Saturday, September 24, 2011

Just Another Week on the Job

Monday: got a nice little out of town run, heading out to what turned out to be a hog slaughtering company - or at least a hog carcass cutting enterprise. My instructions were to see a Randy and pick up four coolers, bringing them back into the metro area to a medical device company. They make shunts, skin grafts, and other substitute body parts out of animal parts, after lots of processing.

Randy wasn't there, of course. Nor did he answer his cell the several times employees tried to call him. (Nooners for lunch, perhaps?) It wasn't that they needed him to tell them what the freight was. Everybody knew I was picking up pig skins. Frozen ones. Six of them. What nobody knew was how they were supposed to be packed in the coolers. The issue was there were supposed to be no creases in the skins. Hard to do when there must be a fold somewhere in the skin, even if the other way was rolled up. Were they to be cut? And if so, to what size? It was presumed that if the company paying for me to travel all that way to pick them up, and issued such specific instructions about packing, that they would also be picky about any sizes they were to be cut into.

I got on the phone to dispatch and had them call the customer, asking them to call the company where I was waiting, and please explain what these folks needed to know in order to pack the freight so I could haul it back to them.

It worked. I overheard a whole lot of "uh-huhs", a few questions, more "uh-huhs". The coolers were quickly packed, loaded, and off I went. I even got a message from dispatch informing me that they put me down for loadtime. I would get paid for standing around. Cool. Even better that most of the standing around wound up being sitting around.

Arriving at the dock for delivery, I walked in to find nobody in the receiving office. I brought the coolers inside, and still nobody. Heading over to shipping, I located the guy who looked like he was actually doing something and explained what I needed ( as in a signature). It turns out he was actually doing something, in fact so much something that he delegated another guy to check out the delivery and sign for it.

This fellow appeared clueless. First he checked the receiving office again to make sure I wasn't just overlooking some person tucked in a mysterious corner somewhere. Since the office was about 8" x 8", leaving little room to hide a body among the two desks and chairs, vertically or horizontally, I did my best not to feel insulted at the suggestion of my incompetence. After all, maybe he was just looking for an out for himself.

Then he let me point to the four boxes that the coolers had been packed into. The shipping company had thoughtfully left them completely unlabeled. I had to explain what they were, where they were from, what they needed - which I assumed was immediate chilling. He just kinda shrugged, signed, and walked off, saying, "Maybe when my supervisor gets back...."

I was impressed. Maybe if I had been a flirtacious sweet young thing, he would have tried harder?

Moving my car away from the dock so the waiting dock truck could back in and unload his freight, I found a patch of shade to wait in for my next run. The dock truck left, and a semi backed in. I was imagining the chaos and the likelihood that four coolers of (formerly?) frozen pig skins were in the process of getting lost on the dock. I couldn't leave it like that.

Now, we ignorant, uncouth drivers are not supposed to call the customers directly. But there was a phone number listed on the drop information, and I called it. Getting the front desk, I explained what I had just delivered, who had signed, his attitude, subsequent events, and my fears that four coolers of pigskins were rapidly warming up anonymously on the deck amid piles of other freight. She thanked me and stated she herself would go right back and make sure that they were taken care of properly.

Whew! Duty discharged.

I soon got a new run, and after picking up it, all hell broke loose. The system that allows dispatch to communicate with drivers via text messages on our blackberries was suddenly no longer working. Once we found out we were no longer communicating (no reply, the count of backed-up unsent messages climbing, etc.) we had to switch over to cell phone communication. It works, but it's slow. Dispatch has to read the run, we have to write down and/or remember pertinent details, and call back with updates. By 3:00 PM we're down to two dispatchers. After 6:00, one. As long as we don't have to talk to the dispatcher himself, we can call in to the phone support staff, called CSRs, with picks and drops and signatures. As if they weren't busy enough already.

At least they can log us out on their systems once we finish the day. In the morning, we have to log out via our blackberries before we can log in again.

Tuesday: I started logging in, the steps you have to take to start our company software in the blackberry, connect with HQ, and send in a zipcode. Then you can log out and start up again. Unfortunately, nothing worked. And I showed a backup of 89 messages! 89!

I called Bill at dispatch. Were we down again? More like still, not again. OK, he knew I was on the road, ready for work. Cell phone dispatching again, oh goodie!

I did manage to confirm with one of the many CSRs I talked to that day that we so far had been successful at keeping our customers from being aware of our technological problems. The work was getting done. Everybody was frazzled, just not the customers.

