I moved to the USA in March of 1995.
My ex-wife St.Jon, whom I had met via the internet, had tried living in Canada with me for a while. We were having a hard time getting together the resources to get a place of our own (we lived with my parents, and because she had a daughter we couldn’t get any old place), and St.Jon was missing her family in Alabama. I had only lived away from home for eight months my whole life, and was up for an adventure, so I decided to pack up and move south. Three days of driving in a Toyota Tercel with a U-Haul trailer attached later, we arrived in Mobile Alabama and I had to cool my heels until the INS decided I could be allowed to work. That process ended up happening pretty quickly, and in July of that year I got my Social Security Card, my Conditional Permanent Resident status, and was legally eligible for employment.
It’s a measure of my naïveté at the time that I assumed I could find work similar to what I had been doing in Toronto before I moved south. I had been working in a mid-level support role with Ticketmaster doing fraud investigations, so I assumed I would be able to get work with a bank or insurance company. The reality, however, was that Mobile was still a post-industrial city and that service jobs beyond front-line stuff were hard to come by. I probably didn’t do a very good job of looking either. St.Jon actually landed a job before me, working as a night clerk at a hotel. Through that job she found out about a possible job for me. Executives from a bread company called Flowers Bakery were staying at her hotel, planning an expansion into Southern Alabama, and were looking for delivery drivers. St.Jon got me an introduction and soon after I was sitting in a meeting room at the hotel with about 15 other prospective drivers, learning about the bread business.
Our training was three weeks long. The first week we spent in class, learning the overall mechanics of the operation and how to operate the portable inventory computers that would be used for tracking our deliveries, printing invoices for stores, and placing our orders with the factory. I got way ahead on this early and spent a lot of the class in a combination of daydreaming and deep fear about what I had gotten myself into.
The company was structured as a series of independent franchises – a driver would work for the company for a while as a regular employee, but eventually would “buy” his route. The company would front the financing, but the driver would be an independent operator. When stores paid the company for the bread, the company would then pay the driver the difference between the profits and the cost of the route and the truck. While it seemed like a no-win proposition for the driver, it did have significant earning potential, particularly after the truck and route were paid off and all profits went directly to the driver.
Also the job was a seven-day-a-week proposition – five days you did delivery, but because our company was not the main distributor in the area, we had to put all our bread on the shelves ourselves. Not being the main distributor in the area also meant we had a miniscule amount of shelf space compared to our competitors, so depending on how busy the store was, you’d have to go back at least once in the afternoon to restock. You also had to go to stores on your non-delivery days to restock. If you wanted a Sunday or Wednesday off (your non-delivery days) you’d have to make a deal with another driver – he’d do your stores so you could have a day off, but then you’d have to do his stores for the next off-day. Vacation, or even a delivery day off, was very difficult to arrange.
Because most grocery stores cut off deliveries at 11:00 a.m., you usually had to arrive at the bread depot around 4:00 a.m. in order to confirm receipt of your bread, load your truck, and handle all the inventory steps in each grocery store (pull out expired bread, determine how much bread to put in the store, get the delivery checked in, and stock shelves) before the last store on your route closed up.
I was deeply afraid that I had bitten off more than I could chew, but at the same time I felt like I had a wife and child to support and if this is how I was going to do it then so be it. It seemed like a hard life, but Mobile didn’t seem to offer a lot of easy lives to people who hadn’t grown up there, gone to all the right schools, and knew all the right people at the right churches.
After our week in class we spent two weeks shadowing a driver on an existing route in New Orleans, which is also where the bakery that baked out bread was based. This was going to be another interesting experience – I had never lived with a room-mate that I didn’t know, and now I was going to be sharing a hotel room with a complete stranger who I probably had nothing in common with for two weeks. St.Jon and I only owned one car, so I decided to leave her with the car and rely on my room-mate Anderson to get me back and forth to work. Because most of the routes we were going to be working were to the north and west of the city, rather than staying in downtown New Orleans, we actually stayed in a suburb called Metarie. While we were technically still in the New Orleans area, for a guy with no car and no money other than a few dollars for meals Metarie might as well have been as far away from New Orleans as New York City.
