Road Warrior by Vicki Mayk

picture of the city of pittsburgh pa in an atlasMy mother positioned her maroon Pontiac at the bottom of our steep driveway, sizing up the car’s position in relation to the irregular stone wall outside the driver’s side window.

“Okay, now just give it a little gas,” Dad told her.

Mom sighed and glanced in his direction, the slightest hint of “drop dead” glinting in her deep brown eyes. She put the car in reverse and started the ascent.

“Easy now,” Dad said.  His hands, fingers spread, fluttered like twin fans waving in the direction of the dashboard.

“Grandpa….” “Pappy!” My daughter and stepdaughter, sitting in the backseat with me, spoke in unison. They knew his routine so well they could have repeated it, word for word.

“Tips! I’m just giving her tips,” he protested.

Mom applied the gas and, with one short burst of acceleration, the Pontiac backed up the incline and on to the flat surface at the top of the driveway. Dad hopped out as the garage door opened. He trotted into the cavernous space and stood at the back wall near their old turquoise and white Philco refrigerator, which now held the overflow from the newer fridge in the kitchen upstairs.

Mom began easing the car into the garage bay as my father waved her in, his hand beckoning as energetically as a cheerleader invoking the crowd at a pep rally.

“Okay…Okay…Okay…OhhKaayyy…” Dad’s words punctuated each movement of the car as mom gently maneuvered it into the garage. The idea was to get the car within three feet of the refrigerator, leaving just enough room to open the door and extract a bottle of Rolling Rock.

“WHOA!!” Dad flung his hands, palms outstretched, toward the car, as if he – not my mother carefully applying the brakes – halted its forward motion.

My father never had a driver’s license during my lifetime. Family photos showing him behind the wheel of a 1950 Buick sedan proved he must have been a driver before I was born. I’d once asked my mother why he gave it up.

“He used to have to go out and file accident reports for his job,” Mom said. He saw some gruesome sights and lost his nerve.

Over the years, when friends asked, “Doesn’t your Dad drive?” I’d just shake my head, embarrassed that he never picked us up at scout meetings and school dances. How could I explain that he lived his life in fear, anticipating accidents that might never happen? Anything that could cause an injury – from riding a bike to swimming – was discouraged when I was growing up. I learned to drive only after I went to college.

His lack of a license didn’t mean he was idle in the car. Speeding along the highway in the passenger seat, he’d pump an imaginary brake with his right foot, willing the driver to stop.  If you went over the speed limit, he’d admonish you, saying, “Hey, Barney Oldfield! Slow down!” a reference to a famous race car driver of the ’30s and ’40s. A road trip with Dad – even if it was just driving across town in Pittsburgh – was an adventure in patience for the person behind the wheel.

When I was twenty-nine, my husband took a new job in northern New Jersey. I followed a month later, driving across Pennsylvania and into the Garden State with my father keeping me company. Interstate 80 in north Jersey, with its ceaseless stream of heavy traffic heading toward New York City, was unnerving. Four lanes were crammed with cars, each vehicle a bead in a fast-moving necklace. Getting back on the interstate from a rest stop, I carefully assessed the flow of oncoming traffic. A tractor trailer was approaching, a hulking silver, black and red behemoth with a trace of black smoke puffing out of a smokestack on its cab. Plenty of time to pull out, I decided, and started to accelerate.

“LOOK OUT!”

I slammed on my brakes.

“Jesus Christ, Dad! What the hell are you doing?” My thudding heart echoed in my ears. I swore I felt the right ventricle knocking against the wall of my chest.  Cars coming out of the rest stop were starting to honk and go around my red Toyota. Still shaking, I pulled over to the side.

“I didn’t know if you saw that truck.”

“How the hell could I not see it? I’m not blind! God, Dad, don’t ever do that to me again!”

