I didn’t know when I started driving for “Miracle Messengers” that I would spend a good deal of the ’80s in my car. I didn’t know that within a couple of years I’d be dealing with accountants and lawyers. I didn’t know the job would lead me into several life-threatening situations or down every single street in Philadelphia. I’d just quit my job at Philly’s best independent record store when the then-owner’s Type-A personality drove me up the wall, and knew I needed a job fast.
I found out about Miracle from a guitar player I’d never seen before who drove for them. He said it was all right. “You go here and then you go somewhere else. That’s all there is to it.” I liked to drive and that was all I needed. I called them up and they hired me immediately, apparently not caring that my car was a ten-year-old Plymouth Duster with 80,000 miles on it. The guitar player quit a month later disgusted by the amount of money he was spending on his car.
The first morning I walked into the office, seven guys were asleep sitting up upright on a beat-up couch. Every few minutes some maniac would come tearing into the office on a bike. I said who I was and Walt — the morning dispatcher — handed me a package saying, “Take this to Resorts.” Ten minutes later I was speeding down the Atlantic City Expressway on a sensational July morning, with the air conditioner on maximum and tapes blasting on the deck. I made it to Resorts in a little over an hour, played some slots, looked at the ocean and called the office. “Great,” they said. “Call halfway back to see if there’s anything coming in from Jersey.” That was a much difference response to work than the record store where you could haul a million records down two dangerous flights of stairs and be questioned when you went to take a piss.
Within a few days, my car started rebelling, making all kinds of strange noises and the gauges going haywire. It was the beginning of a close relationship with my mechanic. Other people went to shrinks, I went to the mechanic. I quickly became his best customer, and he responded by giving my car priority, fixing it ahead of other cars no when I showed up.
Miracle took breakdowns in stride, as long as you informed them. Several drivers had old cars. Later I found out some didn’t even have licenses.
In the eight years, I drove for Miracle, I went as far east as the Jersey Shore, as far west as York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. to the south and Boston to the north.
Miracle never provided directions (occasionally the customers would). The dispatcher would sometimes point out the location on a map, but you could choose your own route. I quickly built up a collection of the Franklin book-maps of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties and learned that real estate offices, fire departments and post offices — not gas stations were the best places to ask directions.
Many of the addresses were vague at best, and included trailers at construction sites, under-construction office parks and housing developments, home offices above garages and private roads behind other private roads. I went to parts of the city I didn’t know existed: ancient factories in the middle of the slums, architects’ offices behind railroad depots on one-way dead-end streets that you had to drive out of the wrong way. Eventually, I realized if the street had no sign, the building no address, and the office door was unmarked, I was at the right place.
South Jersey, especially south of the North-South Freeway was the worst place to ask directions. People barely knew what town they were in, and often couldn’t tell you how to get to a street that ended up being around the corner.
The unwritten rule was you only called a customer for directions when all else had failed. Sometimes you’d be in the right building and couldn’t find something. I spent an hour once in the basement of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania picking up X-rays. They were redoing the building and had renumbered all the offices. The morgue was down the hall, every other door had forbidding radioactive warning signs and I was sure I would accidentally bump into a dead body or a mutated result of an experiment.
The only place I couldn’t find was in the hills above New Hope. It was after business hours, the client that sent the package was gone for the day, the person I was delivering to didn’t answer the phone and the one postman I flagged down had no idea. For two hours I tried every conceivable road, but mysteriously they all went in a huge circle that would bring me back exactly where I started.
Basically my job was to get a signature. Once a package was signed for you were free. Only if specified, did the person receiving the package have to sign for it.
Most of the deliveries were legal briefs, real estate and financial transactions, and tapes and videos of advertisements for radio and TV, but
Miracle would and did deliver anything. I delivered an artificial leg to KYW for “People Are Talking,” guns for the army, a sneaker to a sailor, a human heart to Deborah Heart Hospital, and regularly a battered, stuffed-to-overflowing ancient leather briefcase to and from some Gladwyne businessman who didn’t want to take it on the train. I also served subpoenas, quite often to doctor’s offices and hospitals. This was one of the worst parts of the job because nobody wanted to sign for them. Miracle had a contract with I.B.M. to pick up and deliver their typewriter rentals. Typewriters were a pain because they were heavy and required a hand-truck if they were in cartons. One morning I had to retrieving three rentals from Salem Nuclear Power Plant. I wasn’t too happy about going anywhere near the place, having driven by several ominous looking Nuke plants in my travels.
