Chris Doucette, like all of us, has his story of how we got to where we are now. He tells his for us here through the third person and through the first person.
STORIES AND PHOTOS BY CHRIS DOUCETTE
After spending three years in the Canadian Armed Forces, Chris Doucette found himself with little or no transferable skills as he returned to an almost forgotten life as a civilian.
After dropping out of high school at 17, Doucette served three years in the infantry with the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). While his service in the military taught him many things he quickly realized that most of what he had learned would be useless as a civilian.
One skill that did prove useful was driving. During his time in the army, Doucette drove a variety of military vehicles including jeeps, trucks and armoured personnel carriers.
Doucette returned to Toronto from Germany at the end of a recession in 1991; jobs were scarce. He managed to secure a job doing the one thing he knew, driving.
He began working as a truck driver in the fall of 1991 and drove for the next seven years. He spent five of those years working in the downtown core.
Although Doucette is now enrolled at Centennial College in the journalism program, truck driving is still a big part of who he is and in a strange way it’s something he misses and won’t forget. The following is a look inside the solitary life of the truly thankless job of truck driving.
A truck driver’s day typically begins early. In a business where time is money, getting caught in traffic can be costly.
“The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. With any luck I had fallen asleep by 11 p.m. the night before and managed to get six hours sleep (I could get away with hitting the snooze button maybe once without my wife hitting me). I’d roll out of bed and tiptoe around the house getting ready for work, trying not to wake the kids. I had to be at work for 6 a.m. so I rarely bothered to eat breakfast.
The hours between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m. were sacred to me as a truck driver. They were the two most tranquil hours of my day. After loading my 5-ton truck and doing some paperwork I’d hit the road, usually by seven.
I have traveled quite a bit in my life but as far as I’m concerned there are few sights more beautiful than the sun rising over the city of Toronto on a crisp autumn morning from the Don Valley Parkway (DVP). Add to this a little Tragically Hip on the radio and I’d find myself closer to heaven than I ever thought possible.”
Truck drivers spend most of their day in solitude. The radio is their only companion.
“Although I would see my coworkers in the morning, we were usually in such a hurry to get out on the road ahead of traffic that we didn’t spend much time talking. But I had the radio to keep me company. It was one of the things I enjoyed most about the job, listening to what I wanted as loud as I wanted.
Another thing I enjoyed was the solitude. I really miss that time alone with my thoughts. Sometimes my mind would wander during my morning drive, I would suddenly become aware that I was exiting the DVP onto Bloor Street and I couldn’t remember even getting onto the 401. This may sound scary but allowing my mind to wander helped me get through many tough deliveries and many long days.”
While many people may be just getting up at 7:30 a.m. there are plenty of people downtown who have not gone to bed yet.
“Working in the downtown area, I had to deal with people from all walks of life. The homeless, prostitutes and crack-heads made for some particularly exciting mornings. Most of the time they were harmless and eventually I knew many of them by name. There were times though when I found myself a little out of my element.
I once had an older man, who was obviously intoxicated, try to climb up into the back of my truck to kill me with his cane. He told me he was “the angel of death sent by God to take me to hell.” It was a surreal experience. Fortunately for me the man was too drunk to climb up into the truck and he gave up after a few tries.
One of the more interesting places to make a delivery is at the intersection of Dundas and Sherbourne, especially early in the morning. There is a church on the corner that supplies free coffee and muffins to the homeless and people congregate out front. There have been many times when I have had to politely ask a bunch of people who have been up all night smoking crack to get out of the back of my truck so that I could close the door and be on my way. I can only assume that they were looking for food or anything of value.”
Aggressive and careless drivers are a bone of contention for truck drivers and there is no shortage of them in downtown Toronto.
“People don’t like to get stuck behind trucks and who can blame them? Trucks are slow, they block your view and they spew out awful-smelling diesel fumes. But it never ceased to amaze me how willing people were to pull out of a driveway in their compact cars and cut off a truck might not be able to stop in time. People need to be aware that trucks are often carrying a lot of weight and require more stopping distance than a car.
Careless drivers have been the source of many headaches. More times than 1 care to remember I have had my load shift and topple as a result of a quick stop. This adds hours to an already long day. I usually carried a lot of paint and often I would find myself cleaning it up in the back of the truck for a couple of hours as a result of an abrupt stop. You can’t imagine how much of a mess one dumped 20-litre pail of paint can make.”
In recent years, the media have raised concerns about the safety of trucks on the highways.
“I worked for a very financially sound company. There was a shop on the grounds and three mechanics working full-time. Trucks were inspected regularly by the mechanics and drivers were expected to do a circle check of their truck every morning. When problems arose with a truck, it was promptly put in the shop and was not put back on the road until it was fixed and safe. When trucks became old and were deemed unsafe, they were taken off the road permanently and replaced with brand new trucks.
Unfortunately, not every company or private owner/operator has the resources available to operate this way. These companies and private owner/operators usually acquire their trucks from companies like ours, the trucks our company had already decided were old and unsafe.