“I’m sorry. Sorry.” He barely whispered his apology. For the rest of the trip, he spoke only to help with directions until we finally exited at Passaic. He showed considerable restraint not telling me to slow down on the exit ramp

He prided himself on knowing what made a good driver. After all, he supervised truck drivers for a living – first for Helms Express, later for Standard Motor Freight. He managed more than fifty Teamsters, their tractor trailers crisscrossing Pennsylvania and other states, hauling everything from produce to dry goods. When he represented management over a union grievance, he brought the paperwork home and pored over it for hours, preparing his case. Dad didn’t believe in swearing in front of women and when he took calls from the union shop steward, he went in the bedroom and closed the door. I could still hear the muffled expletives. “I’ll tell you what you can do with your grievance…”

“Dispatch, Steve,” Dad answered when I called him at work after school. What “dispatch” meant, I wasn’t sure. Over the years, I learned he spent every day plotting an intricate schedule of trips for dozens of truckers, ensuring that no driver, once he dropped his cargo off, would drive back to Pittsburgh with his trailer empty. Deadheading – the term for driving a truck home without a payload – was bad planning and lost money. It wasn’t a word in Dad’s vocabulary. I literally never heard him say it. I learned the word one night when I started a conversation with a friendly truck driver in a neighborhood bar. That night, more than a decade after my father died, I realized how good Dad had been at his job.

His work also made him an expert navigator. After planning routes for trucks with an eye on efficiency and cost-effectiveness, mapping directions for family vacations was a breeze. For days before trips, he sat at the dining room table in his horn rimmed glasses, maps and atlases spread in front of him, making pages of notes as he chain-smoked Kent cigarettes.  On trips he secured himself in the front seat with maps carefully folded in his lap. Like a human GPS system, he gave careful and exact directions. “Now in about three miles, you’re going to come to the exit for Route 611 and you’ll turn right to go south.”

The truck drivers Dad managed were the standard against which everyone else was measured behind the wheel. One driver in particular was held up as the one to emulate. Charlie epitomized all that was great when it came to operating a motor vehicle.  In addition to being a long-haul trucker, he also functioned as a kind of quasi-chauffeur and deliveryman for my father. In late afternoon, the arrival of Charlie’s truck at our house was heralded by the sound of his diesel engine laboring up our hill. Some days, he pulled up and handed Dad that day’s edition of the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette from the truck’s cab. Other days, he delivered steak sandwiches for our dinner. Dad frequently invoked his name when one of us was driving. If you claimed there wasn’t enough room to make a three-point turn, he’d insist, “Charlie could do that pulling a full load.” Rejecting a parking spot in favor of searching for larger one caused Dad to click his tongue disdainfully. “Charlie could fit a tractor trailer in that spot.”

I hit the road with Dad and Charlie on Christmas Eve 1967. My father always ran errands on the day before a holiday, traveling to Pittsburgh’s Strip District to buy fragrant, imported cheeses and fresh fish from the wholesalers. I was thirteen and excited to be included in this journey to a part of the city I’d only heard about, in a car driven by a master of motor vehicles. I can’t remember the make and model of Charlie’s car as he pulled up that day outside our pink and white split-level house and honked the horn. Large, grey, dependable and four-door are the only details that come to mind.  I slid into the back seat and leaned against cracked vinyl upholstery, looking at Charlie’s gnarled hands on the wheel as we pulled away and headed downtown on the Parkway. He drove with a cigarette clutched between two oil-stained fingers, occasionally raising it to his lips for a drag as he motored along.

As we entered the Squirrel Hill tunnels, I’d noticed that my father wasn’t sharing any of his driving tips with Charlie. As Charlie smoothly wove the car into the left passing lane and back again, I peeked into the front seat to see if Dad was pressing his imaginary brake. His foot was completely relaxed on the floor.  Ahead the Pittsburgh skyline looked like a jagged wooden cutout against the low-hanging clouds. A few snowflakes were beginning to fall. My father loved the city and had never lived anywhere else except during his wartime service as an Air Force mechanic in the Carolinas. On that holiday trip, I saw his view of the city, a different place than the one I knew, a trucker’s view of Pittsburgh not seen in family station wagons and sedans.

We exited the Parkway at Second Avenue and Charlie cut through the city, taking shortcuts on his way across town. The side streets we traveled felt like a parallel universe, separate from the city’s public face. Turning left into a narrow alley, I saw a man unloading trays of pastries at a restaurant’s service entrance, tarts and cream puffs so perfect they looked like papier-mâché models. Another turn put us in the path of a barrel-chested black man loading heavy cases of soda pop like he was bench-pressing weights. Two cops pulled up next to us at a traffic light and, noticing Charlie behind the wheel, greeted him like an old friend, waving from their black-and-white patrol car.

“A good truck driver knows the police in the city. You never know when you need them,” Dad said, seeing my surprised reaction in the rearview mirror. Two blocks later, we were at one of the city’s busiest intersections at Liberty and Fifth Avenue, where another cop stood directing traffic like a uniformed windmill. “Watch,” Dad said, as a panel truck and slowed down. Smooth as a runner passing a baton, the trucker handed the cop a gift in gaudy red and green Christmas wrapping. I noticed Charlie snickering quietly as he took a last drag on his Camel before stubbing it out.

“Why was he giving him a gift?” Dad and Charlie exchanged looks.

“Sometimes you might need to park someplace – where you really shouldn’t park,” Charlie said.  “So you can, um…unload.”

I wondered what kind of gift was in the package, but we were blocks away by then, heading down Penn Avenue toward The Strip. Every block was marked by a string of Christmas lights hung over the street, a trio of red bells in the center swaying in the wind.  Snowflakes smacked against the windshield, instantly dissolving before the wipers could whisk them away.  Charlie turned into an area more like an alley than a street, a thoroughfare lined with utilitarian warehouses and storefronts. This was the Strip District, the place where my father shopped for years before it became a popular tourist destination. Charlie expertly angled the car, parking it in one smooth motion between a pickup truck and a black Volkswagen Beetle. He lit another cigarette and cracked open his window as Dad and I exited, dodging a slippery ice patch near the curb.

The salty scent of fresh fish tweaked my nostrils as we entered Robert Wholey’s, where my father bought fish sandwiches for our dinner on Fridays during Lent. I followed him down the aisle, under the gaze of dozens of glassy fish eyes. To my right, shiny, wet sea bass were stacked helter-skelter on top of a mountain of ice chips. Next to them, net bags of clams filled a bin. I shot ahead, heading toward two huge tanks. A tangle of deep red lobsters, more than I’d ever seen, scuttled aimlessly in the tanks. A woman standing next to me in a greasy looking fur coat jabbed a finger against the glass, saying, “How about that one – no, not that one. The one over there!” An employee dipped a long-handled net in the water to retrieve it. A voice murmured, “Careful, they bite,” and I felt a pinch on my midsection. I jumped and turned. “Daddy!”

“You really thought they got you!” he said, smirking.

“It’s not funny!”

“Come on, we’ve got to get our shrimp.”

The crustaceans looked like giant pink and white commas as Dad scooped them into a plastic bag. After paying, he steered me outside and down the street to Pennsylvania Macaroni. Entering we passed bins of pasta and spices to take our place among holiday shoppers standing five deep at the cheese counter. Giant three-foot wheels of parmesano reggiano – the kind I’d only seen in the movies – sat beside pungent Gorgonzola. “A pound of bel paese,” Dad said. It was part of my mother’s Christmas gift – the creamy soft cheese that was her favorite. This was the only place you could find it in the city.

“Daddy – olives!” They were among my favorite foods and here was a whole case filled with crocks of green and black olives, shiny with oil, some slightly shriveled, others stuffed with slivers of cheese. “Pick some,” he said. I chose ripe green ones, looking like small round emeralds piled on the scale as a plump woman in an apron smeared with tomato sauce calculated the price.

The snow had stopped when we headed out into the biting cold. Back at Charlie’s car, we stowed the bags in the trunk. “Are we done?” I was cold and, judging from the fogged windshield on the car, Charlie had cranked up the car heater while he waited.

“It’s Christmas Eve. I want to light a candle at St. Stan’s.”

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church dominated one end of the strip, part of the area’s history as one of the city’s Polish neighborhoods. My father’s neighborhood, where he’d played sandlot football and stoned river rats with his pals. Smallman Street bordered one side of the Strip – the same street where I walked with Dad around the corner from where he grew up at 2854 Mulberry Way. St. Stan’s, with its impressive red brick façade and rose window, was where he’d been an altar boy, avoiding the sharp-eyed scrutiny of the nuns. We paused by the black wrought iron fence to look at the large nativity outside, the church’s sole holiday decoration. The ornate, weathered statues of Joseph, Mary, shepherds and Wise Men were ringed around the baby Jesus.

