Saturday, 30 September 2017

Eighteen wheels and gears

This - Finn Murphy on Truck Driving - is an incredible essay, an excerpt from a book written by Finn Murphy, a high-end truck driver in the USA. The general public is interested in autobiographies or stories of kings,presidents, movie stars, crooks, psychopath, artists, athletes, business magnates, monks, philanthropists and sometimes even scientists; but rarely in the stories or expertise or knowledge of ordinary people who are not famous. We are even less interested in people in the working classes, where a lot of physical labour is involved. Their stories are only told by other professional writers or journalists, and sometimes by their children, if they become famous.

I found this narrative riveting, for several reasons. First, someday I hope to write a book on driving, and since I have only driven cars and bicycles, accounts of driving special vehicles interests me. Alistair Maclean's Way to Dusty Death was the first story I read about driving, when I was sixteen, and it was far better when I read it again in my thirties, after having watched a lot of Formula-1 races. I found the movie Rush, about Niki Lauda, quite gripping, especially his philosophy of driving.

The United States is a land of large vehicles, by global standards. I have once driven a U-Haul truck to move my belongings from Seattle to Cupertino. But it’s just a larger version of a car. When Murphy talks about an eighteen gear system, keeping an eye on the tachometer, wariness about jack-knifing, a great awareness of dangers of mountain driving, and specialised instruments like the Jacob brake,  he is talking as a driver whose full concentration is on his vehicle, the road and others. The US has highly structured traffic, drivers have rigorous licensing requirements, as do vehicles, and so on. Most highway driving is quite safe, unlike India, where a moment’s lapse can end in terrible disaster.

Second, Murphy is also an excellent narrator. His passage describing the truck going downhill are almost as dramatic as Alastair Maclean’s passages of an F-1 driver handling a truck on mountain roads. He quotes Moby Dick and Farenheit 451. I was reminded of this New York taxi driver's blog.

We will in the next few decades see similar essays, perhaps books in Indian languages, but currently the reading public is not interested in them (or most manual labour), barring a few rare stories and the odd question in Quora

Third, reading Marc Levinson’s The Box,  about containers and container shipping, helped me understand how profound and widespread an impact they have had, but how unaware we are of this impact. I once spent an hour after breakfast, watching a container ship slowly gliding out of Seattle harbour, from my apartment window, overlooking Puget Sound. It was sublime and meditative, in a way that can only be experienced, not explained. And perhaps one needs an appreciation for engineering to feel as I did. The TED video on Maersk  was also quite enlightening. But there are all kinds of other specialised vehicles on roads, and Murphy describes several of them. He also breaks a few stereotypes.
Ferry in Puget Sound, Seattle
Third, the caste system among truck drivers that he talks about. In his book on screenwriters in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screentrade, William Goldman discusses the several caste systems that exist in Hollywood; one among screenwriters, with variations by payscale; a second between professions, with star actors and directors on top, and a whole bunch of technical and artistic professions filling up the lower rungs. Murphy explains a similar system among American truckers, based on the kinds of trucks they drive. They have even developed a vocabulary of insults, and Murphy has often been at the receiving end. Oddly, while movers like Murphy are low on the caste system, they are quite well paid – an old phenomenon in India, where ostensibly high caste brahmins have usually been very poor through history; and hundreds of other former low castes have thrown up several millionaires and billionaires thanks to the Industrial Revolution; and in England where thousands of English “nabobs” who made money in the colonies moved up the ranks of the prevalent aristocracy.

As Murphy notes, “A specialist truck driver makes a quarter million dollars a year
I guess that’s worth being insulted in the mountains by my brethren.” One of the reasons for the high pay, is that his customers are very very rich people, moving all their belongings from one mansion to another. Antiques (granite Qing dynasty gravestones!), art treasures, luxury items etc are part of the set of goods moved. Damaging these can severely impact their moving fees. Movers like Murphy not only have to be expert truck drivers, but efficient packers. The pride with which he explains his packing techniques, can only come from a first hand account. The professionalism of American workers, whether in construction, transport, entertainment, finance, has to be seen and experienced to be believed. I don’t belittle Indian workers, several million of whom do phenomenal jobs with far less equipment at a fraction of the cost. But if they were more professional and efficient, and less superstitious or open to change, they would be far more productive and make far more money. Indians don’t use tarpaulins in construction and leave a thorough mess of paint, sawdust, cement dust and brickpowder behind, which then a lower paid set of workers clean up. There are severe health repercussions to both groups. Pits are left open, badly covered, with zero concern for the public. Electricians and plumbers leave exposed wires, pipes, rusting equipment, overheating junction boxes, bad manhole covers and a hundred other nuisances that make India that ugly sight it is (you will rarely see these in gated communities or corporate campuses, where the managements crack whips). Safety consciousness is non-existent in India and utterly unenforceable by law or social custom.The greatest fortune of Indian working class is that they always have family or caste to fall back on. And they can survive months or years unemployed.

“Books are disappearing,” notes Murphy; he has to pack fewer cartons, obviously.

To those of my more recent regular readers, who are wondering why I am writing about a truck driver, this essay may help.

Other essays on driving

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