Friday, April 30, 2010

Annawun, Annatoo

The recruiting department at Company X gave us the name of a new owner in Louisville. Mike had recently come in from the road temporarily and needed a team to drive his truck; he had a 2nd truck and team signed on with Panther, and had plans to buy a 3rd to drive himself in the near future. Hoss liked him immediately, and we made plans to drive to Louisville.

All we knew about our new truck is that she's a 2005 Peterbilt with over half a million miles and what sounded like a well appointed sleeper. After living in Helga, anything more accommodating than an army cot with air brakes would be an enormous improvement. We decided to go for it.

I'm very grateful that we spent two months in Helga. Otherwise, we couldn't have appreciated how comfortable a used-but-well-appointed sleeper can be. Mike had this sleeper custom made for his own use; it's a 96" - a full two feet longer than Helga - complete with a toilet and shower, a flat-screen TV and satellite receiver, a sink, microwave and fridge, windows (!!), and ample cabinet space. Power to the sleeper is practically uninterruptible, thanks to a robust battery bank, an inverter, and a generator. The sleeper sports not one, but two, heating and a/c systems, the larger of which throws out so much cold air that even this old Mainer gets chilled. The box is a half generation newer than Helga's, lacking of rust and watertight. The tractor, although its cab is smaller than Helga's, was built to pull a trailer and therefore has more horse. Mike gives every indication that he's completely sane.

I'm so happy, I could scream. :))


Listen up, newbies: make sure you ask the right questions.

In an early phone conversation, we asked Mindi what type of equipment she had in her fleet. She replied that the truck destined to be ours was a late model straight truck, a 2008 Hino, to be exact. The sleeper was a 72" double condo, with a microwave and fridge, and an inverter for power. As she described it, the sleeper was smaller and more basic than we'd hoped for, but we expected to work our way up and into better living quarters.

As it turned out, Helga was, indeed, a 2008 Hino. But the freight box leaked profusely and was rusty; it sported broken lenses and rewired taillights, and predated, by my best guess, the Clinton administration. The sleeper was even older. It was dark, with only a single window in the attic above the cab. Fresh air was provided by a vent on each side of the cab, each smaller than the size of a standard envelope. Less than half of the lights worked, and most light lenses were missing or broken. The built-in heating and a/c system was completely dead; heating was provided by a small auxiliary add-on unit, and a/c was, I presume, limited to what little air you could coax into the sleeper from the cab. Other than the few lights that worked, the only power to the sleeper was obtained via the inverter, which obtained its juice from the engine battery.

Hinos are purportedly built for local deliveries, not long distance. They're passionately dissed by truckers, who claim that they're underpowered, unreliable, and simply not robust enough to take a million miles of road. In response, Toyota, the owning manufacturer, offers a comprehensive but strict 3 year warranty: don't touch nothin'. Mindi took this directive to heart. Other than periodic maintenance, she made sure her trucks ran without any modifications whatsoever.

Her determination to meet warranty requirements also meant her drivers drove a truck limited to stock electrical options, which meant that, unless idling, you've got *x* minutes of power until the battery dies, and then you're fucked. We were to find that limitation on several occasions. Forget running the fridge - or anything plugged in to the inverter - for more than just a few minutes. Headlights accidentally left on? Better be back to crank the starter within a couple of minutes or she's dead, pal. Overhead light left on? Find some cardboard and start making a sign, cause you're stranded. Since the only power to the sleeper (and cab) ran off the battery, tasks that required lighting and all appliance usage were severely limited.

Convenient storage was limited to six cubby holes, each about 1/2 the size of a shoebox - although much more storage existed under the bottom bunk (not so convenient). The original curtain that closed off the sleeper from the cab was long gone and had been replaced by a suede-like square of fabric attached to the walls with - I shit you not - drapery hooks and bungee cords. The microwave was broken and didn't work. The fridge was very small, but more importantly, the lack of continuous power rendered it slightly less useful than, say, a comb with no teeth.

But at most, we'd have to deal with it for six months, tops. What was most significant was that it was the first evidence that our new owner had a much different perspective than ours. To her, this was a perfectly suitable sleeper for a team of drivers. To us, it was a test of tolerance and endurance. It was filthy, rusted, broken, and noisy, with mattresses that didn't fit the bunks and holes that let in the rain and snow.

But Helga had character, and I'll miss her. Which is more than I can say for her owner.

So, newbies, when you ask about the truck you'll be driving, be sure to also ask about the age and condition of the sleeper and the freight box, as well, or you may spend the length of your contract in a miserable situation.

Spin the Wheel of Personality Disorders

We had, it seems, a million questions when we started our expediting journey. We researched and read and talked to people in the know, and in time, the majority of our questions were answered. As contractors planning to sign on with an owner, the most important remaining question was "How do you know if a potential owner is honest?"

A half-hearted internet search will turn up hundreds of stories of lousy owners. A few offer suggestions and tips to consider before you sign a contract with someone, many of them common sense - talk to current employees, ask about settlement issues and equipment maintenance, ask the owner how long s/he has been in the business, and choose an owner with a solid reputation in the field.

We are proof that you can do all of those things and still end up in a nightmare.

Mindi had been an expediter and a fleet owner for over ten years. She was well known and respected, as an owner and as a friend, by many of the employees and management of Company X (I'll refrain from using the actual expediting company's name, as they can't and shouldn't be judged by the events I'm about to report here). She had been selected by Company X to develop a program to match new expediters with experienced ones, and she spent a great deal of time at their offices near Toledo. In addition, Mindi was a moderator on a very active forum devoted to the industry, and was equally popular and respected there. She was friendly, knowledgable, helpful, and seemed to be exactly the type of owner we were looking for.