Salem had tighter security than the Philadelphia Naval base and all I wanted to do was get out of there. The typewriters were in a ramshackle temporary shack manned by a psychotic who didn’t want me to take them. “You’re taking the best one,” he shouted. I answered firmly that the typewriters were the property of I.B.M. and I was the representative of I.B.M., and he had no say in the matter. I had to call the office to call I.B.M. to call Salem to tell the guy to give them up.
The Boeing plant at Ridley Park also had tight security. You had to sign in twice and then wait in a reception area for someone to meet you. Whether you were picking up or delivering, you never got further than reception. In the men’s room was a list of Boeing’s employee rules. Causes for dismissal ranged from being unpatriotic to cursing. I delivered to Boeing quite frequently during the Iran-Contra scandal and would always sign in as “Oliver North.”
The courier business seems to run on a crazed adrenaline rush of doing everything as close to the deadline as possible. I got a taste of how crazy it could be my second week when I had a “rush” pickup at the airport of blood coming in from Germany for Children’s Hospital that had to be refrigerated as soon as possible. First, I had deal with the Customs officers who wanted to know what the package was, who it was for and why I wanted it. Despite my explaining to them that I was just a courier, speed was of the essence and that Children’s Hospital was waiting for it, they took their time clearing it.
When I got to Children’s Hospital, no one knew a thing about it. I called my boss at home and told him no one wanted to sign for it. “Can you take it home and put it in your refrigerator?” he asked. I told him, “No way.” Finally I got someone to sign for it and watched them put it in a refrigerator. Early the next morning, the phone woke me up: “Children’s Hospital wants to know where the blood is.”
The fun part of the job was you had no set route and never knew where you would go each day. Ending a day in New York or Washington wasn’t uncommon. Quite often you’d get trips to the country that were great in the spring and fall.
The long-distance trips could be enjoyable, but weren’t great for making money, because depending on when you departed they could take the rest of the day.
Suburban runs meant money, especially if you had a lot of deliveries on the same run from different customers to towns that were close together. For instance if you had deliveries to Plymouth Meeting, Norristown, King of Prussia and Devon, and picked up a Bryn Mawr and a Bala Cynwyd on the way back, you were raking it in.
Things didn’t always work out so neatly though, and often you’d drive to Center City from Doylestown and have to go right back to Doylestown or someplace nearby. When Hank the owner dispatched, he liked to build up huge trips that would keep you out of the office all day. Not all the dispatchers were so accommodating. When evening rush hour came, you wanted to be as far from the city as possible or on your way home. Miracle’s main rule was you couldn’t refuse a job (they’d bend this rule as you attained seniority). One of the worst part of the job was if you called at 4:30 in the afternoon from Levittown, and they’d tell you there was a pick-up at the Airport going to Bensalem which meant hitting rush hour traffic in both directions.
The no-refusal rule meant you had to work in all kinds of weather and snow was no exception. Bad weather meant the office was busy since people would have stuff delivered that they’d usually deliver themselves. It was during these times that you realized how dangerous the job was. Rain could be just as bad as snow. I got caught in several torrential rain storms and often would pull over and wait it out. Once going from Atlantic City to Trenton, I decided to take the most direct (though probably not the fastest, but I considered scenery a job benefit) road, Route 206 that cuts diagonally across the state. In the middle of Burlington County, a sudden summer thunderstorm erupted causing a flash flood, with the water rising almost to the car windows. More terrifying was having my car stall in a major rainstorm on a 90 degree hill on Route 23 just outside of Conshohocken heading towards Gladwyne. I’d just passed a blind curve, water was rushing down the hill like a river, and the car refused to start. The road was one lane in each direction with no shoulder. I kept hoping a cop would pass by but as usual they’re never around when you need them. After about ten terrifying minutes I slowly coasted the car backwards, constantly braking down the hill around the blind curve into a gas station. Once on level ground the car started right up.
