Zombie trucks and perpetual Christmas

There’s a conspiracy among the residents of my apartment building. When we see a package in the entryway, which is unlocked, we pick it up and transfer it to the lobby, which is secure. “There have been thefts in the building,” said my retired neighbor in #4, the unofficial resident caretaker. “We help each other out.”

Thinking of my neighbors, most of whom I know only by their names on labels, I shift boxes and envelops and tubes of all shapes and sizes through the double doors almost every time I enter. There’s a perpetual pile outside the elevator, a never-ending cardboard-brown Christmas.

My toddler loves it. He picks up small boxes, wobbles over to the door, props them against the glass. Or tries to carry parcels destined for the fourth floor to our first-floor apartment. “No, no, that belongs to someone else,” I’m constantly saying. Of course, he thinks I’m just ruining his fun, but I don’t want to be the one to break the chain that’s pulled an object from California or China or someone’s loving aunt in Australia to ______ Road.

In fact, passing the package pile every day puts me in mind of the global delivery system. Not just the Amazon or UPS drivers, whom I occasionally pass in the lobby. But back all the way down the line: Boston-area warehouse, freight truck, shipping container, port, ship. Then reverse the process all the way back to the factory or workshop or relative’s kitchen.

And who does the delivering?

This daily mental exercise – who sent this package and who’s touched it on its way to our door? – is why I read “Life as 21st-Century Trucker” by Andrew Kay in Wired with massive interest.

“I want to find out what’s gone awry in American trucking,” Kay writes.

AI and automation are supposedly poised to take more than half the jobs of human truck drivers. The pandemic years snarled supply chains. And we consumers are ordering more stuff than ever.

Spending a week at a northern Illinois truck stop, Kay found from the truckers that unfair pay, abusive treatment of new hires and regulations requiring digital surveillance (which the truckers hate) have more to do with the shortage of drivers than autonomous robotrucks: “What we have, ironically, is a nationwide shortage of the very workers alleged to face obsolescence.”

Kay centered his time at the Petro stop, brilliantly, around Jay LeRette, a pastor who’s semi-truck trailer chapel remains parked while the population of truckers – searching as well as faithful – flow through. I was touched by the moments Kay describes, like when a trucker asks for prayers of healing for a painful shoulder. The pastor puts his hands on the shoulder and several men gather around. Whether or not God intervenes, the human touch had healing in it, especially for a man who spends his days sitting alone on a highway.

Kay rode along with a trucker delivering 38,000 pounds of cornmeal to a tortilla chip factory in Florida. He describes the point of view shift, “To be lifeguard-high in a 35-ton machine screaming down the highway at 80 mph, to see so plainly every driver’s phone-fiddling, their eating and knee-steering, is a sensation of godlike omniscience. But it is also terrifying.”

Trucking is in the news a lot lately. My interest started with a new book by Cornell professor Karen Levy, “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance.” And now I’m seeing coverage everywhere of this of this industry that seems to embody the mashup of digital and flesh our lives have become.

I heft packages from entryway to lobby now with a little added perspective. I knew it before, but Kay’s article helped me internalize how I, in my capacity as helpful neighbor, form the last link in a chain of transportation that’s more human than anything else.

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