.
They give me the job.
As soon as I fill out the paperwork I’m handed a few t-shirts. They’re dark blue with thick weave and have the company name embroidered on them. They hang loose and long and can be worn over other shirts. I’m then issued a pager, which is how they transmit orders to me. I confirm on the pager, but call in if I have questions on my cell phone, a clunky early model, one chunk of plastic. We aren’t to flip-phones yet. Throughout this intake process we are being interrupted by the phone ringing, and people placing orders. I begin to see their system.
The boss answers “LA Delivery, please hold”, then takes down the information on a piece of paper, which he clips to a wire overhead and slides to Paul like a diner order. Paul takes the paper and enters the information into a computer, and then assigns a driver to the call based on his faith in the driver and the driver’s location. I soon see how Paul has more power and insight than the boss, but how the boss’s obsequiousness to the customers is what keeps the calls coming in. It’s a fine balance.
It is time to assign me a driver number. This is done randomly by the computer, they explain it’ll be between one and two hundred and fifty, and that they have thirty-four drivers working currently that were also randomly assigned a number. The boss keys my name into the computer. He turns bright red when the answer comes back.
It’s number sixty-nine.
He exclaims “Oh Jesus no. I’ll do it again, I’ll run it again!”
“No!” I cry. “Please, that’s just too good, come on, you know I’m the only woman working here too. It’s perfect. It’s destiny! Fate! You saw it happen, it was random.”
Paul chuckles in the corner, in a rare moment between calls. He has one of the sides of his headphones pulled off of his ear, which always reminds me of working in film sound. “Let her keep it.”
The boss shakes his head. “Okay, but I’m making a note that this was your choice. You’re not going to sue me for harassment or anything, are you?” He looks at me, worried. I am glad for his priorities.
“Only if you actually harass me.” I say. Paul chuckles again. He rarely shows emotion and so him finding me amusing gets us started on the right foot. The drops he gives me correspond to his mood. If he’s happy I get the good ones, with little physical distance or time in between. If he’s grumpy, he’ll give me the tough ones that have me driving up to the limit – the county line.
I become very conscious of the territory that is just within Los Angeles County.
“Welcome to the team.” Paul says, and reaches out his hand. I shake it. From here on out he calls me “Six Nine”. When I call in I say “sixty-nine, go for assignment”. From here on out, neither of us smile or laugh about it. It just is.
And thus I begin driving in earnest. Driving through traffic. Sitting in traffic. Driving up winding roads into the hills. Onto studio lots. Driving into gated communities. Around the grounds of mansions. Driving through seas of industrial warehouses. Driving through communities. Knowing I’m going the wrong way if I’m driving through the ghetto. Driving through the imaginary state of mind that is Hollywood.
Driving the streets of Los Angeles, day in, day out.
The first day working is the only day I ever get a tip. I deliver to some flat warehouse that’s been turned into an open office building with cubicles and large open spaces. The interior is unfinished and the floors concrete. It’s the kind of office people ride scooters in, and there are beanbags and each desk is over-decorated. It takes me a while to find the recipient, and when I do they are in a meeting in front of twenty people. They feel guilty for being so hard to find and hand me a twenty to look good to the attendees. I happily take it.
More street level view, just as I did while collecting signatures outside of grocery stores, but now I am protected in the bubble that is my Saturn. I dream of getting a print of the goya painting of Saturn eating his young to plaster across the interior roof of my car, but never do. Hollywood labor strikes and police busts and movie shoots and police chases and everyone who has ever sold oranges or peanuts in the shell or flowers on the freeway ramps.
One day I am stuck hopelessly on the 10 freeway, just past downtown heading west.
It’s early afternoon and nothing moves for ten minutes. People begin to exit their vehicles. Those with the best car stereo systems provide music. I see bubbles waft across the hood of my car and get out.
And as I do I am part of a massive movement towards a spontaneous party. We all get out of our cars. People climb on top of them. There is dancing. The guy behind me, a cholo in a jeep with rims, tattoos head to toe, cargo shorts and a wifebeater, goes to the back of the jeep and gets out a Styrofoam cooler. He hands out Tecate to everyone. I never drink beer but take one from him, and then sheepishly open my cigarette case of joints to offer him one. Nacho becomes my new best friend for the next forty minutes, I learn all about his life, his wife Lupe, his kids, and his dreams. All leaning against the divider on the 101 freeway.
I power this endless road trip with joints.
I’m still seeing the Medicine Man to buy the finest weed available in Southern California. He always presents at least five choices, and it’s not rare he’ll have a five pound bag that he lets you dip your head in and whiff. Ah for the days when a giant sack of weed was the presentation.
I usually try to buy at least three varieties when I visit him. I have a special cigarette case that was a gift from Tommy Boom-Boom, it’s a bit fatter than your average case. Each evening after work I sit watching cartoons while breaking up about a sixteenth of an ounce of weed by hand and then carefully rolling this into six to eight thin joints. I work and smoke them every hour on the hour. I’m stoned constantly, except when I run out of money.
It’s terrible for me.
The whole time I know it is too much, it is overuse, I am drowning myself to deal with being able to sit in traffic, in a car, for hours and hours a day. It’s numbing. I overeat, and get high all the time so am useless after work for anything but sleep.
I buy a pack of cloves. Haven’t smoked these since college, when I had one pack last two years. I barely make it through one clove in a week this time. They seem like a good way to demarcate time, but in the end just leave me feeling restless, sore-lunged, and trapped in the vehicle.
I can listen to whatever music I want. I often forget to bring CD’s so it’s usually the radio, and usually hip-hop. It’s a nice life, but my body is starting to suffer. I gain weight. I’ve got a driver’s tan, the deep berry color of my left arm stops abruptly at the line where the sleeve of my uniform t-shirt stops. My right psoas begins to whine, and it collapses the entire right side of my body. Driving takes its toll.
Other excerpts from Down and Out in California: