By Mark Stairwalt; originally posted on Shift Journal.
Years ago, before the coming of the cell phone, I was the driver of a Freightliner FLD 120, an imposing, long-nosed boat of a semi tractor that crisscrossed the United States and parts of Canada with a 53-foot trailer in tow. Never mind that as a driver of a commercial vehicle one ends up memorizing the locations of countless truckstops, customers, scale houses, steep grades, and unlikely parking spots; what was truly impressive back then was that drivers would end up cataloging the locations of every accessible payphone along every route in every state we frequented. Satellite communications for work use were just being phased in, but if one wished to hold the interest of a significant other, those payphones were still the lifeline. Bear with me here; I am going to talk about trucking and you, possibly, are going to learn about autism.
So it was then that every time I was headed into New England, I would warn my significant other that I was on my way into “truck-unfriendly territory,” that in other words I expected to have “special challenges” communicating the next evening, because who knew when or where I’d be able to find a phone from which to call her. If everything is bigger in Texas, everything in New England is smaller, to the point that there are comparatively few places besides on the interstate for a big truck to be, much less to find a payphone. There are many reasons cross-country drivers do not like the east coast in general, but while say, the New Jersey Turnpike is not a fun road to drive on for anybody, the whole of New England is particularly unfriendly for big trucks.
This has gotten me thinking about other challenging or unfriendly places and situations for big trucks, and the implicit parallels there are with challenging or unfriendly places and situations for autistic people. What I find most striking about this though are the very different ways we view trucking and autism. I’ll get to that.
Speaking of New Jersey, there is a set of docks there that I used to go to, a closely spaced row of eight or ten dock doors which was a constantly shifting puzzle in terms of whether or not any given full-size tractor-trailer would be able to back in to any available spot. Depending on who was backed in to which doors and how long each of those trucks was, the hole you were assigned for your trailer might well be impossible to get into, due to that law of physics which states that at least without a good deal of scraping and crunching, two solid objects may not occupy the same space at the same time. But you never knew until you tried.
I used to sit there with other trucks lined up behind me, watching skilled drivers try for 30 or 40 minutes to get into a spot which only became accessible when someone else finally pulled out. This happened because those docks were built long before industry lobbyists grew the allowable legal length for trailers from 40 to 53 feet—all while there was never any room to expand the maneuvering area for those longer trailers. This is a problem in many places in many states, but those docks were the most memorable because they regularly presented what was actually an impossible task, one which social pressure required you to attempt anyway—because that’s the way it had always been done, and other people were waiting on you, and no one who could do anything about it gave a damn that it was not a reasonable situation.
In New York City back then they still allowed 53-foot trailers to come off the interstates and deliver directly to customers. My first time in, I beat the morning rush over the George Washington Bridge, got some advice on the radio as to which avenues were and were not recommended as southbound routes in the pre-dawn darkness, and arrived in lower Manhattan with my load at the appointed hour. It was raining, so my mirrors were next to useless. The receiving dock was on a one-way cross street, from which I’d have to blind-side in. While doing this, I’d be blocking what was becoming a steady stream of traffic, but even once backed in, the docks were recessed only about twenty feet into the building. Nose to tail, the truck and trailer were better than seventy feet long.
I was able to get that trailer snug and square with my dock, avoiding by inches the cars parked inside in front of an adjacent dock, but to do this I’d had to bring the tractor straight in line with the trailer rather than jackknifed as I’d wanted. My front tires were actually up onto the sidewalk across the street. No problem, I thought; I’ll just unhook the tractor and park it next to the trailer so the cars can get by.
Here is what was extraordinary about that morning. Before I had time even to climb down out of the cab, cars just started climbing up onto the wide sidewalk, edging around the nose of my tractor, and back down onto the street. Two of those cars were NYPD patrol cars. I never did unhook that tractor. And as apprehensive as I always was about taking a load into one of the boroughs, after that day I never failed to love being there once I was over that bridge. There is—or was—nothing in the world like driving a big truck in New York City.
I could go on far longer than necessary here. For every aspect of the landscape one learns to avoid with a big truck—the low overpass, the weight-restricted bridge, the too-tight corner, the uneven ground that can strand a bobtail tractor, the steep grade taken too fast and the runaway truck ramp, the twisty-curvy shortcuts (even the legal ones) you’d best stay off of, the tunnel you cannot take your truck into—I could tell you stories. And they’d be stories you’d likely never have imagined if you’ve only ever been around drivers of cars. And yet if you’ve ever driven a car on an interstate highway, there you were, shoulder to shoulder with these limited, restricted, one might even say (compared to you there in your agile little four-wheeler) impaired or low-functioning vehicles. You’ve probably only ever thought of them as really, really big. And if you drove a car back in the nineties, I expect you took for granted access to every payphone you passed, whether or not there was truck parking nearby.
For all the things a large commercial vehicle cannot do though, and as big as they certainly are, it never occurs to us to think of them as vehicles afflicted with a disorder. There are simply places and situations which are challenging or even prohibitive for big trucks. We make allowances for that, and life goes on. Maybe most importantly we learn to stay out of their way, to make room for them and let them get their work done. In the United States in fact we built an entire interstate highway system expressly for the use of the military and for commercial transport. Difficult as this is to imagine now, as those highways were originally conceived passenger cars were never expected to make much use of them; civilians were actually expected to stick to the two-lane roads on which they’d always driven. So if you drive to work on an interstate highway, consider what a hash you regularly make of truckers’ productivity, swarming uninvited into their workplace twice every weekday like you do. We’re all pretty much low-functioning during rush hour, aren’t we?
Rather than focus on autism as a disorder then, I would suggest that there are simply places and situations which are challenging or prohibitive or “unfriendly” for autistic people—a population which at least in modern times has never benefited from any large-scale equivalent of an interstate highway system, so that nearly every place and situation on earth represents a potential challenge of some sort, or is in fact prohibitive of autistic people altogether.
It really is a wonder, in such a world, that we get any work done at all.