Today’s truckload industry vs. the old-time Garment District

October 1, 2019

John Bendel

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Life in the truckload spot market reminds me of at least one piece of the old-time LTL world – New York City’s Garment District. How? I’ll tell you later.

I recently found an account I wrote of a delivery I made there one day in 1969.

Back then, clothing makers filled floor after floor of buildings from 34th Street to 42nd Street on Manhattan’s West Side. It was an entire industry that made much of the women’s clothing in the United States. And it was all jammed into 20 blocks of Manhattan.

Clothes in various states of manufacture and all the goods to make them moved from floor to floor on rickety freight elevators and from building to building on hand-pulled rack carts along jammed streets and sidewalks. Even a double-parking place was a prize – a very stressful prize.

Double parking was the only kind of parking there was in the Garment District. Outside the main-floor staging areas of carriers that specialized in garment handling, curb spots were blocked with traffic cones or lawn chairs. Menacing goons in porkpie hats guarded the spaces.

During the day, all other curb space was taken. If someone got a real parking space, they never moved. Ever. At least that’s how it seemed. That was good. It meant whomever you blocked in was unlikely to want out. But occasionally someone did. That meant stress. If you weren’t there to move the truck, it could mean a tow, vandalism, or multiple tickets for offenses real and imagined. The farther you parked from your actual delivery, the higher the stress. Anywhere out of sight of the truck was bad. You worried the whole time that the damned truck was – at the very least – still there.

New York's Garden District
Men pulling racks of clothing on busy sidewalk in Garment District, New York City. Today’s trucking industry seems like aa slow-motion, long-distance version of NYC’s Garment District when most women’s clothing in the United States came from there. (New York World-Telegram and Sun collection at the Library of Congress)

Garment District

Delivering in the Garment District was punishment. There wasn’t much Teamster LTL carriers could do to discourage troublesome drivers back then. But in the New York area, there was the Garment District. That’s where dispatchers at North Bergen, N.J.-based A-P-A Transport sent drivers who pissed them off. I must have been one of them that day.

Here’s how it went down:

At 9:30 in the morning, I double-park a block away from Silly Susan Juniors with 23 heavy rolls of fabric that take up almost 10 feet of the truck. I can only move one at a time on my hand truck. Twenty-three trips along 38th and 39th streets will take all day. But it’s my first stop and I can’t deliver anything else until the rolls are off. I hope Silly Susan has a couple of carts and helpers.

9:35 a.m. – I can’t find Silly Susan Juniors at the delivery address, but a UPS driver tells me the guy on eight operates under lots of names. There’s no company name on eight where the gum-chewing receptionist says she never heard of Silly Susan. She rattles off a bunch of other names. But then she takes my freight bill and disappears. This place must be a contract jobber.

9:45 a.m. – “Yeah,” says the receptionist when she comes back, “I guess we’re Silly Susan too.” She tells me I should see Jose on four. Jose tells me to bring the fabric rolls to the fifth floor. I tell Jose that’s an inside delivery that will cost $15 on top of the $50 freight charge he already owes. The shipper didn’t pay the freight, so I needed cash or a check before I could deliver. Jose calls the boss, Bernie, who comes down from eight, and he’s steamed. Bernie wears a food-stained tie around an unbuttoned collar and weighs a good 300 pounds. I worry for the tiny elevator I came up on.

Bernie won’t pay. The shipper should pay, he says. Then he begins muttering about “thieving truckers.” I have to call dispatch and explain the situation, but Bernie won’t let me use the phone.

“That’s your problem,” he says.

What next?

It’s now 10:30. Time to visit my truck. To my relief, good old A-P-A 123, a 1963 MB Mack, is still there, though the passenger-side door is ajar. Someone had probably looked inside for valuables.

So I find a pay phone, explain the problem, and then stand nearby waiting for a callback. Other people need to use the phone too. Some of them talk for long, long minutes. I get my callback half-an-hour later. Sal the dispatcher complains that he tried three times only to get busy signals. Makes you appreciate cellphones, now that I think about it.

The word is OK, the shipper will pay. Go ahead and deliver.

More nonsense, of course. The shipper agreed to pay the freight, not the inside delivery. Yada, yada, yada.

With that settled and with Bernie safely back on the eighth floor, Jose generously loans me a cart. Now I can drag the rolls a block from the truck four at a time. Only six trips instead of 23. Even so, it isn’t easy pulling a cart around freight piled on the sidewalks and through all the other carts, random people, and hustlers selling watches or whatever.

Still more hassle

I had been using the passenger elevator. Now I had to use the freight elevator that had an actual elevator operator. A skinny little guy with bat’s eyes, he orders the guys with packages, carts, and hand trucks onto the elevator one at a time. No room for me, he says. No room for me the second trip either, though I could see there was. The third time around, I handed him a dollar bill as soon as the elevator doors opened. He motions me on.

So that’s the way it went for another hour and a half moving the rolls through the streets and dropping them off on different floors. They were different colors for different Silly Susan jobs, you see.

Finally, I was done, and after a burnt grill cheese at the Acropolis Coffee Shop, ready for my second stop two blocks away.

They still call it the Garment District. Many of the same buildings are still there. Some even host clothing manufacturers. These days they tend to make upscale, expensive clothes. Some only make samples for designers to show retailers. When orders come in, someone in Asia or Central America actually makes the clothes. You’ll find fabric stores, button makers and other relics of the industry, but you won’t see streets full of carts, trucks and people – lots and lots of people. You might even get a parking space at the curb.

So how is this like the truckload business?

If you were to roll the old Garment District out across the country and spread its endless hassles with it, you would have a slow-motion, long-distance version – the truckload world, where nonsense, miscommunications, and complications for drivers never end.

Walk down Memory Lane by reading these other John Bendel essays:

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.