“I think they’ve had those statues since I was a kid,” Dad said, as he mounted the steps. Inside, only flickering rows of candles in front of the Blessed Virgin and the statues of saints could be seen in the dim interior.  A few kneeling figures were hunched in the pews. I heard the faint rattle of a rosary from one elderly lady as we walked to a side altar, our footsteps echoing on the tiled floor. We stopped at a statue of St. Therese de Lisieux – the Little Flower. Dad knelt and handed me a rumpled dollar bill to deposit in the box before I lit a candle. He slipped what looked like a five into the slot and plucked a long matchstick out of a mound of white sand. He lit two candles, their glow reflected in his hazel green eyes, then snuffed out the match as he bowed his head to pray. When he crossed himself, it was time to go. Walking back to Charlie’s car, I asked, “Who’d you light the candles for?”

“You and your mother. I always say my prayers for you. For God to keep you safe. And for your grandmother.”

Back at the car, Charlie asked, “Where to next, boss?”

“Oakland for the corned beef.”

Up front, both men were smoking as I leaned my head against the window and traced stars in the condensation that formed there. Cruising along the Boulevard of the Allies, I could see the murky water of the Monongahela far below. Across the water on the shore of Pittsburgh’s South Side, I watched for a favorite landmark, the large clock advertising Duquesne Beer on the side of a building. I glanced back over my shoulder and watched the skyline fading behind a curtain of falling snowflakes. Soon Charlie guided the car off the boulevard, cutting across Forbes Avenue, passing Magee Hospital where I’d been born. He turned right and pulled up outside a nondescript tan building with a tiny restaurant. It was the kind of place Dad usually designated “a dive,” but here he was, making a special stop.

Pushing open the dingy glass door, I smelled the mingled scents of corned beef, mustard, swiss cheese, pastrami and rye bread – a deli’s special perfume.  For years my father had brought home this corned beef as a special treat. That day he ordered two pounds – lean – and I watched as the whirring meat slicer shaved strip after strip of the pungent meat onto waxed paper.  Dad added a loaf of freshly sliced rye and some kosher pickles to our order and we were off again.

The streets were starting to ice in the late afternoon, as Charlie passed the giant Isaly’s store on the boulevard and made a sharp right down a steep hill to an entrance to the Parkway I’d never seen before – another trucker’s secret. I watched Dad when Charlie fishtailed slightly on a turn, but he remained calm, never braking, never telling Charlie to slow down, as we headed home.

Years later, after getting my driver’s license, I’d catch glimpses of the route we took that day through the city. I could never duplicate it. I tried once. Taking what I thought was a turn I remembered from that day only took me to a dead-end street. Another false turn brought me to the Corliss Tunnels, a short cut to the South Side, in the opposite direction from The Strip. My memory was an unreliable road map and I gave up.  I had to settle for the routes everyone knew. Any Pittsburgher can tell you that heading out Penn Avenue or Liberty will take you to The Strip.

My father’s years of worry about safety on the road turned out to be for nothing. He was never in a serious accident and my mother and I avoided it too. Maybe all the candles he lit worked.  The thing he feared most happened one morning when he got out of bed. On his way to the bathroom, he stumbled, felled by a massive stroke. He never got up again. There were no more car trips. Instead I drove Dad in his wheelchair, silenced for the rest of his life. We scuttled up and down the hallways of the nursing home or outdoors on the walks bordered by manicured lawns and gardens. I missed him telling me I was going too fast, how I should have slowed down to make the turn. I missed him pressing the brake when I was in the driver’s seat.

vicki maykVicki Mayk has been a journalist, magazine editor and public relations person for 35 years. Her feature articles and essays have appeared in regional and national magazines, newspapers, and trade publications. Vicki’s essay “Verismo” won third place in Hippocampus’ 2011 Remember In November contest. She teaches a memoir-writing workshop in the bereavement program at St. Luke’s Hospice in Bethlehem, Pa. She earned an MFA in the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes University and lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and a very vocal black Lab named Barkley.

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  • Deirdre

    What a great story with a huge heart at its center. Thanks Vicki.