Equally scary was the blizzard of ’83. I left Center City around 11:30 a.m. to pick up an ad for Philadelphia Magazine on Woodhaven Road in the far Northeast. Everything was fine until I-95 where the combination of an elevated highway by the river caused the windshield to totally ice up. There’s nothing like being on a four-lane expressway in a blizzard and having your windshield caked with ice. I exited at Bridge Street, bought some de-icer at a gas station and decided to drive the rest of the way through the streets of the Northeast. After the pick-up, something compelled me to try “95” again. The same thing happened, and once again I exited at Bridge Street driving the rest of the way under the sort-of shelter of the Frankford El. When I reached Girard Avenue, the snow was so heavy all I saw was gray nothingness. The streets were deserted and the buildings and sidewalks were invisible. When I finally reached Philadelphia magazine no one was there. I shoved the ad under the door and went home.
When you’re on the road all the time, you realize just how dangerous driving is. Close calls happened frequently and you’d pass and sometimes witness hideous accidents. You’d quickly spot bad drivers, and certain people you knew to stay away from. Cabdrivers are the most reckless and the most impatient, Nuns apparently leave it up to God and disabled veterans love to hog the road. I never had a radar detector though I did my share of speeding. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was the worst for State Troopers. One of my favorite tricks was to get behind someone else who had a radar detector (you could usually see them sitting on top of the dashboard). On the other hand, on the Jersey Turnpike you had to speed. State Cops would breeze right by me at 65 mph, and you could easily cruise at 70 and not worry about getting stopped.
Tailgators infuriated me more than anything. If I spotted somebody speeding behind me in the fast lane, I’d get out of the way, but if someone suddenly was right on me I’d slow down. One day on the two-lane stretch of the Schuylkill Expressway between Conshohocken and Bala Cynwyd, the tailgating solution occurred to me. From out of nowhere a maniac was suddenly about an inch from my rear bumper. In the right lane ahead was a semi-truck. I drove alongside the semi with the tailgator following. When I reached the cab, I didn’t pass and maintained the same speed as the truck. The tailgator was trapped. I’d stay there for a couple of miles checking out their reaction in the rear view mirror, then let them go.
At that time, all communication with the office was by phone and no driver had a car phone in his car (which were just coming in at that time). Eventually, we were equipped with beepers (for a charge) which you could barely hear if your windows were open or your radio was on. The good side to communicating by phone was the office couldn’t get in touch with you. If something really important came up, they’d leave a message for you at your next stop. This meant lots of time for leisure activities (usually after, but not always after the package was delivered or picked up). I was always on the look-out for a good diner, and in every town I’d deliver to, I’d check out the record stores or thrift shops, or go exploring. Part of this was to maintain sanity by getting out of the car for a while. I quickly learned to take care of all business and shopping on the job. The company knew this went on and put up with it. After all you were using your own car and considered self-employed. All the drivers did the same thing, except one guy, Norman, who took the job very seriously. Norman’s idea of conversation was “Made it to Harrisburg in 90 minutes,” or “had a great run from Trenton to D.C., and picked up a Wilmington and West Chester on the way back.” (Jobs were always referred to by location.) The joke was that Norman spent his days off studying maps for short-cuts. But other drivers took advantage of the situation often to extremes. One guy kept a fishing pole in his pick-up and would stop and fish on runs in the country and another, an artist, would stop and paint.
Many of the people who worked at Miracle — both bikers and drivers — were musicians, artists and writers. As one dispatcher put it, “Miracle is the place for people who can’t stand to work anywhere else.” “I was up all night writing a song,” was an oft-heard excuse for lateness, and the owner was frequently referred to as a patron of the arts.
One of the things you learn in a bottom-of-the-rung job as courier, is that the people at the top don’t know what they’re doing. For instance, legal briefs were sent out without envelopes. Considering this usually went first to a biker who would put it in a bike basket to the office for a driver, the chances for catastrophe were high. I’d often entertain myself in traffic jams by reading these briefs. One of the better ones was on the Sylvia Seegrist case.