About 2:00 I received a call, telling me to park the car and get ready to reprogram my blackberry. Kristin patiently talked me through every step, in spite of my complete lack of expertise. It took about half an hour, with one break while the phone was processing that was long enough for me to head into the Holiday I parked in front of and use the restroom, my original plan fifteen minutes before. (Since my surgery I can be that patient these days.)

Reprogramming is a very slow process. She had to tell me what to scroll down and find on the menu, which button to hit (mouse, berry, etc.), and I'd report what I now saw on the screen. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Once I hit the wrong thing and it took a few extra moves to get back in the menu I was supposed to be in. That was where the blackberry wanted me to watch its video telling me about its copyright or some such thing that I have no interest in ever knowing about, since I never bump into that stuff. The only way out of the video was - OK, I forget now. The red phone? The berry? Whatever, the third thing we tried worked. And by 2:30, I was now back to text dispatching.

Hey, I could actually use my cell phone for personal calls again!

The rest of the day was good news, aside from having to turn down a run to Park Rapids so I could get home to relieve Jesssica taking care of my dad. Tuesdays she has to leave early. Last week I turned down one to Sleepy Eye, and two previous weeks I've turned down Tuesday runs to Pine City.


Wednesday: I started logging in, fully confident that the system had been fixed and everything would be hunky-dory. Well, it partly logged in, but wouldn't accept my zipcode. It decided to let me into the working menu anyway. That wasn't any help, but it did let me know I had another problem. There were still two messages screens on it from last night, and it would only let me go from one to the other and back and over and over. None of the usual commands to escape or erase worked. Come to think of it, I couldn't get rid of them last night either, and just turned the thing off, hoping it would reboot without them in the morning. After all, one was confirmation that I had successfully logged out. Today I got drastic and pulled the battery out. It worked, but at a price. I just didn't know the half of it yet.

Those adorable little wafer batteries in the latest blackberry models we are using don't have much of a life, even fully charged. But I didn't know this yet. What I did know was it was taking me an awful long time to get it up and running so I could get logged in. Time that another driver or 30 could be using getting logged in ahead of me in the cue, in line for first-come, first-served work. But finally it was ready, I hit the buttons, and... wait... wait... wait... crap! It wouldn't log in!

Another call to dispatch, here-I-am-please-use-me. Bill logged me in, and there was a run for me! Heading that way, suddenly the blackberry log-in worked! I was up and running!

Sort of. When I got to the drop, things went haywire again. Messages backed up, dispatch had to be called. This time I was told to come into HQ, close to my drop - lucky me, and get the phone reprogrammed. Just like yesterday, but this time done in person without the go-between of me slowing it down. And hey, incidentally, meet the new dispatch supervisor.

We have a new dispatch supervisor? Wait, there was an old dispatch supervisor? Who was it and what happened to whatever's-his-name? Nobody tells us lowly drivers anything, unless we stop by after hours and bribe the night dispatchers enough for them to share gossip. Caramel rolls work.

Anyway, I met him, handed him my phone, and he quickly went through the steps on the blackberry. I knew I'd have ten minutes or so, and excused myself to use the facilities. Sound familiar? As soon as he handed it back, commenting my battery was very low, I was given a run, looked at it, and headed out to the car.

Oops. I now automatically hit the button on the side of the blackberry. It mutes it, locks the keypad, and shuts down the screen, saving battery. It's a habit. Otherwise, every time the mouse rubs against the fabric inside the pocket, meaning with each breath or slight movement, it gives a very loud BEEP! A you'll-soon-be-deaf-if-you-keep-hearing-this beep. Pressing the top button unlocks it. We both found out that Brian-new-dispatch-supervisor didn't know that this could/should be programmed into the phone. When it isn't, the phone starts talking at you, and not in a useful way. Besides, I had no idea how to get the phone back to the dispatch menu from here. So, out of the car and back inside again, hand the phone over, and demand a fix. (I'm not sure I remembered to say, "please.")

He figured it out in two minutes and fixed it. Meanwhile another driver was having him reprogram his blackberry. (The line is endless.) Seeing what Brian was doing, he piped up, "Really? You can do that? That beeping drives me crazy! Fix mine too!"

I had another fix I wanted restored, putting the work icon as 1st choice on the start-up menu, but I figured if Brian didn't finish the job properly, I'd have the person who's originally done it on my phone, namely Kristen, the one who'd talked me through the process yesterday, do it for me. Conveniently, the drop on my waiting run was to the off-site office she now works at.

By then of course, my blackberry was registering zero charge on the battery. Not beeping at me yet, but any minute. When our company hands them out to drivers, they leave the accessories off, suggesting we spring for the cost ourselves. This includes a protective case, and a car charger. I hadn't purchased either.