The first morning we rolled out of bed at a ridiculous 3:00 a.m. It was August and New Orleans at 3:00 a.m. in August is still a humid soupy 75 degrees. We piled into Anderson’s car and made our way through New Orleans to the depot in Gretna where we met the drivers we’d be riding with. My driver’s name escapes me so we’ll call him Mike. Mike had been working for Flowers long enough so that he owned his own route and truck, and I believe he cleared somewhere around $3000 a week, which in 1995 and New Orleans was a comfortable living. Mike was a super-nice guy and did a lot over the next two weeks to make me feel like this was a job I could handle doing in spite of the weird hours and job structure. Mike didn’t look like the job had worn him down and seemed to have a good time going around talking to the various store staff he dealt with along his route. I tried to make sure I helped a lot with loading, unloading, and stocking so Mike wasn’t burdened by having me on his route. I remember one restaurant we’d stop at called Luther’s. It was a barbecue restaurant that would start their meat going at probably the same time Mike and I started loading his truck in Gretna. By the time we pulled in around 11:00 to load Luther’s up with bread and buns for the lunch crowd the restaurant was suffused with that intoxicating smell of slow-cooked pork that you’ll only smell in the South. I couldn’t believe the hunger it would raise in my stomach when we’d stop there, and unfortunately I never got a chance to eat there.
It turned out I didn’t need to worry a lot about sharing a room – Anderson disappeared a fair amount, presumably because he had a car and a motel room in Metarie had little appeal for a guy with a car so close to New Orleans. Mike lived a few miles from the hotel, and because the driver Anderson rode with kept a different schedule Mike offered to pick me up and drop me off, so I didn’t need to catch a ride any more. I couldn’t put myself to bed at the appropriate time to handle getting up so early, so I would go out for long walks through Metarie if Anderson was in the hotel – I remember walking up to Lake Ponchatrain one night and just staring at the water waiting to feel tired. Other nights I walked through neighborhoods that seemed perfectly quiet and didn’t seem to belong in New Orleans.
Finally my two-week stint in New Orleans wrapped up, and I headed back to Mobile to put what I had learned into practice. Fortunately I wouldn’t have to do it all alone – my first week (or couple of weeks, I can’t remember) I’d have one of the supervisors for the depot riding with me, who had already been a delivery driver somewhere else. There were some differences delivering in Mobile – my route was close to my home, and because I lived in an apartment complex in the west part of Mobile, most of my route was newer, cleaner grocery stores that were easy to deliver to. Some guys were stuck delivering in downtown Mobile to rough neighborhoods or stores that were impossible to get in and out of, or had long routes that had them doing 100 miles round trip a day. While Flowers was the big bread company in New Orleans, it was the new kid in town in Mobile, and that was reflected in the attitudes of the people we had to deal with at stores and the limited shelf space we had. Because we were new, we were also expected to promote the bread while we were in the store, handing out coupons and asking people to try a loaf. I then learned that there are a lot of people who have different budgeting priorities when it comes to their food – our bread ran $1.29 a loaf compared to $0.79 for store bread, and that fifty cents was either a lot for some people, or seemed like a lot to others. The good news was that if we could get people to try our bread they most often came back to it – I don’t know what the magic formula was, but the bread seemed moister and had better body and flavor than the typical store bread, and while store bread would go stale in two days our bread would keep for a week.
In addition to promoting the bread in the store, I was also expected to grow my route by getting independent stores, convenience marts and gas stations to stock our bread or “cake” products (think whatever Hostess makes). I sucked at cold calling (still do), so in my time with the company I only landed I think three stores beyond what had already been set up for me before I came on board.
