Forget April. August is the cruellest month. Thirty-one days of apprehension. July with a hangover. You can feel the threat of a new school year waiting around the corner. It was on a blank August afternoon, after all, that I backed a cube van into my boss’s office.
Bumper met brick wall and physics did the rest. It should be noted that I not only backed a large vehicle into my employer’s office, I did so when he was present in said office.
It was 1988 and I was spending the summer working for a commercial production house as a driver and props production assistant. This involved spending 14-hour days driving around Toronto in a cube van that lacked air conditioning, had a hole in the roof that leaked when it rained and had only AM radio.
Me and another driver – an unhappily married guy who complained of “dry hands” and was constantly apply lotion to his cracked skin – would cruise the city gathering everything from potted trees to antique mirrors. I had another partner, an experienced driver, who told stories of driving the hot celebrities of the 1980s around. Most of his stories involved the words, “is a really nice guy” followed somewhere along the line by “does a lot of coke.”
We were working on a series of commercials for Cadillac and this made for a striking juxtaposition. Every day we toiled to make short films that glorified luxury vehicles, gorgeous shiny cars we were only allowed to look at. When cameras were rolling, the Cadillacs were accompanied by models. Every day on set, in fact, there was a steady stream of photogenic creatures we ardently desired but never had the chance to approach. The closest any of us got was when a fellow driver told a brunette, who had left her hair brush at home, that, “if she wanted,” he would run to Oakville to get it.
But terror, not trysts, was the order of the day.
Terror because most of us were under-qualified drivers operating subpar vehicles.
We drove cube vans, the vehicle you choose when you aren’t a good enough driver to drive a real truck. What is a cube van, after all, if not the four-wheeled epitome of denial? The driver has most likely rented it, or is driving it because he or she is desperately trying to eek out a living that does not involve washing dishes. Cube van equals danger.
Here’s a precise transcript of the training session I received on my first day on the road.
“Okay, here’s the truck you’ll be driving.”
“Uh, I’ve never driven a truck. …”
“That’s okay, it’s an automatic; you’ll figure it out.”
And I did, eventually. If anyone ever asks you, you can tell them for me that the three most dangerous words in the English language are, “Yes I can!”
Over the next four months, I learned how to parallel park a cube van. I learned how to drive a cube van on a major highway. I learned how to back a cube van down narrow alleys using only the side mirrors. I learned how to fix a cube van when it broke down (which it routinely did) during rush hour on a downtown street.
Cigarettes were our only friends. The hours grew longer and the evenings were as taxing. Most involved heavy drinking at the Bamboo’s roof top patio and, for a fair number of the crew, the recreational use of other stimulating substances. It seemed like every night ended up in a Kensington Market apartment.
Then it was up at four in the morning for a 5:30 call and back on the highway. So, many mornings I was suffering the effects of over-exuberance, driving a truck loaded with furniture and other odds and ends, searching forlornly for a mystery location, arriving to find a glimmering array of on-screen talent drinking something called “cappuccinos” (I’d never had one). This was not distracted driving. This was demented driving.
Operating a vehicle that by all rights should probably have been trashed, did not increase one’s bravado. I can vividly recall my partner and me being asked to drive the director’s Jaguar from the set to his house in Rosedale so his wife could have it.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it and rode shotgun instead. I could not stop thinking of the eternal hell to which I’d be subjected if one slight scratch or dent was left. When we got to his house it was as if the commercial had never ended. Out the front door walked a blonde in khaki shorts, straight from central casting. She smiled warmly and flung her purse in the Jag, dinging it as she did so.
Somehow I made it through the summer without incident – until that fateful day in late August.
We were done work early and parking the cube van in the tight laneway beside the commercial house. I was driving and my partner was out behind directing me. To this day, I’m not sure if he intentionally steered me into the building (he did resent that fact I enjoyed being single) or if it was just a temporary lapse in judgment. Either way, I crunched the cube van into the corner office, the corner office containing my boss. A pile of crumbled brick sat next to the newly installed gap in the wall.
It was as if I’d struck a hornet’s nest. The entire company buzzed around on high alert.
My boss had a reputation for chewing people out. Some said his favourite trick was to put his walkie-talkie on “all channel” and deride a subordinate on air so the entire crew could hear. After the collision, my supervisor came out and calmly informed me, “Look, you’re about to be fired. Whatever happens, your only chance is to say you’re sorry and keep quiet. No matter how much he yells at you, say nothing.”
So I stood there, knuckles whitening. The tirade was not as bad as I’d expected. There was yelling, plenty of it, but he tired quickly; to be fair, he was the kind of boss who howled at you but if you could stick it out you wound up learning a lot. I can vividly remember him demonstrating the appropriate protocol by getting in and out of the cube van. “If you don’t know if you have enough room,” he screamed, “get out and check!” To this day I remember those words.
“If you don’t know if you have enough room, get out and check.”
You’d be surprised how many situations to which they apply.
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