Mike Davis on Trucking

This is a part of my interview with Mike Davis for the L.A. Times that didn’t make the final cut. I still found it interesting. You can find the other sections of the extended interview at this page, and you can read the published interview here.

Mike Davis: One thing we haven’t talked about, and one of the most important things of my life, was the open road: trucking.

Sam Dean: Trucking! My grandpa was a not-very long-haul trucker. He drove from like Boston to basically the Quebec border.

MD: Semis?

SD: Yeah, semis. He was a Teamster in the Boston local, but has been retired as long as I’ve been alive on disability.

MD: Boston Teamsters!

SD: Yep. <laugh> Who now run the Teamsters! The new guy, Sean O’Brien, who beat the Hoffa junior candidate, is a Boston Teamster. So what did you drive? I  saw somewhere that you were hauling Barbie dolls, or toys.

MD: Oh yeah. I, I worked for the major toy distributor for the Western United States. It’s called Pensick and Gordon. The original warehouse from the early fifties is still downtown, right next to SCI-Arc.

So in 1968, I had to get a job.

SD: Yeah. <laugh>

MD: And there were all these opportunities around. I succeeded in passing the test to become a maritime clerk on the longshoremen. Which is a million-dollar job.

But politically we decided, my best friend, Ron and I, and some others, that the Teamsters was the place to go. And the Teamsters and the war on poverty had set up this program called the transportation opportunity program. And it was a single most utopian experience in my life.

For three months we were paid a good wage to go down and drive the most beautiful heavy duty equipment you could imagine, taught by six guys who had been selected by the union locals as the best drivers. So we had a Japanese American guy who was a produce hauler, we had somebody who came out of freight and stuff. We had this brand new equipment. I can’t tell you how beautiful most of it was. And so I went through that and I got a job.

The original job I was working for blue diamond, the ready mix concrete. I think it’s a subsidiary of 3M. And they had a big plant down off of Washington, and they were building the Arco skyscrapers downtown, I think it was the Arco skyscrapers. And I got so enthralled watching the high iron guys — I mean, it’s much better than the circus — that I ended up spilling concrete down Figueroa. So, you know, I lost that job.

But immediately I got a job with Pensick and Gordon as toy distributor and worked for them for five years, including my first year in college. I didn’t start college till I was 29 or 30. The way it worked was in November, December, I mean, I have a pay stub somewhere here for $220, huge amount of money in 1970, but it was for an 80-hour week. So we would work like fiends, you know, from early morning to late at night, but then after Christmas, nobody was buying toys anymore. And all that the company needed — there were, I think 12 of us heavy duty drivers — was a couple of guys to basically pick up broken toys and returns and stuff until March when it picked up again, and then the rest of us were rehired and, you know, came back.

So it was a nine month a year job, which left me three months a year to hike in the San Gabriel mountains. It was often in the winter months. Hiking the San Gabriels is obsession of mine. I’ve been to every peak, including Iron Mountain, right next to old Baldy.

I was all in this in order to be part of the Teamster rank and file movement.

SD: Was this TDU [Teamsters for a Democratic Union] then? Or

MD: This preceded TDU, in LA it was local, and it ended up with us all involved in the great Teamster wildcat strike In 1970, the same time my wife was hitting the pavement for UTLA, or the predecessor of UTLA. But because I had started off at the lowest seniority, I was sent on whichever route somebody was sick or absent.

SD: Yeah, I was gonna ask, what was the route?

MD: I ended up going everywhere. I’d go to Santa Barbara, I’d go to the South Bay, I’d go all through Orange County. But eventually I had my own route, which started off — we were located in the city of Commerce, this last little bit of it right next to Montebello. And so I’d start off [delivering] basically in Pasadena and I’d go all the way in the course of the day to the PX at March Air Force Base.

It was wonderful. The summers were rugged because of the smog. But in the spring and early autumn, it was just beautiful. I loved doing that job.

A very kind of complicated thing [led to me leaving]. I lost my seniority along with other guys who’d been working the 12 months, because the warehouse supervisor was this extremely charismatic Korean War veteran. And he came out of White Fence, the famous East Side gang. He recruited White Fence guys as the warehouse workers, and they were tremendous hard workers, but he wanted to get them in the trucks. This was a lot more money. And he kind of engineered that.

So after five years I lost this job, and that’s when I decided to to go to UCLA. And then when I came back from England, I was just totally OD’ed with intellectuals and academia. And by the way, I never wanted to teach, it never crossed my mind. So my buddy Ron had been a long distance over the road guy, and he said, look, I’m sick of this, I want to be onshore now. And if you can get me some kind of other job, you can take my job. I’ll just tell the bosses and they’ll hire you, because most of it was off the books and illegal anyway.

