Big Rigs, Big City

Ray Pelowski heard someone breaking into his trailer of hanging meat at Hunt’s Point Market in New York City. He backed the trailer up to try to shake the man off. The intruder came up to Pelowski, but didn’t see that he was holding a meat hook behind his back. “I hit him in the head with it,” Pelowski says. “Real hard, too. He fell down. I don’t know if he lived or died. The cop told me just to leave. He said, ‘It’s too much work for us to fill out a report. We’ll mark this one DOA.'”

That incident was in the 1970s, and Pelowski says he doesn’t feel scared coming into Hunt’s Point anymore. The neighborhood around Hunt’s Point has been cleaned up a lot since then, he says. Also, he’s been delivering here since 1956, so he has figured out ways to stay safe.

“I think guys ask for it, flashing their money to the whores,” Pelowski says. “I don’t answer my door.” He adds that he’s had his lock broken two other times at Hunt’s Point. “But the load was on pallets, so they couldn’t get it,” he says. He currently hauls barbecued ribs into New York and Chinese noodles back to his home state of Minnesota for Northwest Dairy Forwarding Co., of Ham Lake, Minn.

Getting robbed or mugged is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hauling to big cities. Traffic, tolls, regulations and dealing with rude cops and four-wheelers can make urban driving a big headache for truck drivers.

While rush-hour traffic was rated worst in Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco, in a recent study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, New York seems to stand head-and-shoulders above other cities when it comes to driver complaints.

Stories like Pelowski’s are spread and perhaps sometimes embellished over the CB; they have given Hunt’s Point legendary status as a den of evil in the trucking world. The Bronx market has become emblematic of New York City trucking.

“You’d rather go into Sing Sing Prison than Hunt’s Point Market,” says Herby Kerr, a 73-year-old driver for Kerr Trucking of Harmony, Maine. “The best thing you can have in New York is a Rottweiler.” It’s not just the threat of violence that bothers Kerr, but the greed. “You’ve got to buy your way out of everything out there. Give him 10, 15 bucks and you get unloaded. Everything has a price.”

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“Drivers are fearful for their lives,” says Jim Morse, president of Refrigerated Food Express, of Avon, Mass. “We had one driver, the first time he went into Hunt’s Point, he got whacked over the head with a pipe.” It was a dropoff in the middle of the night, and the driver was doing his post-trip inspection when he got mugged, Morse explains. “Once this happens, word spreads like wildfire. We’re an owner-operator company, so you can’t force them to go anywhere. Everyone was refusing to go into New York. We had to give loads back to the customer.” RFX has stopped delivering to Hunt’s Point.

Hauling into New York is “a nightmare,” says William Joyce, president of the New York State Motor Transportation Association. He spends every day talking to truckers about how to cope with the regulations in New York. “Some of it is really nonsense. There’s probably no city in the country that’s more reliant on trucking than New York. Yet the people there see trucks strictly as a nuisance.”

When asked which is the worst regulation, he says, “It’s more the way they do the enforcement than the individual regulations. Take the guy who drives a 48-foot trailer into the city and winds up down on Canal Street. They’re going to write him four tickets. One for being over 96 inches wide. One for being over 55 feet long. Another for having a trailer over 45 feet long. And another for being over 65 feet long in overall length.”

In other words, Joyce explains, New York cops write you two tickets for being too long. One for breaking the state limit of 65 feet, and one for breaking the city limit of 55 feet. “They do it because they can,” he says.

A trucker in New York also has to keep his pockets full of cash. “There are tolls about everywhere you go,” Joyce says. “Bridges average $35 between New York and New Jersey.” While truck lines reimburse company drivers for tolls, drivers still have to carry cash on them, which some say makes them feel vulnerable.

Another hurdle to hauling in New York is that you need a highway-use sticker, which costs a couple hundred bucks, Joyce says. “And you have to have your company name, address and identification numbers on your door in 3-inch-high letters. Getting the address on there is interesting.”

Neis checks his bill of lading before he begins moving freight from his truck into the warehouse.

All the regulations can make New York feel like a minefield for truck drivers. Eleanor Capogrosso, legislative director for the New York Truck Association, says, “You can face a $7,000 fine if you’re 45-percent overweight on an axle but you’re underweight for the vehicle. A lot of drivers don’t know that.”

Another New York City regulation prevents drivers from keeping their trucks idling for more than three minutes, unless the temperature is below 20 degrees. “It’s very, very cold, and they have to keep warm somehow, and how are they going to keep warm?” Capogrosso asks.

It’s also hard to find a place to rest in the New York City and Connecticut region. “There are no truckstops, so drivers are sleeping in their vehicles in the most dangerous neighborhoods, waiting for the ports to open,” Capogrosso says.

Herby Kerr, the 73-year-old driver from Maine, says, “I used to go out and sleep where the Long Island Expressway is now.” With that no longer possible, drivers sometimes are at a loss as to where to sleep. Herby’s son, Dave, says, “I tried sleeping at the New Jersey Turnpike entrance, but they made me move. I just wanted a little sleep from 3-5 a.m. because otherwise I’m not going to be as safe.”

Dave Kerr adds that waiting for permits can be another problem in New York. “I spent three days sitting and waiting for an oversize permit one time,” he says.

Given all the hassles with driving into New York, why would anyone want to do it? Why not find a nice run out West with lots of easy miles?

Some drivers don’t have any choice. “My company’s forced-dispatch,” says Scott Simaschko, a company driver from Macon, Ga., who has been driving for a year. He prefers to keep his employer anonymous. “It’s, ‘Take the load, or you’re fired.'” Others are from New England and want to stay near home. Others like the extra pay that companies offer for driving in the congested East Coast.

Schneider National Inc., for example, pays drivers an extra $50 to deliver into New York. “That is the only exception to our standard pay,” says Todd Jadin, vice president of operations for the Green Bay, Wis.-based company. “I differentiate New York from any other city. You are dealing with congestion and a series of bridges and tolls. Any time you have to stop and wait in line, it adds time. When drivers are being paid by the mile, that can detract from your productivity.”

Jadin adds that despite the bonus, “It’s still a problem getting them to go” to New York. “Just the CB talk becomes the issue for what a driver feels he’s going to experience. Some of them haven’t even been there, and they don’t want to go.”

Some of the CB stories are about regulations and congestion, and others are about the physical threat some drivers have faced at places such as Hunt’s Point.

If you’ve got 45 years of experience like Pelowski, crossing the George Washington Bridge into New York may seem like a piece of cake. But if you’re a rookie, and all you’ve heard are horror stories, the view is a little different.

“I don’t want to die out here,” Simaschko says. “I’ve got two kids at home. The dispatcher is at home in bed with his old lady at 6 in the morning, and I’m out here in New York sweating coins. Personally, I’m scared to death of New York,” he says. “People disappear all the time there. It’s probably a place that a country boy’s got no business being in.”

Simaschko is not only scared of getting attacked. “The traffic in New York is intimidating as hell,” he says. “It’s like you’re fighting to keep from hitting anyone.” He also hates the bridges. “The George Washington Bridge is just awful. It’ll eat you up, even with those air-ride seats. The bridge’s roads need work bad. And they rob you at the tollbooth. Six bucks per axle. Chicago’s only $1.25 per toll; I don’t mind going into Chicago.”

James Neis is one of the regulars who scoffs at the notoriety of places like Hunt’s Point. “It’s the na

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