Interviewing Truck Drivers at a Crossroads

Interviewing Truck Drivers at a Crossroads

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I got interested in truck driving while reporting an earlier story about what became of 600 unionized workers at an Alcoa aluminum plant in Indiana that closed down. A number found jobs in trucking, which has a perpetual Help Wanted sign out. They soon learned the pay was nowhere near as good, and the lifestyle — keeping them away from home for weeks at a time — was brutal.

A couple of truckers who are now college professors were helpful to me. Stephen V. Burks, an economist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, calculated that his pay as a union driver in 1979 would be the equivalent of $101,600 today. Since that era, trucking has been deregulated, and the Teamsters union has all but disappeared from the Interstates. As a result, truckers earn less than half of what they once did.

Steve Viscelli, a trucker turned sociologist, who wrote “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,” described how the industry tries to keep drivers from quitting by enticing them to become independent contractors. In many cases it is a financial nightmare.

It was Mr. Viscelli who steered me to Effingham, Ill., which he called “trucking central,” in search of drivers to interview. The town, which I had not heard of before, is at a crossroads of two major Interstates. The truck stop where I spent two days, part of the Petro national chain, has parking for nearly 300 rigs. The eighteen-wheelers start rolling in for the night around 4 p.m.

Besides interviews in the restaurant, I spoke to drivers fueling their trucks. I was surprised at how many traveled with dogs, companions for an often lonely job. I was also surprised at the diversity: Drivers were young and old; male and female; black, white and Hispanic.

Ayisha Gomez: “There are so many of us who are single mothers — and the work that’s out there, we just can’t support our families.”

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

Ayisha Gomez, 39, from Riverside County, Calif. — who became a trucker because it was better than a minimum-wage job to help pay her daughter’s college loans — made perhaps the strongest impression of all on me.

“There are so many of us who are single mothers — and the work that’s out there, we just can’t support our families,” she said.

For some reason I had imagined that truckers stay in motels, but that would be an impossible luxury. Unlike reporters for The Times, which covered my stay at a Fairfield Inn ($99 a night) and my meals, truckers pay expenses on the road out of their own pockets.

Herb Cox: “I challenge you to ask 100 of these guys, ‘Did you get a good night’s sleep last night?’”

Credit
George Etheredge for The New York Times

Many quickly pulled the curtains across their windshields and withdrew to their sleeper cabs for the night with engines running. Herb Cox, 50, from Atlanta, said the hardest thing on the road was getting enough rest: “I challenge you to ask 100 of these guys, ‘Did you get a good night’s sleep last night?’ ” A couple of Mr. Cox’s front teeth were missing. He said he grinds them from stress, and they had broken off: “I bit into a sandwich and they came out.”

I asked truckers what they most wanted to tell automobile drivers. Give us room, they pleaded. Their rigs weigh 80,000 pounds when loaded and require more than the length of a football field to stop. “There’s people out there who don’t give a, excuse the expression, rat’s ass,” Mr. Carrabis said. “They’ll cut you off in a heartbeat.”

In the end, my editors and I decided to let the drivers speak for themselves, at some length, rather than snip their quotes and drop them into a conventional article. Their voices were down-to-earth, often poignant and as direct as an air horn blast.

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