Delivery to the top of the city

September 18, 2020

John Bendel

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The high point of my LTL driving career was delivering a shipment of brass Empire State Building souvenirs to the observatory gift shop on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. It was still the world’s tallest building in 1970. It isn’t even in the top 20 now. Half-a-dozen buildings in China alone are taller. But it was tall. Believe me.

Driving local LTL pickup and delivery in Manhattan was not trucking as most OOIDA members think of it. It was a straight truck, few miles, and workdays were spent climbing onto and jumping down from the tailgate – about as far from truckload driving as you can get. But you encountered the same absurdities dealing with shippers, consignees and dispatchers – just on a smaller scale.

Back then, LTLs delivered many of the shipments UPS handles today – lots more store deliveries, many on downtown commercial streets. The carrier was obligated to deliver to the door. There was a surcharge for inside delivery. Store owners almost always wanted it inside, but they weren’t about to pay extra. Many retail shipments were sent freight collect. The consignee paid the freight charge, often in cash out of the register – but not the evil inside delivery charge. You could argue with them while traffic backed up behind your double-parked truck, but it was better to just put the stuff inside and move on. That’s what I did. It wasn’t a big deal.

I said almost always. One time at a precious little toy store in the precious little town of New Canaan, Conn., I hand-trucked the cartons inside without a thought and asked for a signature. The freight was paid by the shipper. The proprietor huffed at me impatiently.

“They don’t go here. They go outside,” she said.

Who knew? I hand-trucked them back outside, then came back in for a signature. The store lady’s back was to me as she talked with a customer whose face went blank when she saw me. The proprietor was complaining to her about my stupidity. I never forgot her words.

“They have no mentality. That’s why they drive trucks,” she said.

Anyhow, back to the Empire State Building. I was amazed and happy to find out the big building on 34th Street had a genuine loading dock on 33rd. Most New York buildings only had a receiving door on the sidewalk. In another a miracle, a slot was open. I backed in. That’s where my luck ended.

The receiving guy called upstairs. The gift shop guy said to bring the stuff up. Seven cartons of brass Empire State Buildings were one carton too many for my classic, two-handled hand truck, but there was no way I was going to make two trips. So, I wheeled the hand truck with one hand while holding the seventh carton on the top of the stack with the other. It was going to be a long, awkward walk.

From the loading dock at street level, the elevators only went down to a corridor under the lobby. You had to walk almost half a block to the freight elevators that went upstairs.

OK, I get to the freight elevators with my balancing act, but the freight elevators only go to the 70th floor or so. To go higher, you have to take a regular passenger elevator. Fine. But the passenger elevators won’t take you all the way to the gift shop. There’s a dedicated observation-deck elevator for the last level or two. I finally got there. The door opened and, voila, there was the gift shop.

So I hand the guy the freight bill and tell him the inside delivery would cost an extra $5 or whatever. He looks at me and says, “Inside delivery? No way.”

What? Twenty minutes and four elevator rides from the street to the top of the tallest building in the world, and this guy won’t pay for inside delivery? He wasn’t kidding.

Wheeling a few cartons into a ground-level store was one thing. Escorting them to the top of the tallest building in the world was something else. This guy wasn’t going to get his little brass Empire State Buildings unless he paid. I wasn’t kidding either. I would rather wrestle the damn things all the way back down. I tilted the hand truck back with one hand holding the seventh carton in place with the other and turned for the elevator. He stopped me. Making out the check, he muttered about piracy and union rules.

Of course, it had nothing to do with the union. It was an accessorial charge published in the tariff by the carriers. I didn’t bother to explain. I just took the check. The trip back down with an empty hand-truck was almost fun. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.