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Detached “Truckers” May 28, 2010

Posted by vsap in Blogroll, Poetry, Uncategorized.
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I was curious about Mary Richardson and her new book “Truckers”. I saw that she would appear at an author talk at DeKalb County Library on May 26. The photo used to promote the event displayed a vacantly morose Richardson staring directly at the camera. “Tortured artist” was the first thing that came to my mind. She is wearing a black coat with a gray-blue striped scarf meant not to reveal her neck in the photo. I could only imagine arms, legs and back of her neck festooned with a variety of colorful tattoos. After all, her bio included a stint with “Truckers Connection” as well as producing a previous book entitled “New Orleans Bicycles”. The latter being a depiction of pre-Katrina New Orleans bicycles.

I anticipated hearing a burdened author tell us of the travails of the men and women of the trucking profession. The harshness of road life, its ethos and pathos. There was that. And there was some remarkably good writing (as read by the author). Most surprising was the largest degree of detachment I have witnessed between an author and her subject. I believe this will become obvious as you read on.

To my surprise, when she walked into the auditorium, she was smiling, smartly dressed in pale green short sleeve silk blouse and brown skirt, not a tattoo to be seen. Ms. Richardson looked like she could have just come from her job at a law office, financial services firm or public relations firm. The smile erased the tortured artist aura of the promotional photo. She sat and had a conversation with someone she recognized in the audience, smiled easily during their interaction, until she was introduced.

The tortured artist emerged once she took to the podium.

Ms. Richardson explained in flat tone that she found the job at “Truckers Connection” on a Craig’s list ad. She had no experience in the industry but they took a chance and hired her. The previous editor was a hack, using the job to get free products and other perks. Ms. Richardson is a journalist so there would be none of that on her watch. However, she learned that her boss wasn’t concerned with award-winning articles or compelling stories. In point of fact, she was to stay away from controversy, which frustrated her during her 3-year tenure. She called the magazine a classic “rag mag” meant to be a tool for recruiting truckers. Nothing more, nothing less. It drove her to write what she called “more general interest” pieces and even write under an alias in an attempt to expand the magazine’s content.

I discovered today that she told the same thing to this audience that she did to Creative Loafing on their blog posted on May 24. Scripted? You be the judge:

“I felt compelled to create a project about truck drivers because I had gained some awareness of the trucking industry and I felt compelled to pass it on. I wanted to replace our detached relationship to the stereotypical image, and highlight the integrated role they play in our lives as consumers.

“I’d just started working for the magazine around the time of the spike in fuel prices in 2006 and Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and was having these apocalyptic nightmares about fuel prices getting so high that trucks would stop, causing grocery store shelves to fall empty, with people running around and buying up everything, having food wars.

“People rarely think about how their consumption of products and food, shipped across the country by truck, affect their environment, cost of living, and quality of life because of all the huge roads, noise they make, fuel they burn (she reported that 12% of all fuel purchased in the US goes into trucks). I thought if people had more of an awareness of this system, maybe it could change, and maybe we wouldn’t feed the system by buying so much and so irresponsibly.”

But, she appears to have gotten over the nightmare for the most part. Al Gore is getting fatter (expanding his carbon footprint by the day) and richer on his propaganda and, still, truckers truck.

What she discovered was that recruiters for trucking schools and trucking firms were unscrupulous. Recruiters systematically lie about the kind of pay and free time in order to get the unwashed recruits to turn over stacks of cash for training and truck leases. When cash wasn’t available, the training schools or trucking companies would arrange loans that came out of the “victim’s” pay first. The vicious cycle of getting enough miles to pay the bills would begin. It is not an easy cycle to get off.

The obvious question is why would someone subject themselves to this? The answer provided by Ms. Richardson was not unanticipated: most of the men and women, in their early twenties, come from small towns with few prospects. They don’t want to work the factory, mine, or fields around their hometown, college is not an option for a variety of reasons, so truck driving had the allure of adventure and independence not available on the 9-to-5 circuit, if that kind of work could be found. Add to that the “old-timers” were beginning to retire in droves, so recruiters need fresh legs and they need them now. According to Ms. Richardson, recruiters will say just about anything to generate new recruits.

Yet, through her multi-media presentation where she showed photos from the book on a screen from her laptop and played audio clips of the truckers talking about different aspects of the life, it made me wonder: Is it possible for a writer to provide the prose about a subject she admitted she had little first-hand information about? By her own admission she interviewed only two truckers face-to-face. Most other information was gathered from truckers answering her email inquiries and from recorded answers to questions, mostly posed by photographers to truckers on the scene of a shoot, usually truck stops.

Even if it is a shared project (and brief at 128 pages in all) where she provided prose surrounding the photos, you might think she would have learned something beyond her own prejudice. All she could see was the injustice of the truckers lifestyle. That these people were somehow entrapped in a life not of their choice.

Ms. Richardson did instruct the audience in some of the details of the life: the need for a CDO (commercial drivers license), DOT regulations on how many hours can be spent driving (14 hours a day and 70 hours a week), GPS that pinpoints their location at all times, and what it takes to make a living. The latter varies but one of her subjects, Rhonda Sexton, claimed she needed to drive 3,000 miles a week at 31 cents per mile or “I can’t pay the bills”. Justin Spoon, 22 years old, said he is required to wash his truck after every delivery since he hauls meat. That’s usually $24.00 and comes out of his pocket. Every now and then he can pick up an extra $25.00 helping unload his truck.

A driver by the name of Ed, with his puppy Chantel, is what Ms. Richardson characterizes as a stereotypical trucker: 10 cups of coffee and 30+ cigarettes every day. She explained truckers are at higher risk for health problems, especially heart disease and sleep apnea. Quite a revelation.

Ms. Richardson explained, maintaining her same flat tone through the presentation, that truckers lives revolve around the truck stop. It is where they do everything from sleep, shower, wash clothes, eat and find dates. And, there is a “subcontext” of people who “serve” truckers, from Christian ministries, to prostitutes, to people who hang around the edges of a truck stop, living in tents, offering to shine the truckers chrome wheels for a few dollars. All of this would be interesting or at least mildly entertaining if it wasn’t common knowledge. Just because the average traveler who takes a break at a truck stop doesn’t hang around for more than 15-30 minutes (and that’s if they eat at the Wendy’s or Subway located therein), doesn’t mean they are unaware of the distinct society that rules the environs. Apparently, Ms. Richardson thinks an average member of the traveling public is clueless about truckers and their lifestyle. Any episode of “Ice Road Truckers” or “Dangerous Drives” can get the virginal public up-to-speed pretty quick. And take a viewer more places, with more depth, than “Truckers” could ever hope to accomplish.

After her presentation, a question from an older gentleman in the audience was: “Don’t you think you could have learned more if you would have gotten into a truck and rode with a trucker from Atlanta to Bakersfield?” Ms. Richardson acknowledged, yes, that might have been useful, but “I was unwilling to do that.”

She then told the audience it was time for her to go to attend to her baby. (Do tortured artists have children? Of course not.)

And if that wasn’t enough to finish off the evening, someone got in one last question that she totally misunderstood. The question was: “What will be your next project?” This was meant “As an author, what will be your next subject?” Nonplussed, she replied, “I’m going to attend Georgia Tech this Fall and work on a degree in urban planning.”

I now wished I had seen the tortured artist, tattoos and all, instead.



1. Detached Truckers Poet At the Edge « valueaddedoraddvalue - May 28, 2010

[…] if you would have gotten into a truck and rode with a trucker from Atlanta to Bakersfield? …Continue Comments […]

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