Thursday, December 02, 2010

Red Asphalt 2: Chains of Fury

An Xmas treat...or just another rerun?
A little of both, children. It's a reposting from a now extinct separate blog. If you haven't seen it before, it's new to you. Hey, at least it's appropriate for the season.

From the Great Artic Blast of 2008, please enjoy this new holiday classic that I call:

To get the dirty truth out of the way first, I have to confess that I am still indeed a medical courier.

Hey, I gotta eat, y’know. These RED ASPHALT royalty checks ain’t exactly payin’ the rent. When I wrote this book, I really thought my driving days were just disappearing images in the rear-view mirror. I stopped working for Smith-Kline Beecham Clinical Laboratories in January of 1999 and couldn’t find a comparable job when I moved up here to Oregon. Therefore, RED ASPHALT served to be an exorcism of the speed demons I acquired in California and, employment-wise, I moved on. But fate kicked me in the balls and sent me back to square one back in 2003, returning me to the highways and byways of Oregon as an A-Number One Courier. Lucky, lucky me.

This brings us up to the present. The Pacific Northwest has been hit with the worst winter storm in almost forty years, making driving more fun than a swimming pool full of razor wire. All this snow, ice and freezing rain,
terrifyingly called THE ARTIC BLAST by the local media, made this the most traditional Christmas season ever and a pain in the ass of the highest order. To add a cherry to this mountain of frosty delight, it made for the absolute worst time I ever spent on the road as a courier.

Since I begin my route from Northeast Portland, I have to drive twenty miles from where I live in order to just get started. I begged off going into work a couple of times, the first being Monday the 22nd, the day after the big freeze. But Tuesday, after spending two hours digging my wife’s VW out and driving her to work, I headed out to my own job.

Conditions being what they were, the powers that be decided to not sacrifice any of their own couriers (including yours truly) and outsource the more difficult area pick-ups to other services. That was a break for me since my run covers more miles than any driver in the vicinity. I still had to get on the road and make a few local visits. The van I was assigned had been chained up on the front wheels, but as soon as I got it on the road, the right side loosened causing me to pull off immediately in an attempt to fix it. This first loop turned into a two hours job, giving me the heebie-jeebies for anything that might come later. The chain still didn’t feel or sound right to me.

My shift ended later than most couriers, so I became the designated pick-up artist for the remainder of the evening. Around 5 PM, I had been sent out to unfamiliar territory, that being the town of Gresham, famed in song and story…no, that’s a lie. Nobody cares about Gresham. Not even the people who live there. I required directions, so what dispatch relayed to me turned out to be the beginning of the end for your humble narrator.

In order to get to Gresham, I headed out on the freeway to what was to be the 257th Street exit. The on-ramp I chose had been blocked by a disabled truck , a sure sign this was going to be a suckfest in the making. The only thing I could do was maintain forward motion, cutting through some well traveled city streets that hadn’t been too treacherous, but to find another way onto I-84 was another matter. It took the better part of a half-hour just to accomplish this feat.

When I finally hit the freeway, I noticed immediately that there had been more asphalt than anything else and that this had started to play havoc with the chains, even though I had been driving at a sluggish pace. The right side began to undo to the point I needed to pull over and tighten them again. It didn’t help. I was out of the van more than I was inside. Out of town finally, I was headed right toward the Columbia Gorge, the source of all problems for the whole area. The Arctic blast, as the news services are so fond of reporting and repeating incessantly, had been carried through the Gorge with constant winds up to 100 MPH. Even though the snow had abated and the roads finally cleared, it was still a motherfucker out there, blowing more flurries back and forth than Tony Montana in SCARFACE. I approached the exit for 235th Street, knowing the next just had to 257th, right? That’s when the right chain undid completely and violently whipped up the side of the wheel well. At this point, there was no way I could pull off. Snow drifts sat on each side of the freeway and I just pressed on.

“Not much further…” I told myself, optimistically.

The next exit sign read: Troutdale.


Where the hell is 257th? It’s got to be the next one, right? Right? Anyone?

I passed the Troutdale exit, which had a line of semis jutting out almost all the way back to Portland itself. I assumed I would have been sitting there with nowhere to go for the rest of the night. It never occurred to me I could have turned left off the exit and maybe turned around, but I didn’t anyway because IT WASN’T 257TH!

As I chugged on by, the left chain started to go. Now I had two chains slipping off, smacking up the insides of the front end and the noise became immediately deafening.I felt like I would lose my fucking mind, but what kept me going was the fact that 257th was just a few feet away…

...but it wasn’t. Nothing lay ahead. I was headed toward Hood River with no exit in sight. Fifteen minutes of non-stop banging and rattling in decibels that would make the Dalai Lama got bugfuck, I saw a sign that said: Corbett-Next Exit. There was no 257th Street exit. By now, I had been in the 500s at the very least. I had to turn around and it was there that I did. But first, I had to check the chains. I opened the door, which fly back and smashed right in the mush.

“Oh yeah. I’m in the fucking Gorge, aren’t I?”

I had to go back to Troutdale. I looked up to read: Portland-20 miles.

Oh mama, I thought. I get to relive the nightmare, now in reverse.

In Troutdale, I attempted to do something, anything with the chains, but no avail. I ventured forth, clanging and banging my way to 235th and crossed into Gresham, almost two hours after I initially left the hospital. This ice and snow muffled the racket, but only slightly. With each block I drove, I lost another chunk of my sanity.

At my first stop, I surveyed the damage in a sheltered spot. In the light, I saw that I had lost the right chain altogether. The wheel well was completely torn out. What was left of the left chain, I disconnected. It fell behind the wheel, still attached. The well on this side had been ripped to pieces. Every time I turned the wheel after that, it fluttered like a kid’s bicycle with playing cards in the spokes. The fenders on both sides were now silvery chrome, the paint stripped off and covered with the pock marks of a savage beating, the kind the Hell’s Angels used to lay down with their own chains. Slowly but oh so very surely, I found my way out of Gresham, worrying that the remaining chain would wrap around the front axle.

My final stop had been an elder care facility that informed dispatch a urine specimen would be sitting outside their door in a manila envelope. As I pulled into the parking lot, my path was blocked by a maniac in a small tractor clearing out the snow at a dangerous rapid pace, as if he had been fueled up on a six-pack of Red Bull and two dozen hits of crank. When he almost smashed into the front of the van, I honked my horn as a warning. He just stopped short, turned around and snarled like a rabid wolverine. Then, he sped off again to continue his crazed mission. I just left the van where it was in the driveway and went off to grab the manila envelope left at the front entrance.

I retreated to the hospital a defeated man. I couldn’t park the van in the courier lot because all the empty spaces were filled with piled snow. Maybe Charlie Manson had been by there earlier with his tractor. Weary, I left the van in an empty handicapped spot, which were all empty, and lumbered inside to drop off my specimens. Along with the blood and everything I picked up on that run, I left the unopened envelope in the drop-off area in the lab. As it turned out, nobody in the lab bothered to open the envelope. Instead, it was placed in the interdepartmental mail and had been delivered to the office addressed on the front. Whoever opened up their mail the next morning got a very special Christmas bonus.

As for me, I finished up for the evening and relayed my tale of woe to the remaining dispatcher on duty. As for the whereabouts of the non-existent 257th Street freeway exit? That would have been the Troutdale exit.

In the words of Captain Binghamton from MCHALE'S NAVY, I could just scream.

Instead, I took the next day off.

Oh, and Bing Crosby can kiss my frozen White Christmasy ass.
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