The story of Jersey Jim

A fast-talking character attempts to grow his trucking business.

August-September 2020

John Bendel

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The recession of 1974 doesn’t compare with what’s happening now, but it cost me my good-paying Teamster job driving for A-P-A Transport, an LTL carrier in north New Jersey. With a young family, I had no choice but to accept a lower-paying sales job when it was offered by Riteway Express, a competing LTL.

I was selling for Riteway in 1978 when I met Jim Davis, a high-energy North Jersey guy who had driven for a nonunion carrier for two months. That job taught him everything he needed to know about trucking, he said.

Two years earlier, retailer Abraham & Straus had put Jim into the trucking business, in part by giving him freight to deliver and then by refusing to pay his legitimate freight bills. Jim loved telling the story.

I was sitting in a dusty art deco lobby above Colloids Inc., a chemical plant in Newark where I had an appointment with the traffic manager, an older guy named Thevenet. “Traffic” then meant what we now refer to as “logistics.” I was ready for Thevenet with good rates, free lunch, Yankees’ baseball tickets, whatever it took. But Thevenet was keeping me waiting.

Jim the driver

That’s when Jim Davis bounded up the stairs from street level.

In his early 30s, he wore jeans, dirty work shoes, a genuine blue-collar shirt, and a pencil balanced behind one ear. He rapped on the receptionist’s sliding glass window. “Receiving is downstairs,” she said. But Davis said he had to talk to the traffic manager. His truck was blocking the dock downstairs, he said.

In less than a minute the elusive Mr. Thevenet appeared in the lobby. Salesmen could wait, but Thevenet did not mess with drivers – especially when they were blocking Colloids’ two freight doors. But this was no delivery problem.

Jim introduced himself as Jim the driver. He handed Thevenet a list of places where his company picked up and delivered. It was called a “points directory.” Every carrier had one back then. Jim’s company was Davis Square Trucking. Here was a guy in dungarees doing what I had come in a Robert Hall suit and a company Chevy to do.

Jim explained he was on Frelinghuysen Avenue every afternoon.

“I’ll never miss a pickup,” he said.

One of the toughest old officers in the Newark Traffic Club, Thevenet ate it up. He nodded, asked questions, and made notes in the points directory. Finally, Thevenet shook Jim-the-driver’s hand and turned to me.

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said.

Five minutes later, the receptionist called me in. Five minutes after that, I was back out on the street. Thevenet had taken my literature, thanked me for stopping by, and shown me the door.

Jim the owner

Out on Frelinghuysen Avenue, there was no Davis Square truck in front of the dock. Instead, there was Jim the driver sitting behind the wheel of a faded Mustang, writing in a datebook.

“I thought you were a truck driver,” I said to him. He looked up and grinned.

“Nah. I’m the owner, but it’s a great bit,” he said.

We went to the diner where Jim Davis told me the story of Davis Square Trucking over coffee.

“Actually, it’s like ‘Davis squared,’ me and my brother Greg. Two Davises, get it? Davis squared? Davis Square?”

Jim spoke with a heavy North Jersey accent – coffee was “cawfee” and her was “hu.” Jim was pretty slick, but probably not as slick as he thought he was.

Davis Square Trucking had a small terminal in Avenel. They had five guys driving for them, one tractor-trailer and four straight jobs. Greg ran the office, and Jim was on the road drumming up business. It was all about opportunity, and they were growing fast in unregulated New Jersey, Jim said.

Opportunity had bubbled up during the UPS strike of 1976, he explained. Many shippers were left without service – the Abraham & Straus warehouse down in Raritan Center, for example. Abraham & Straus, or A&S as it was known, would be swallowed by Macy’s in 1994. But in 1976, they shipped stuff all over New York and North Jersey, and they were jammed up, according to Jim Davis. I should have asked why a department store was shipping parcels all over the place, but it never occurred to me.

At that point, I still believed what Jim said.

Jim said he skipped the front door, the lobby, and receptionist at the A&S warehouse and went around back. He told the dock boss that he and his brother Greg would rent a couple of vans, pick up packages, and deliver them at the same prices UPS charged. The dock boss brought him to the warehouse manager, who was under pressure to get stuff delivered. The warehouse manager was overjoyed with Jim’s offer.

