Falling Asleep At The Wheel.


It happens so seamlessly.

One second, you’re watching the road and doing whatever you do (suck mints, chew gum, stick your arm out the window, sing, blast the radio, anything else you can think of, or all of the above) to stay in time and retain your link to the material world. Then, you inadvertently think about something. Your mind’s eye turns toward the thought, and in that instant a hole opens and an image comes out. The image expands, begins to move, and becomes the dream.

Then you hit the telephone pole. Or the guard rail. Or the truck.

After my stint living in an AMC Gremlin, storage rooms, and on dorm floors, I scored a job as an “Order Selector” for West Coast Grocery in the Tacoma tide flats. Suddenly, I was making $14.96 an hour with full Teamster benefits. Instead of scrounging for the change hiding beneath the agitators of dorm washers, I could get off work on payday, go down to Alfred’s “Bubble Room” (a union bar) on D Street with the crew, and cash my check. I loved having the bar tender count out around $2000 in crisp twenties and coming home with a wad of green. So much more viscerally satisfying than having numbers appear on your bank statement and disappear with the bills. Alfred’s must have had $20-30,000 on hand those days. It’s a wonder that they weren’t robbed, but then again there were probably more guns in the room than at a militia party on 4th of July.

An Order Selector takes a pile of labels, printed from the order of a grocery store, and races around a huge warehouse on a motorized pallet truck. He grabs cases of merchandise, slaps on the labels, and stacks the boxes neatly into six-foot stacks on pallets so that they can be loaded onto trucks and delivered. He has a set a set amount of time, determined by Satan, in which to complete each job. If his average falls below 95%, he can kiss any chance at overtime goodbye. If it falls below 90% he can kiss his job goodbye. Scoring high meant yanking eight to twelve tons of often heavy merchandise out of high and low racks and stacking it on a moving pallet in a never-ending mad rush over miles of warehouse floor.

Man, was I in shape.

And man, was I weary by the end of a shift.

As a new hire and part-timer, I worked graveyard, that is, from 10:30 pm to 7:30 am. I loved working graveyard and the culture of the night shift. The city was just beginning to think about hitting the hay at 10:30 on work nights. I used to jog down Dock Street or take my sandwich away from the warehouse at lunch, which was about 3 am. That was the quietest time. The docks and tide flats are eirily quiet, and yet quietly alive with all kinds of half-life. By our break just after 5, the tide flats and city were starting to stir and wake. If I worked a full shift to 7:30, or overtime to 9 or noon, you saw the whole cycle of the day. On payday, heading home with a full stomach and full wallet, it felt like you were king of the world. Tired, but king.

Well my time went so quickly,
I went lickety-split out to my old ’55
As I drove away slowly, feeling so holy,
God knows, I was feeling alive.

Robert MacMillan: "Dreaming of Sleep"

Now the sun’s coming up,
I’m riding with Lady Luck,
freeway cars and trucks,
Stars beginning to fade,
and I lead the parade

— Tom Waits, Ol’ 55.

The good news was that West Coast gave me the money to stay at PLU and still live without depending on handouts from waitresses at Denneys, and working graveyard meant that I could go to school during the day. The bad news was that I could never really sleep. And after a while, the fatigue was crushing. I slept intentionally in between classes, in the car or in a corner, with an alarm clock. Sometimes I slept unintentionally in class, especially an economics class that I found really interesting but just couldn’t keep awake when the professor dimmed the lights to show overheads. I also fell asleep at times in a Greek class, which is embarrassing when there is only four students.

And sometimes, despite my best efforts, I slept in the car. While I was driving.

It always happened close to home, when your guard drops just enough for the thought to begin. You see things that remind you that you’re almost there.

Like when you turn off off Yakima on to Park, and you can almost see the university up ahead. I probably thought about the class I was going to, and an image of having to respond to something in class came out and began to move just as the horn of an oncoming truck, which I just missed hitting head on, woke me.

Or, like when I was getting ready to exit onto Eastbay Drive after the Narrows Bridge I probably thought about how these roads led home to my little trailer that Jim Crabtree dubbed “the Ghetto.” The goats that lived behind it probably came out and began to jump about, like they did when I came home, until the scrape of the guard rail jolted me awake. Thank God I was drifting right to exit rather than left, or I would have ended up as one of those head-on collisions that other drivers curse for backing the bridge up for hours.

The last thing you see can be beautiful; but when it's in your mind and you're on the road, it's a disaster..

Or, like when I was headed down the mile straightaway of Locker Road, heading out to a little cabin that I was staying in out past Arletta, I probably thought of having one of the beers I had bought to drink before heading to bed on a non-school day. The sun probably began to rise over Mt. Rainier, and as the rays began to creep over Hale’s Pass and the apple orchard, the sound of gravel startled me awake to face the telephone pole at the sharp turn at the end of the straightaway.

I yanked the wheel, but although the car turned, it drifted over the gravel straight at the pole. I went limp, which probably saved me. The car t-boned the pole, careened off, rolled twice, and came to rest on the roof. I remember hanging from my seat belt with the dust rising up around me.

People came running from the house at the bottom of the hill. A car stopped. Someone, somehow, called my parents and they arrived before the cops. My mom, ever protective, tossed the six pack in the bushes just in case any questions arose. Miraculously, I came away with just a few bruises.

While growing up at home I had a plaque on my desk that read “Never give up.” And I never did. But maybe I should have. Yes, I made it through some tough times. Yes, I made it through my way. I could have cut back on classes and stretched out my program a year so that I could sleep, but I didn’t. I could have cut back on work and taken loans to finish school, but I didn’t. I could have been content to try and manage the impossible situation I had put myself into, but I wasn’t: at the time I hit the pole I had added building a rock wall for someone in order to get some extra money for my upcoming wedding and honeymoon.

Regrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway;
And more, much more than this; I did it my way

Yes there were times I’m sure you knew,
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all, and I stood tall,
And did it my way.

It may not be heroic to destroy others in pursuit of your dreams. Sometimes there are things we should give up.

— Frank Sinatra, My Way

Instead of any of that, I just never gave up trying to stay awake. I tried everything. Except drugs. Not caffeine (this was before Red Bull, but we still had Mountain Dew); I mean Speed, those unnamed whites, or Ritalin, like many other guys used. No, not me. Back then I would never have used drugs. Just like I would never have given up on my dreams, on pursuing them on my time schedule, and in my way. No, I would rather have killed myself and several other people than do that. I didn’t really realize it then, but I was willing to go that far. Now I cringe at it. My skin crawls with the realization.

I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet,
Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet,
And I’m still … willin’.
Now I smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico,
Baked by the sun, every time I go to Mexico,
And I’m still … willin’.

And I been from Tuscon to Tucumcari;
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made.
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed.
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine,
And you show me a sign,
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’.

— Little Feat, Willin’

I persisted, stubborn idiot that I was and am. I made it. I survived. I feel like a miracle of survival. But I am so grateful to the universe, God, angels, ancestors, fate, little green men, the family Tomte, and whatever else kept me alive and others safe from my insanity. Sometimes when we are so focussed on, and pig-headed about, our goals that we lose sight of the toll it takes on ourselves and others we have already fallen asleep at the wheel.

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