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Zen And The Art Of Truck Packing

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Before I morphed into a journalist a little more than five years ago, I had spent 15 years working in another badly failing industry. As an actor and producer in the downtown New York theater scene, I had found some modest success, but like most theater cats always needed a side gig to help pay the bills. Most of my fellow thespians waited tables or temped, but my disdain for restaurant work and especially offices led me in another direction. I became a mover.

It started with jobs for a friend’s father’s auction house and eventually landed me in a small boutique moving company where I still work a few jobs a month and occasionally drive a hog cross-country. My main job on our standard three-man moves is to pack the truck. Much like acting, or writing, truck packing is a skill that takes years to learn. Unlike acting and writing, truck packing is a skill that I can confidently say I have mastered.

The man who taught me how to pack a truck, in fact to be a mover in general, was a salty old Brooklyn guy named Rick who worked for my friend’s dad. To say that Rick did not take an immediate shine to me is an understatement. He, fairly accurately, seemed to view me as an overprivileged smart aleck who probably didn’t belong anywhere near a moving truck. But undaunted — well, maybe a little daunted — I took all his insults and in the process learned quite a bit.

Rick had a unique approach to teaching. The first job I ever worked, we were packing some books and I started filling up a dish barrel, one of the largest boxes in the arsenal. Rick just watched, and didn’t say anything. He let me close the box, tape it, label it. Then he said to me, “Now what are you gonna do with it?” I tried to lift the box. It was like trying to lift the Statue of Liberty.

For the better part of a year, I spent countless hours in the truck with Rick. Mostly listening to his stories about coming up in Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood. I remember him advising me never to try to steal the hat off of an Orthodox Jew, “Because those guys don’t f-ck around about their hats.” It had never occurred to me to do so, but I appreciated the advice nonetheless. One day, he parked, looked at me, and said, “Today you start learning how to pack the truck.”

There are some easy basics to truck packing. Start by making walls of boxes in the nose that reach to the top. Next, secure that with a mattress and boxspring, or a set of bookshelves, and after that big heavy base pieces like dressers that can hold all of that in place. That’s when it gets tricky. That’s when things stop being rectangular and you have pack chairs, and tables, outdoor furniture, and oddly shaped décor. The choices made at this point make or break a truck packer and the stuff he is packing.

These days I work with and for my buddy Brad, who bought the company we both worked at for several years. Much of our relationship is based around arguing. Arguing about politics, sports, the nature of women, and, yes, truck packing. Brad is an optimist. We could drive a 14 foot box truck up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brad would walk in, glance around, nod slightly, look at me and say, “Dude, we got this.” I, on the other hand, doubt the ability of a shot glass to fit into a beer barrel. It’s a good balance.

At the start of a job I go up, sometimes in an elevator, usually up stairs, and get eyes on the inventory. Throughout the pack, especially on stair jobs, I run stairs, because the other guys shouldn’t do all the lifting — truck dwelling is a despicable thing. But once we get past the rectangles, and the game of Tetris really begins, the biggest issue is that I get stuff in the right order. I never get stuff in the right order. Arguments ensue.

As each item comes down, the space on the truck gets slimmer. Doubt creeps in. This is when you have to trust the floor of the box, the box bed. You have to know just how precariously you can place things, without fear they may move and break. But box beds are a truly remarkable thing. That’s lesson takes a good while to learn.

Here’s a story many people won’t believe, but it is absolutely true. On a recent long haul I had finished the pack in Park Slope, and left an empty Starbucks can on the exposed lip of the truck, outside the box door. I then drove back to park near my place so as to leave at 5 a.m. the next day. I drove to Zanesville, Ohio, from Brooklyn. When I got to my hotel, I went to the back of the truck to snap a pic of the license plate for the hotel forms. The can was still there. There are two lessons here: one, the world is a magical place; two, box beds are incredibly steady.

I often write while packing a truck. That might sound odd, but I spend very little time in front of a keyboard.  Mostly I pace around smoking, making coffee, less often doing dishes, while I write in my head. Once I sit down, the piece is pretty much done.

Packing a truck is perfect for this. In fact, it’s a lot like writing. Everything has to be in its place. It has to be balanced, awkward points are dangerous and must be especially protected, and sometimes, if it’s a big load, you have to take risks. Thoughts of my latest article mingle with marrying the star-shaped coffee table base to the children’s play kitchen. How much weight and pressure can every object or idea bear?

One thing I hated about office work was that at the end of the day you shut down your computer, not finished, but ready to come back tomorrow and keep churning the corporate bicycle wheel. When you close the back of a box truck and everything fits, you’ve done it. There is a clear and final result. It is very similar to pounding that final period in an article.

As an actor, at the end of the show you get applause. As a writer, you get clicks and attention and media hits. As a truck packer you get tips. Don’t get me wrong — tip your movers, people — but it’s not the same. You are not regarded as one of the special people, you are just a worker. Yet, of all the things I have done and learned and accomplished in my life, knowing how to pack a truck ranks very high. There is little more laudable than a hard day’s work. And bringing a skill to it, well, that is an awfully good feeling.

Looking back, I think maybe the reason Rick didn’t like me at first was that he thought I was looking down at him, and maybe I was. I probably figured I was making important theater, while anybody can pack a truck. What I learned was that anybody can make theater, but very few people can really pack a truck. I’m grateful for his lessons, his lessons on truck packing, not stealing Jewish people’s hats, and life. Sometimes when I hammer home the hook that clicks the back of the truck closed, I think of him, and I am grateful.

David Marcus is the Federalist’s New York Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter, @BlueBoxDave.

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