Several phone calls took place with her through the holiday season as we planned for orientation and getting started as drivers. During one very early call, Mindi briefly mentioned personal issues that were taking a lot of her time and attention. With each subsequent call, she disclosed a bit more. Was that unusual? Yes. But the context for this disclosure was that she felt these events were affecting her ability to respond quickly to her fleet and manage it properly; she looked forward to the conclusion of these issues and a return to her normal life.

The abbreviated version of her story: After years in an abusive marriage, hubby beat her nearly to death. She spent a week in intensive care and was taking meds to dissolve a blood clot in her brain. Hubby had been arrested and charged with attempted murder and rape, but he'd been sprung via a $50k bond. Her life, therefore, was in danger, and she was under constant police protection through the trial end, which was expected to occur in February. We listened and offered encouragement.

The night before our first orientation class, we met a team of drivers that had been working for her for over a year. They were friendly and shared a lot of good information, and had nothing but good things to say about her. The next morning, we arrived early at orientation to meet her and review our contract. Mindi is a friendly, bouncy, 4'10" ball of energy. She answered all of our questions and pledged support. "You'll like working for me," she said. "I take good care of my drivers."

Indeed, when Helga required nearly a week in the shop for repairs, Mindi immediately drove from New York to Ohio to allow us the use of her car to drive home. When we found ourselves stuck in freight-slow Orlando, she arranged for bonus miles to the more freight-friendly Atlanta. And when Helga was subsequently booted in Atlanta, she calmly called in a Comcheck to cover the fee.

But overall, Mindi was reactive rather than proactive, and that tendency drove us nuts. A 2010 IFTA sticker wasn't purchased until March, after we'd incurred a sizable fine in Virginia. An annual DOT inspection wasn't arranged until - two days before expiration - we were loaded for Miami and Hoss insisted that it be done before we hit the road. A missing license plate was replaced with a cardboard mock-up for several months. Emailed and texted questions regarding $1,600 in pay deductions were ignored, and voiced questions on the subject were met with promises for settlement paperwork. Despite being told the paperwork would be mailed to our home, not a single document pertaining to our earnings was received.

As the weeks passed and the beginning of the trial approached, Mindi began to broadcast text messages to her fleet (and presumably, friends and family) pertaining to the day's court events. The texts were very detailed descriptions of who was scheduled to testify, their performance, the jury's reaction, her attorney's synopsis of the day, her reactions and feelings and thoughts, husband's reactions, and the like. At one point, she reported that her mother fell ill in her hometown 100 miles away and had to be rushed to the hospital, resulting in a trial delay; these texts included descriptions of the logistics involved in the temporary relocation via her "handlers". Each text usually ended with a thank you for all of the expressions of support and prayers.

After a few weeks, the trial concluded with guilty verdicts. Husband was released prior to sentencing to "get his things in order". She remained under protection and was terrified he would come after her. Since husband was forbidden to leave the state, Mindi spent as much time as she could in Ohio, away from him and from her protective "handlers". By this time, we had learned that she was "sorta dating" an employee of Company X, and coincidentally, was planning to permanently relocate to Ohio in the near future. Sentencing was scheduled a few weeks away.

We were then quite surprised to receive a call from Greg (the husband) one day shortly after the trial concluded. After introducing himself, he said that we would be working for him starting the next Monday.


Steve called Mindi, who set about making her own phone calls. After a short while, she reported that Greg had pulled a power of attorney that granted her the legal ability to manage the fleet - most of which was in his name. She said her attorney was working on the problem, but her major concern was that Greg would try to take the trucks. She was distrustful of Company X's sudden apparent alliance with Greg, and asked us to pull the fuse that enabled the Qualcomm unit so they could no longer track us. Don't message them, don't call them, just deadhead back to New York, as soon as possible.

Umm... hold on there, Sparky.

By this time, we had suspicions that things just weren't right, somehow. There had been a few statements made that contradicted things said earlier. We were losing patience with the reactive maintenance and administration, as well as the lack of settlement statements. And despite spending many hours searching public and courthouse records, police blotters, district attorney sites, and newspapers, there was not a single mention of an arrest or a trial remotely similar to what she claimed. Hmm.

We simply didn't have enough information to decide whom to trust. We concluded that we had signed a contract with Mindi, and we were obligated to return the truck to her. But we were done working for her. If she somehow pulled off a miracle and managed to keep her fleet, we would break our contract and find another owner. We liked expediting and we liked working for Company X, so maintaining that relationship was important. We decided to call our fleet manager and let him know that we wanted to be considered for another truck.

And it was he who told us it was all a lie.

He was as bewildered as we were, and felt just as betrayed. He'd been friends with her for over ten years and was at a complete loss to explain why she would lie for, apparently, nothing more than attention. A co-worker had expressed doubts about her claims, and after a couple of calls to the New York courts, her deception was revealed. He assured us that as far as our future with Company X was concerned, we were golden. "Don't unpack after you return the truck," he said. "You can be back out on the road in just a couple of days, if you want."

With three weeks of settlements outstanding, we decided our best immediate course of action was to play along with her. The long drive from Talladega to Binghamton was spent trying to figure out what would motivate a person to spin such an elaborate and complex fabric of lies.

We haven't come any closer to figuring it out.