The curse of the to-go cup: Coffee-counter conversation one missing bridge across the divide

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Updated Jul 26, 2021

There’s an untold number of cumulative hours — surely days and weeks by now — I’ve spent in the bottomless troves of Youtube music videos, ingesting songs good and bad as well as the unfiltered critiques of strangers. The habit got its hold on me when the federally mandated 10-hour break found its most literal interpretation in that dreaded device which shall here go unnamed. That said, one random comment, read a while ago,  stands out in my memory. It came from an unsung social media sage who quipped that the ruination of the American trucking subculture could be traced directly to the to-go cup. You heard that right, reader — the to-go cup.

Before coffee to-go, which seemed like a great idea at the time, you could only get your cup of joe over at the restaurant, where some fallen four-lane angel could be found holding court at a “Professional Drivers Only” counter. In the 70s, when, at 19 years old, the aggregate sum of my wheels stood at a paltry six, I would park in the very back row of the Remington, Indiana, 76, Exit 201 on Interstate 65, and walk up to the restaurant in a serpentine pattern. That way no one could pair me with the dilapidated Ford gas job that was then my charge.

I ducked in between rows, reemerging beside some shiny Marmon. Then, and only then, would I make my entrance, the fuel jockeys none the wiser.

One couldn’t be too careful out there. Months before, one of our other delivery drivers, an outspoken gent we’ll just call Baker, got into a heated debate at a tiny truck stop near Marion, no doubt regarding a matter of some pressing global import. About the time he felt he’d won over his point, one of the drivers said, “Say, didn’t I just see you pull in here with that piece of s*** six-wheeler?”

Poor Baker’s golden oratory faltered. The waitress, apparently no friend of small-rigged rhetoricians, informed him smugly that the counter was for 18-wheelers only, and the hapless pretender left the truck stop in disgrace, vowing to the delight of its denizens to never again return.

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I wasn’t going to wind up like Baker.

So donning my Peterbilt cap, I made it to the building without incident, gave anyone whose eye I met the ol’ trucker nod, and took my place at the  “Professional Drivers Only” counter, interloper and fraud that I was.

Somehow, though, I was never found out. There would be men in there, faces lined deeply by years of squinting into the sun, staring into the blackness of their cups, filterless cigarettes in their hands, with eyes fixed meditatively on the blackness of the brew — as if to summon some second wind deep down in the dregs below the surface.

Interspersed among the taciturn ones were the talkers, lying about their lives to whoever would listen, every bit the charlatan as myself.

I felt surprisingly at home at the Remington 76.

I would repeat the parking lot walk, my personal feat of serpentine daring, at other venues, even graduating one night to the Gary, Indiana, 76. Despite the late hour, the place was wide open. There, I took one of the last seats remaining at the “Professional Drivers Only” counter, bellying up beside a barrel chested black man. As I bathed in the effluvia of early childhood — coffee, frying bacon, tobacco smoke — the man commenced to speak.

“Those girls are gettin’ bad!” he said. “Woke me up four times.”

I shook my head in commiseration. “Um, mmm, mmm” was all I could muster.

“‘Bout the most I might have got was an hour’s sleep straight,” he continued.

I looked at him, then. His face was lined with a deep and desperate fatigue.

“Wow,” I proffered. “You’d think these places would try a little harder to police all that activity so the truckers could sleep.”

Now he was surveying me.

“They get you?” he asked with just a hint of incredulity.

“No sir, I’m just passing through. I’m on my way to Wisconsin to get a load of cheese.” I didn’t offer that I was just a six-wheeler.

“You’re lucky.”

John Steinbeck once called truckers “a breed set apart.”

He would continue, “They are clannish, and they stick together.” Here I was, having an incidental conversation with a man I would have otherwise never met at 3:30 in the morning, commiserating with him about all the hookers running wild at a Gary truck stop. At the counter there, where we all drank from the same pot, this was indeed a breed set apart, and apparently all you had to do was show up for the sacrament of the brew.

I wanted in.

It would appear  I had conned my way into an exclusive guild, one that transcended racial differences.

“Nice talking to ya,” we both eventually said, and I shoved off into the night.

Within a few years, I was a regular at the Remington 76, and I parked that Transtar International with pride, just as close to the restaurant as I could. We hauled out of the rail-head there from the Santa Fe yard — piggybacks, that is. Recaps, light problems, chronic scrutiny from law enforcement. By the time you made Monticello, the DOT man there like as not would be ready to pull you over. Things were surprisingly collegial, though. After a while, with God as my witness, he’d just walk up to the truck and say, “Hello, Paul.”

This morning, as I wait for my coffee to brew, courtesy of my Thermo King TriPac’s AC current and a $20 coffee maker from Dollar General, I’m wondering when the last time was that I sat beside a driver outside my race and had a conversation.

As I survey a litter of four or five to-go cups from the last couple days, I wonder at the extent to which we are Balkanized by our conveniences — informed so much more now by screen images than face-to-face dialogues. I concede that I am bereft of antidotes for the current state we find ourselves in. But it seems that, when it comes to talking to strangers, driver, we’re way out of practice.

My number is 765-294-1050. Feel free to check in anytime.

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