Still it was a high pressure job and deliveries often had to be made in an impossible amount of time. My all-time craziest run was to Kennedy Airport, with two stops before it in Trenton and Princeton. The packages weren’t ready till a little before 2 p.m., and I had to make JFK by five. In downtown Trenton the car in front of me was crawling, I passed him and he started chasing me. By this time I had a Datsun wagon (the second in a long line of cars for that job), and he was in a much more powerful Chevy. However, he didn’t know I was a professional driver. The chase, right out of the “Rockford Files,” went on for blocks. I went through stop signs and red lights, shot down alleys and driveways and finally lost the guy. I looked up and by some miracle was exactly in front of the place I was going to. (When I told Hank about this the next day, he said, “Why don’t you get a gun.”) Princeton was a breeze, but then I got stuck in a ten-mile-long traffic jam on the road to Kennedy. I pulled up to the Dutch Airlines Terminal at five minutes to five. I ran to the ticket counter, and a man came up from behind me and said, “Are you from Philadelphia?” Until that moment, I had no idea I was carrying tickets for these people to get on a plane at 5 p.m.
The day was not over. When I called to let them know I made it to Kennedy in time and bitch for not telling me I was carrying plane tickets, they told me I had to go to Manhattan to a building on Central Park West to retrieve a package I delivered to the wrong address the day before. (I delivered the package to the right address, but the customer had the wrong address.) Since I knew what it looked like, it was up to me to get it.
I didn’t feel like sitting in another traffic jam, so I drove all the way in through Queens which took an eternity.
When I finally reached the building, the doorman (who wasn’t the same as the one the day before) wasn’t about to cooperate. I was about to give up when I saw the package stuck behind a radiator. “That’s it, I said.” “How do I know this is supposed to go to you.” “Look,” I said, pulling out my delivery slips and my driver’s license, “do you think I’d drive all the way from Philadelphia to get this package if I wasn’t supposed to. How would I know this was here if I didn’t know it was here? I’m taking this package back to Philadelphia.” Unhappily, he let me take it.
“Mission accomplished,” I said on the phone to the afternoon dispatcher, who had stayed two hours after he should have waiting for my call. “Great, you want to take it to Harrisburg?” “Are you nuts?” I screamed. It’s eight at night, I starving, I’m exhausted, I was in a traffic jam for ten miles, and in a fucking car chase before that. If I’m driving that another 200 miles to Harrisburg, they better be prepared to get me a hotel room for the night.” “Get a cup of coffee and call me back in 20 minutes.” When I called back, he said, “Norman (of course) will meet you in the parking lot of the Valley Forge Hilton in two hours.”
I got involved in two other chases. One was minor and I easily lost the other car, but the other was of nightmarish proportions. I was on my way home to West Philly after a late-afternoon drive to Long Beach Island. At 40th and Walnut, the light turned green and the guy in the car in front of me was making out with his chick. I tapped the horn. He gave me the finger, then got behind me. I turned onto 44th Street (where I lived at the time) and he followed me. I quickly knew what was up and kept driving. But he figured out I wanted to go to 44th Street and every time I’d go back there, he’d suddenly appear. Finally, I saw a cop in a gas station. As luck would have it he was talking to this guy I knew who worked in the delicatessen around the corner. When the cop wasn’t looking he slipped me a blackjack. The cop told me to try to go home again. On 44th Street, the guy was waiting. I led him right back to the gas station where the cop was still talking to my friend. I pulled in, pointed out the car and the cop took off. He didn’t catch him though, but it did get rid of him. The guy from the delicatessen told me to hold onto the blackjack for the night just in case.
One morning I walked into the office and everyone was looking at me mischievously. “We saved this package especially for you,” said Larry, one of the office workers. I looked at the name on the envelope — Julie Nixon Eisenhower — who at the time lived in Berwyn. I went to my car and her street wasn’t on the map. Larry, who was the company’s hatchet man and remained calm in all the situations called the Berwyn Post Office and in his most pleasant voice explained we were trying to deliver a package to Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It turned out she lived on a private street right off Lancaster Avenue. I drove to her house, a one-floor rancher on a street with no sign shared with two other houses. Someone else answered the door and I was bummed. The next day I was sent there again, and Julie answered. I kept trying to peek inside to see if Nixon was visiting. I Xeroxed the delivery slip.
