For days before it began, I dreamed uneasily of a host of things that could go wrong in my new career as a UPS delivery man: dropping a package and breaking something, getting crushed under a toppling stack of big-screen TVs in the back of the truck, being mobbed by women overcome at the sight of that legendarily sexy brown uniform.
Yet my first big screw-up was something that never occurred to me: Handing a customer the electronic tablet to sign for his delivery, I somehow got it backward, so he was looking at it upside down. Then I fumbled it as I tried to turn it right side up, nearly dropping the (no doubt delicate as well as insanely expensive) device to the concrete floor of a loading dock.
Once the tablet was safely back in the hands of my boss for the day, UPS driver Manuel Jimenez, (and we were far enough away that the customer wouldn’t overhear confirmation that he had just been dealing with a newbie idiot) Manny pointed at the screen.
“Look, when it’s ready for the signature, the screen reverses so it’s upside down to you but right-side-up to the customer,” he explained gently. “That’s so you don’t have to, umm...” he groped for a polite expression, “get tangled up.”
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I learned a lot of things in my single shift last week delivering packages for UPS, but the fundamental one is: The job is a lot harder than it looks. UPS drivers are trained in more than 500 different procedures, from how to climb into the truck (left foot on the first step, right hand on the safety bar, step up) to, yes, how to hand the customer the tablet, and I mangled probably 450 of them.
And the only reason it wasn’t all 500 was that UPS, prudently, didn’t let me get behind the wheel of the truck.
UPS delivers 4.3 billion packages and documents a year — 34 million on Monday alone, the company’s busiest day of the year — and its drivers need a lot more than a strong back. “Everything is mental,” Manny says. “The company has been in business 107 years, so it’s learned a lot of lessons about how to deliver things. And every year we learn something new.”
That was obvious from the moment I first climbed into his truck at the UPS package center in Hialeah, just before our 9:20 a.m. departure. (Oops, I just added another broken rule to my list. The official name for the company’s delivery trucks is “package cars,” a leftover from the days 90 years ago when UPS started leaving behind its origins as a bicycle messenger service.)
We were carrying about 350 packages destined for 127 different stops, about average this time of year. Some of them had to be delivered by 10:30 a.m., some by 3 p.m. and most simply by the end of the shift (which, since Manny works a commercial route, delivering only to businesses, is around 6 p.m.). To further complicate matters, bigger boxes have to go to the rear of the vehicle so they’ll be easier to unload.
I was horrified. How were we going to organize a mess like that? “It’s no problem,” Manny said, pointing to a number stamped on each package which told handlers which package car — oh, the hell with it, truck — to put the parcel on and exactly where to load it. The system is so precise that if Manny got sick five minutes before departure, any other driver at the Hialeah center could have stepped into his truck and completed his route.
Any driver but me, that is. Though the system was explained to me three times, I never remotely understood it. Fortunately, Manny had help from another source: That computerized tablet I almost smashed to pieces. Officially known as the Delivery Acquisition Information Device (DIAD, to its friends), the tablet advised Manny on each stop and which packages to leave there.
It also beeped periodically to demand unscheduled pickups just phoned in by customers and offer unsolicited advice. I quickly grew to loathe it as a ruthlessly totalitarian cybercommissar. “Don’t you ever just want to smash it with a hammer?” I asked Manny. (Whether by coincidence or not, DIAD immediately beeped twice.)
“Oh, no!” he quickly protested. “Before, when we just used paper, we had to write all these long tracking numbers out by hand for every package we delivered or received. It took forever — sometimes I felt like half the time on my route was spent writing things down. I was pretty happy UPS spent all the money on this technology.”
As he spoke, Manny’s eyes flicked over to make sure my seat belt was fastened, even though we were only traveling a few hundred feet between deliveries. Using seat belts at all times is one of the most rigorously enforced of those 500 UPS procedures. And DIAD is not the only electronic stool pigeon in the truck.
“There’s a lot of things on the truck that report back to the office,” Manny said without rancor. “So if I don’t fasten a seatbelt, or I leave a door open, or I run a stop sign, it’s going to tell them. And then when I get back at the end of the day, it’s going to be, ‘Why didn’t you fasten the seatbelt, Mr. Jimenez? Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that, why-why-why.’ So you need to stick to the rules.”
We made steady progress on the first pass through the route. Most days it has to be driven three times: once to deliver the 10:30 a.m. next-day-air packages, once to deliver everything else, and a third time to pick up outgoing shipments.