These were the trucks that were usually responsible for flying truck tires and faulty breaking systems.”
The dumbing down of our society has caused an influx of people entering jobs that require less education – jobs that are less professional in nature. This has drastically changed the trucking industry.
“When 1 began driving truck it wasn’t just a job, it was a state of mind. In my opinion, truck drivers were some of the best drivers on the road. Of course this is excluding the truck-ers that drive cross-country using narcotics to stay awake and run three logbooks to keep their hours of operation legal. While this is illegal, it always surprised me to see how many dispatchers and other drivers would turn a blind eye to this type of behaviour. Again, time is money in this industry!
As time went on, I began to notice a change in the type of people who were entering the trucking profession. There were fewer and fewer people doing it because they loved trucks and loved driving them. It seemed as though people, unable to find a descent-paying job, were realizing that for about $1,000 they could get their trucking license and find work making good money quite easily.
This creates a variety of problems for both the public and truck drivers. With more drivers on the road, usually less skilled, public safety becomes an issue. Drivers who are in it only for the money tend to be less courteous to others on the road and less concerned with customer satisfaction.
This influx of drivers has also made truckers expendable in the eyes of many employers. It has given employers the leverage they need to keep salaries down. The ideology now seems to be, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door,” and, “You can easily be replaced.”
While the job of truck driving has few rewards, it can be very satisfying.
“Driving a truck for a living provides very few rewards other than a steady paycheck. If you are a hard worker and do a good job, you are rewarded with more work the following day because you can handle it. If you do a lousy job you are fired, it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Trucking is a physically demanding line of work and though I enjoyed the physical aspects of the job more than anything, it does take a toll on your body. The sense of accomplishment you feel after a hard day’s work is very satisfying. In time though, it becomes more and more difficult to get out of bed i n the morning and every step of the day becomes a challenge. I eventually found myself questioning my very existence?”
Truck driving is a profession that is often frowned upon, but cities depend on truck drivers. It is a labour of love.
“When people think of truck drivers, they picture an overweight guy who swears a lot and stinks to high heaven. Truckers spend a lot of time sitting and eating fast food. They are usually uneducated and stressed out from trying to meet deadlines and dealing with traffic.
They spend a considerable amount of time confined in a small space (the cab of a truck) chain smoking and even sleeping there when time is of the essence and money is in short supply. Building up a sweat with each delivery and being surrounded all day by diesel fumes, dust and axle grease only adds to their pungent odour and filthy appearance. It is no wonder truckers are overweight, swear a lot and have poor hygiene.
However, without truck drivers the city would come to a standstill. Imagine all the truck drivers in the city not showing up for work one day. While traffic would be lighter, virtually every business in the city would be affected. With “Just In Time”(JIT) deliveries becoming more common, the potential for lost revenue would be enormous.”
As with any job, there are days when you want to throw in the towel and just walk away.
“When I think of my years as a truck driver, a particular moment comes to mind that sums up the experience. I had finished my run downtown and was sent by my dispatcher to pick up something in Mississauga. It was a really hot day and after working downtown in the scorching heat for 10 hours the last thing I wanted to do was drive back across the city to the west end.
It took me about two hours to drive back to the yard in rush hour traffic and I was cursing my dispatcher the whole way. Having no air conditioning in my truck only fueled my anger. I was fully prepared to walk into the dispatcher’s office, give him an earful and quit my job.
I had exited the 401 and was stewing over the day’s events. I was only a short distance from the yard and just minutes away from quitting my job when I noticed a green light up ahead turning yellow and then red. I slowed my truck and eased it to a stop.
While I was stopped at the light, out of the corner of my eye something caught my atten¬tion. I looked down and to my left to see one of those station wagons with the brown paneling. In the back seat was a boy, maybe six or seven years old. He was pumping his arm up and down for all he was worth, the age-old signal to ask a trucker to blow his air horns.
I was suddenly overwhelmed with a flood of emotion, memories of myself as a boy doing this very thing, memories of all the things that excited me about this job in the beginning. Without hesitation, I reached up, grabbed the cord for the air horns and gave it a long hard tug. Looking down at the boy, I saw him clench his fist and mouth the word, “Yesss!”
Immediately a smile swept across my face. Not just any smile but a full body smile, one of those smiles that you feel from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. Of course I didn’t quit my job that day. In fact, that moment managed to carry me through another two years of the job.”
Afflicted with severe back pain that eventually became so crippling Doucette required the assistance of his wife for the simplest of every day tasks, needing help just to get out of bed, dress and put on his boots. He left his job in 1998.
Doucette was faced with a difficult decision and once again he found himself in a position with limited options. With little education and few skills, chronic back pain only added to the difficulties of finding a new job.
Doucette decided on the only viable option. Rather than rely on past job experience he decided to embark on something entirely new to him. Filled with a desire to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer he returned to school.
— The Courier