Making time was a challenge and point of pride among the drivers. Blue Cross was a client and every few months they’d have massive deliveries to every hospital and medical center in the Eastern part of Pennsylvania. One morning this was the case, and along with other deliveries every driver had several envelopes from Blue Cross. My run was from Lancaster to Harrisburg, back to Coatesville, then three more stops in Chester and Delaware Counties. It was all highway driving, except for the last part. I found a little road on the map that would take me clear across Chester County exactly to where I wanted to go in West Grove without having to go out of my way. It turned out to be a winding farm road that was part gravel and forded streams, but it did the trick and I pulled off the whole run in a little over five hours.
One of my more ridiculous jobs was delivering a sneaker from an advertising agency to a sailor on the U.S.S. Kittyhawk undergoing an overhaul at the Navy Yard. I drove right up to the ship and walked on. Nobody asked me who I was or what I wanted. All kind of construction was going on. Dust flew everywhere. Until you’ve been right next to an aircraft carrier, you don’t realize how big they really are. There weren’t any sailors around, only construction workers, and I knew I could easily spend the rest of the afternoon looking for this guy and not cover a quarter of the ship. I spent the next hour in an office across the street while the Navy tried to track down someone who knew who this sailor was. So much for the efficiency of the armed forces.
Delivering a human heart to Deborah Heart Hospital for an autopsy was my all-time weirdest episode. I felt like I was in a mystery movie. It was a dark rainy afternoon. The heart was in the kind of plastic container delicatessens store pickles in. At the hospital, the secretaries groaned when they saw who the package was for. The client was a law firm, and the heart had to be signed for by the pathologist who was a crusty, grumpy old guy with a German accent. He read the accompanying letter, decided the autopsy should be performed at that moment and I was to be a witness. I called the office and told them I wanted double waiting time. His secretary and I had to stand there while he dissected the heart gruffly shouting in a cassette recorder. The heart looked rather like an artichoke, and the autopsy didn’t end up being too hard to watch, though I did spend a lot of time looking at the ceiling.
I knew it was time to leave Miracle during a trip to Bethesda, Maryland. I was pulling into the first toll booth of the Maryland Turnpike (about an hour from Philly) when I heard a loud pop in the rear of the car followed by a knocking noise. I looked under the car, but couldn’t see anything. I stopped at a rest stop and the guy at the gas station couldn’t see anything either. I knew something was really wrong and called the company. There was no one else they could send.
I made it to Bethesda all right, except for the traffic. Philly traffic jams are nothing compared to those on the D.C. Beltway which turns into a parking lot at rush hour. Nervous about the car, and not wanting to sit in another jam I took local roads back to I-95. In the middle of Maryland, about 7 at night I suddenly heard my radio go on which was strange considering I was playing a tape. Then all the gauges went haywire and the car stopped. It took about an hour for a cop to show up who called a tow truck. It turned out to be the alternator, but the gas station didn’t have one. The guy charged my battery, told me not to use the radio and get the car recharged again before I hit Philly. There wasn’t another rest stop. I passed Wilmington, and was getting really nervous. I pulled off in Marcus Hook, but the only gas stations near the highway were self-serve. I decided to try for Philly, exiting I-95 as soon as I could, taking the Platt Bridge into South Philly. As soon as I hit the city streets, I turned off my lights and managed to make it home just as the car died. It was almost midnight. The knocking noise turned out to be the rear axle. My mechanic found me a used one, but two weeks later in Wilmington, the engine threw a rod.
Eventually I got another car and went back for a few months. Business had dropped considerably. I was convinced fax machines were killing it. Anyway, I’d been to every conceivable town in eastern Pennsylvania, all of New Jersey and Delaware, and had spent dozens of afternoons in such exotic locales as Harrisburg and Easton.
Still, some habits are hard to break, and now even when driving for pleasure, I check the traffic reports and take advantage of all the short-cuts I learned. I’m also still happy to trap tailgators besides semi-trucks