Our first couple of weeks our business was like a revolving door – our orders were built for us by the company and we’d pull out almost as much stale bread as fresh bread we were bringing in. I learned a lot about how delicate a loaf of bread can be, how hard it can be to get a 15-foot stack of bread baskets the three feet from the warehouse floor to the tailgate of the truck ( because we were new in town, we rented a warehouse that didn’t have a loading dock,) and how you need to pack your truck properly so that if you have to slam on the brakes your bread baskets don’t go flying into the front of the truck and shoot bread everywhere. It was blisteringly hot inside a giant metal box without any air conditioning in Mobile. This sometimes worked to our advantage – we’d bring bread into the store that was so hot there was steam inside the bags and people would think we had just come from the bakery. It was back-breaking work that involved tons of hustling. I worked harder than I ever had in my life, because my hope was to get to that point in the future were I was making the kind of money that Mike made and provided properly for my family.
We had a hurricane threaten Mobile that fall. One thing you sell a ton of during a hurricane is bread. Our normal delivery schedule was Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday with Wednesdays and Sundays “off.” The hurricane was due to hit Wednesday afternoon. Tuesday was normally a light delivery day for us – not too many people shop Tuesday – Thursday so we’d put in just enough bread to keep the shelves stocked until Thursday. With the hurricane threat, we went out and did our first run, and when we got back to the depot we got a second delivery from New Orleans and we went back out again. I think I got to the depot at 4:00 a.m. that day and didn’t get back home again until 10:30. Wednesday we got up and the hurricane was still due to come ashore around Mobile, and they had sent us another delivery, so we went back around a third time. I got to three stores before they shut down, and I drove back to the depot in sheeting rain and fifty mile-an-hour winds, the roof of the empty truck sounding like a million ball bearings were pouring down on it. I gassed up my truck, parked it at the depot, and even though the forecast was still saying that the hurricane was due to hit, went to my mother-in-law’s house in a high part of the city and I passed out dead asleep. Luckily the hurricane turned and spared the city but I was so deathly exhausted that I wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.
The job wore on me as the months passed. I could never shake the sleep-deprived feeling that seemed to follow me constantly. I disliked the fact that when I finished my time on the road in my truck I still had to do more work later in the day. I hated that getting a day off was almost impossible, that if St.Jon and I wanted to take a day to go to the beach or over to Fairhope on the other side of Mobile Bay that I’d have to wrangle a deal with another guy who was feeling just as worn out as me. One of the ways I dealt with the stress was by eating the honey buns I carried around in the truck right behind my driver’s seat.
In some ways though I actually did well at my job and found ways to make it bearable. Since I was good with computers and numbers, I got my ordering down to a science and seemed to find a sweet spot in some of my stores between running out and bringing too much stale bread back. I found ways to work on my orders while waiting in line to get checked in at other stores. Since Mondays were my busiest days, I would go out to grocery stores Sunday night a few hours before they closed, take inventory and pull my stale bread to the back of the store so I could breeze through the next day. I would pre-build my orders in the warehouse before I left the depot, as it was far more comfortable to be stacking and organizing bread inside the depot at 4 in the morning compared to in a hot truck behind a store at 10 in the morning. I got a little battery-powered tape player and would listen to books on tape to help the time on the road go by. It wasn’t much, but it helped get me through the week.
Ultimately though I realized that this wasn’t going to be the life for me – I felt exhausted and I felt like I was missing time with my family. I longed for the chance to just have a weekend together. I called up my old boss in Ticketmaster to see if she had any contacts in the U.S. and she put me in touch with their Atlanta office. They were looking to hire a customer service manager, and a few interviews later I landed the job and I was done being a delivery driver.
While I wouldn’t ever want to go back to that life, I do feel like the time I spent in that job taught me a lot, both about what I had the capacity to do when I had to, and what I did and didn’t like about work. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” I also feel like I didn’t waste my time doing the job and feel a little bit proud of myself that I was able to survive it.