Sometimes, despite the imperious demands of DIAD, Manny stopped the truck a door or two away from the delivery address. Having driven the same route — a rectangular enclave of warehouses and freight-forwarding services in Medley, between Northwest 68th and 70th streets and Northwest 82nd and 87th avenues — for more than 20 years, Manny has a near-encyclopedic memory of which customers are away on business or vacation, and where they want their packages delivered in their absence.
He’s far from unique in that respect. “It’s very typical to find UPS drivers who’ve stayed on with the company 20, 30 or even 40 years,” company spokesman Dan Cardillo said. “You hear them talk about watching their customers’ children grow up and have grandchildren. We have a lot of stability in that workforce.”
Familiarity breeds some unexpected moments, Manny said. He once walked into the open office of a longtime customer to get a signature. But it was apparently empty. “I was shouting ‘UPS! UPS!’ but I didn’t hear anything or see anybody,” he recounted. “Then a door opens and the guy calls me — ‘Hey, come over here and I’ll sign.’ I went over and he was in the bathroom. He signed it sitting on the toilet.” Whether that was quite as embarrassing as the time a package broke open as Manny handed it to a customer and dozens of sex toys cascaded out remains an open question.
UPS has delivered, among other things, a locomotive, an entire plane full of lobsters, an iceberg (well, a refrigerator-sized chunk of one, from Alaska to a museum exhibition in Venezuela) and countless chunks of lava that tourist/s/ steal from Hawaii, then return in terror when they learn a Hawaiian deity has put a curse on them. (“Thousands get returned each year,” Cardillo said.)
Manny has never knowingly delivered anything that peculiar, though in his early days, he often carried boxes of payroll cash. “UPS no longer carries cash,” he said. “But I don’t think the customers would send it anyway. Everybody can do that with computers now.”
Indeed, his job is a kind of socio-political observation post. Even a cursory glance in the back of the truck, where more than 100 packages bear the distinct wrapping tape of Amazon.com, tells you everything you need to know about the rising might of e-commerce.
Manny understood, earlier than many, that the United States was entering a post-industrial economy when the many small factories on his route — “everything from pharmaceuticals to clothing” — started closing. In time, they were replaced by freight-forwarding companies shipping machinery to service Latin America’s evolving economy.
And long before he read it in the newspapers, Manny knew that political upheaval in Venezuela was inflicting serious damage on the country’s economy. “All these places used to be Venezuelan,” he said, gesturing as we drove past rows of warehouses. “But now the companies are getting much smaller, or going out of business. A lot of times now I’m delivering to three companies at a single warehouse, because they’ve combined. Hard times in Venezuela, I think.”
Manny has occasionally worked residential routes when another driver is sick or vacationing. But he prefers the regular hours that come with the commercial routes.
“My day is almost always over by 6 p.m. because my customers close, and that’s it,” he said. “There’s nobody there to take packages or send them. On residential routes, especially this time of year, a driver can be out there until 11 p.m.
“In some ways, though, residential is easier. Most of the time, the packages don’t require a signature, so you can just drop them on the porch and go. That’s why the residential routes have so many more stops. On commercial, everybody is pickier, they all want signatures. So you have to spend some time chasing down the people to sign.”
On the day I worked with him, Manny’s biggest problem (though he generously didn’t complain even once) was me, stumbling around as I tried to get into or out of the truck and distracting him with questions as he tried to pacify the demanding DIAD. His only compensation was using me to tease a customer who pointed at me and said, “Well, I guess your trainee will put you out of work soon.”
“Trainee?” Manny said, with a shocked expression. “Oh, no, this guy is one of the big bosses.”
“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that,” the stricken customer told me. I managed to keep a straight face, probably the only thing I did right all day.
My biggest worry, looking foolish or even breaking something as I wrestled with a heavy package, never materialized. Though UPS accepts boxes weighing up to 150 pounds, we didn’t have anything on the truck that weighed much more than 25. “It can be hard sometimes, but honestly, we don’t get those big ones very often, and when we do, the customer usually helps us,” Manny said.
But he confirmed that there’s at least a tiny basis for my fear — well, more like a fantasy — about women losing it at the sight of the UPS uniform.
“Oh, they like it, that’s no myth,” said a smiling Manny. “I’ve been doing this job 22 years, and there’s always a little flirting around it. Always. Now, not for me, because I’m married for 22 years and I’m a deacon in the Catholic church. But the women customers, they like the uniform. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”