There was a Target on the way between my next pick and drop, and with the slow service it was paying for, I took a detour and went shopping so I could charge the phone. (It fits my cell as well, but I'm claiming it strictly as a work expense. My personal cell battery lasts more than a full day of lengthy conversations.)

Thursday: If any day on this job can be called normal, this was it. Well, except...

I was heading eastbound on 394 in the right lane when a squad car came screaming up on the driver in the carpool lane. Since he (?) took about a full minute to wise up and pull out of the lane - despite a double white line - I thought for a moment he was in trouble. But no, he pulled out of the lane and the squad kept going. I bet that was worth a huge sigh of relief! And as soon as the squad went past, he pulled back into the carpool lane. Alas, that move was short-lived. The squad stopped right in the lane, siren off but lights still flashing, and the original driver had to pull over once again.

While all that was entertaining, a look ahead and across the center barricade revealed the reason for all the fuss. A white sedan was stopped in the carpool lane heading westbound with the driver's side door open. About 100 feet behind it was another squad, lights flashing, driver's door open and the officer standing behind his door with his gun drawn and held rigidly in front of him in a two-handed grip. Just like on TV.

In the time it took to register all that, I had driven past. We were all slowing down a bit, but still going at close to posted freeway speeds. I had time to reflect that I had never before in my life seen a cop with his gun drawn. Not in real life. As I kept on, coming at the scene from the east were squad after squad after squad after unmarked after squad, all with sirens going and lights flashing. There must have been about twenty before I pulled off close to Hwy. 100, and that's just coming from the east. Who knew how many were piling on from the west, behind me?

I had reason to go by the area twice more that afternoon. The first time I thought I could get off the freeway before getting stuck in the traffic backup, but misjudged. All traffic was directed off at 169. They closed it down completely. Coming back, I'd seen earlier that eastbound was still moving, and took it. There was another delay since they had it down to only one lane. There was nothing to see except lots of cops standing around in ones and twos, not doing much of anything.

By end of day the radio stations were all talking about the officer-involved shooting, the freeway closure, and the officer's routine suspension. Eventually they passed on the information that the woman driver was dead, she had had a handgun, and the car had California plates. By Friday night we had a name. Still not much explanation. I'm thinking either she was already in deep shit and not wanting to go back to prison, too stupid to know you can't get out of a situation with a gun when surrounded by cops, on drugs, or just doing a suicide by cop. We may never know.

There was another remarkable sight on those same journeys, one much more pleasant. Cavalia is in town, set up in the southwest corner of 394 and 100. The tents have been there for over a week, along with signs. Now there were smaller tents along the perimeter, privacy fencing, and signs of actual occupation. Plus horses.

Oh, my, the horses! If you haven't heard of Cavalia, think Cirque du Soleil with horses, which is in fact part of the story of its origin. Cirque has no animals, and a small group split off to make a circus with horses. Half a dozen were out in the exercise areas at any given time, different ones each time I passed. The privacy fence ended just in time to allow passers-by a full view or a chance to park and stand around and admire them. There were white ones, and palominos, one even white with little brown polkadots like oversized freckles sprinkled over its coat. There were a couple small ones, either young or ponies, but with slender builds. Mostly, though, what registered is that they were gorgeous! Gorgeous!

Much worth waiting through the delays in traffic to drive past.

Friday: Thank goodness! A day with a whole lot of ordinary in it. Well, except for logging on at 7:40 and having to wait until 10:00 for my first run! Good thing I had a copy of "Port Mortuary", the latest Patricia Cornwell out in paperback, with a couple hundred pages left to read. Now, not so many.

And except for getting a run to Menomonie.

And except for what happened with my last two runs of the day, both medical deliveries up north of the metro. Both late, as in ending finally at 7:30. Not that any of that is unusual. But this was the first night that it actually was night by the time I had to hunt down my last rural address since last spring, even with DST keeping daylight going for as long as it can. I hate hunting numbers in the dark. So many people never think about needing to be found at night. So the numbers on the mailboxes are tiny or not reflective, or if on the house, are dark-on-dark or light-on-light. And don't get me started about the ones covered by shrubbery or - worst - by X-mas decorations! So after the great relief of finally finding the place and dropping off the meds, I went to drop the run on the blackberry.

I had 13 messages backed up! I couldn't send through anything, log off, and shut down. The number to call dispatch after hours (that's after 7:00 PM these days) went to recorded message after two rings. Three times.

Here we go again!

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