A&S stuffed Jim and Greg’s rented vans with as many parcels as possible and gave them the paperwork. The Davis boys didn’t have to sign for anything. That would have taken time. Just bring back the documents, and they would be paid based on the signed delivery receipts, A&S said. Sounded reasonable.

The brothers drove home and spread the packages on the lawn. Then they reloaded them in practical delivery order and set about delivering. There was a problem right away. Many people weren’t home during the day and they needed signed delivery receipts to be paid. He and Greg left a few packages and fudged signatures, but they couldn’t do that too much without arousing suspicion. They couldn’t do it at all with COD deliveries.

If UPS couldn’t deliver something, they left a card with a number to call.

Delivering into the night

These two guys didn’t have the time or facilities to do that. Instead they delivered into the night, even as late as midnight. They woke up more than a few consignees and collected those CODs. They also brought back refused and undeliverable shipments. But the dock boss wouldn’t accept anything back. He had no space. He told them to hold onto the cash and delivery receipts. They would process everything at once and square up later. The stuff went into Jim’s garage.

Two weeks later, UPS came back to work. Now Jim and Greg were due more than $1,350 for their work. But the still-hassled traffic manager said he didn’t have anything to do with invoices or cash. That all came out of the main office in New York. Jim took their paperwork to New York. The VP in charge of traffic sent out a rate clerk to say they had no record of two Davises and no idea what was going on. He wouldn’t pay even with a stack of signed delivery receipts. They needed corroborating records from the warehouse.

But the poor warehouse manager had quit.

The new guy said there were no such documents. The VP refused to cut a check without them. Of course, Jersey Jim was a shrewd guy. He refused to surrender the delivery receipts or the CODs they had collected without a check. It was a stand-off. In the chaos of the UPS strike aftermath, the A&S traffic VP turned to more urgent business. The episode faded in the chaos.

Jim and Greg still had undelivered merchandise as well as those COD payments. Along with many checks was more than $3,400 in cash. So the Davis brothers stopped asking for money. Jim, and Greg sold what they could of the undelivered stuff and used the cash to buy an old, used truck. Davis Square Trucking was born, though Jim and Greg called it J&G at the time.

“A&S put us in business, man,” Jim said.

Why the name change from J&G to Davis Square? That’s another story.

Jim and Greg

In 1975, Jersey Jim Davis and his brother Greg went into the trucking business with an old straight truck, a 1956 White 3000, Jim said in his heavy North Jersey accent. The White 3000 was a small cabover with a round front that may have been distinctive in the 1950s. By 1975, it was just funny looking.

Of course, the brothers called themselves J&G Trucking. They could pick up and deliver anywhere in New Jersey where intrastate trucking was unregulated. As long as they didn’t cross state lines, they were beyond federal regulation – not that they worried about details like that.

Dressed in work clothes, Jim would go into a shipper and claim to be the company’s regular driver in the area and promise a traffic manager flawless service, particularly pickups. I met Jim during one of those creative sales calls.

Big companies were different. You called ahead for an appointment and suited up for the pitch. They don’t get much bigger than Johnson & Johnson, headquartered in downtown New Brunswick.

That’s where Jersey Jim hit the jackpot.

In his travels, Jim had learned big companies were concerned about new laws that encouraged the use of contractors owned by minorities or women. So, Jim began claiming J&G Trucking belonged to his wife, Jean, and her sister, Gail. It didn’t do any good until Jim called on Johnson & Johnson.

Jim’s appointment was with the director of traffic, but the director had been called away for a week. His assistant was running things. The assistant was an ambitious, young Rutgers grad who saw the boss’s absence as his chance to show initiative.

“His name was Doug,” Jim recalled about the kid.

The kid wasn’t supposed to, but he kept the boss’s appointments – including one with an outfit called J&G Trucking, what he had been led to believe was a woman-owned carrier that covered the entire state of New Jersey with unpublished, totally negotiable rates.

“New Jersey was unregulated,” Jim reminded me.

Doug was an earnest guy who knew just enough about LTL to get himself in trouble. Why not give J&G a piece of New Jersey business to show how thrifty and politically attuned he was? So, that’s what he did. Doug sent a routing change down to the Johnson & Johnson division that distributed absorbent feminine sanitary products from a warehouse on Route 1. It was the Modess division.

Jim’s appointment was on a Monday. Tuesday, Jim submitted the low rates he had promised. Late Wednesday, Greg back in the office got a call from the Modess warehouse with 15,000 pounds and 47 freight bills for Thursday morning pickup. The caller suggested an empty trailer.

A trailer? Jim had been hoping for a test shipment or two, preferably in North Jersey, but he had not spelled that out to Doug. Jim also had neglected to mention that J&G was a one-truck company.

Meanwhile, in his enthusiasm to show his business smarts, Doug had routed half of Modess’ New Jersey shipments to J&G.

The big break

Greg had no idea what his brother had done, so he just accepted the pickup. If there was a problem, Jim could fix it, Greg thought. Later that day, Jim told Greg the way to fix it was to simply pick up and deliver the freight. He refused to call and tell Doug the truth. This was J&G’s big break, their ticket into big-time trucking.

First thing Thursday morning, Jim called the Modess warehouse and said there were no trailers available. All J&G had that morning was a single straight truck.

“It wasn’t a lie,” he told me with grin.

Jim explained that J&G would send the straight truck to pick up as many shipments as possible, bring them to the terminal, and return for more. The Modess guy said he would prefer to load everything at once but OK, as long as they got all the freight out of his staging area that day.

So, Greg headed down Route 1 to New Brunswick in the White 3000. At Modess, they assigned him a door and loaded him out. Then he returned to the terminal. The terminal was their mother’s house.

“Greg and I had apartments,” Jim explained.

Greg backed the 3000 into Mom’s driveway, and the brothers stripped the truck as quickly as they could.

“In LTL, you don’t unload a truck,” Jim explained like he was speaking to an industry outsider. “You strip it.”

Jim had a plan. He would rent two trucks and hire a couple of friends to drive and deliver all the stuff within a couple of days. Meanwhile, they would stage the freight by shipment in Mom’s back yard. That would make it easier to load them in delivery order.

Three years later here at the diner, Jim was obviously proud of his stroke of business genius – even after all that happened.

Greg headed back to New Brunswick with the empty truck and they repeated the process. On the third trip, Greg signed for the last of the freight minutes before Modess shipping and receiving closed for the day. They had successfully accomplished step one, the pickup.

They stripped the 3000, then stepped back to see that Mom’s entire backyard was covered with corrugated cartons in 47 individual stacks, one for each consignee. Neighbors and passersby stared. It was getting dark, and they were hungry. Mom just wanted all those boxes out of her yard, but she made grilled cheese sandwiches for them.

“Mom makes great grilled cheese,” Jim said wistfully as he stirred his second cup of coffee.

You wouldn’t be wrong to call that the high-water mark for J&G Trucking. Jim and Greg were in Mom’s kitchen figuring a route for the first delivery run and kidding with each other when the rain started.

It wasn’t just rain. It was a monsoon. Water came down in sheets. Jim never had to worry about weather before. Then, he had never staged 15,000 pounds of freight in Mom’s back yard. Who knew?

The brothers ran out into the torrents. Greg pulled the truck out of the driveway. Jim backed his mother’s car out of the garage. The rain was so thick, they couldn’t see more than a few yards in the dark. They parked the truck and the car on the street, ran back, and began dragging cartons into the garage – as though there was room for more than one or two of the 47 shipments.

They worked in totally soaked clothes with water running off their noses and chins for almost an hour. They had made little progress when water-soaked cartons began to fall apart as they tried to pick them up. They gave up.

Jim, Greg and Mom watched from the kitchen in the light of the back-door light, Jim said. In the space of an hour J&G Trucking had gone from triumph to catastrophe.

“Hey, we coulda done it,” Jim said, confidently nodding in the affirmative.

Jim didn’t want to talk about the lawsuit, but he remembered the Modess incident with something like fond nostalgia. He described how a stack of same-size cartons in a deluge begins to sink as the corrugated walls of the cartons at the bottom absorb water and sag.

A couple of weeks later, Woodbridge Public Works brought a front-loader to clear the mess. Modess wouldn’t do it, but the Health Department had declared Mom’s yard an imminent danger to the community, so the town stepped in.

“Do you know how much 15,000 pounds of feminine napkins weighs full of water?” Jim asked. I shrugged.

“A lot,” he said, laughing out loud.

Jim Davis paid for the coffee that day at the diner.

I never saw him again. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.