So I got him a job with a friend of mine. He’s a sculptor and carpenter, a guy who spent years working on Bob Dylan’s house. Bob Dylan would have some kind of million-dollar addition put on, not like it, have him tear it down, it was a really cool job. Anyway, for a year or so, I was hauling blanket-wrapped furniture to Las Vegas and to the Bay Area. And I would work 36 hours in the Bay Area, going up, delivering, picking up, coming back, and with really ratty equipment, you know, a beat up Mac cab-over. Which would’ve been a good truck in the day, but it wasn’t.

During the same period, a woman at SCI-Arc, an architectural historian named Diane Ghirardo, who was at SC for years, said there’s this class at UCLA one night a week. You want to teach it? Solely in the basis or some stupid little thing I had written about Fred Jameson, postmodernism and the Bonaventure Hotel. So I came up with this story about being required to be in LA at least one or two nights a week [for family]. And that prevented me from being sent to the east coast on a sleeper team with some guy you never met before.

I was doing basically the hardest work of my life, and it was already a nightmare in the Bay Area. I would leave LA fairly late in the evening, like nine o’clock or something, drive all night just to arrive in time for total gridlock. And then I unload, pick up through the evening and sometimes maybe sleep over. Do another day in the Bay Area and then drive back to LA. So anyway, I’m doing this and the same time I’m teaching this course at UCLA, and I pull into the scales at, what’s it called, the garlic capital of the world.

SD: Oh, Gilroy?

MD: I think it was in Gilroy where the scales are, and I get pulled over, you know they randomly pull over rigs to be inspected. So I pull up and I get probably the only woman CHP truck inspector in the whole state. She’s obviously had a bad day. And she says, turn your engine off.

I said, I can’t, it’s a Mac, it has to idle down. She says, turn the fucking engine off. And she wrote me up for not keeping a proper log book, because you have to draw lines to represent your hours. And this truck, the suspension was just awful. So my line kind of looked like a seismograph. Excessive looseness in the steering linkage, just this absolute bullshit stuff. And the company did not pay for fines. So, you know, working my ass off, I ended up owing $300 to the state of California.

But I’m going into this classroom at UCLA, and I much preferred driving, but I had a kid back in Ireland and I needed money, so I ended up at SCI-Arc. But driving was a lot more fun. I was always trying to get transferred into one of the cartage companies where I had friends, rank and file activist friends, including this tremendous guy, Scotty Napier from the Clydeside, a Glaswegian, who was just a terrific character. And he kept trying to get me in at his place, but they were actually downsizing a bit. If I had gotten into that, I would’ve never left.

With the over the road stuff, I had become — my true nature is totally petty bourgeois.

SD: <laugh>

MD: Because my girlfriend at the time was an illegal Irish immigrant. We got married eventually for a green card. She was a very good driver. And so what I wanted to do was earn enough money that we could go to one of the big moving companies. And the way they work is you have to be on the road, do a hundred thousand miles a year.

SD: Whoa.

MD: And really the only people who are able to do this are husband and wife teams. They get along well. And they’ll stake you, they’ll put the down payment on a tractor. And this was just the time when the new KW anteaters were coming out, they were driving everybody crazy. They were so beautiful.

A kenworth anteater
(A Kenworth Anteater from Mr.choppers on Wikipedia)

My thought was we’d go into business, and there were certain specialties, like hauling scientific equipment and stuff, where you could really make a lot of money and do what my buddy Ron had done with his girlfriend who went on the road with him. Initially you have a ball for a couple of years, then you bail out because it’s unendurable for long periods.

SD: <laugh> That does seem terrible.

MD: Marriages always break up. The interesting part of that is that a lot of women started in inheriting the rig as part of alimony. Which is how a lot of women got on the road and stayed on the road.

But of all my major ventures in life, the other one was in publishing, though I ended up in the wrong side of the New Left Review internal split, and paid for this eventually by basically being forced out of Verso.

SD: Oh really?

MD: My design was, well. So Ron’s my oldest friend, but Mike Springer, philosopher, literary guy, big German Catholic from downstate Illinois, he was the best friend I’ve ever had. Just the most, you know, loud guy, scared people and stuff.

SD: <laugh>

MD: He was the best friend I ever had, and we started this series called the Haymarket series, the name of which was then lifted by the ISO, which was fine, and Verso closed it down without consulting us or anything. We wanted to do publishing full time and it didn’t happen. So teaching was just something I ended up in for opportunistic reasons, and basically never felt comfortable in a classroom except maybe at SCI-Arc, which was great fun. Didn’t pay enough.

SD: Yeah, I’ve had friends who’ve taught there recently. The pay still seems bad.

MD: I got hired there by Michael Rotondi. He was the director in the late eighties and almost to the end of the nineties. He’s an Italian cook’s son. Crazy guy, but wonderful guy. And when I got hired, I told him, I said, look, Michael, I don’t know anything about architecture, despite what friends of mine, like Diane and Michael Sorkin may have told you. He said, no, but you know about the city: I want you to take these kids out into the city. He basically hired me, uh, to launch adventures. This of course was great.

And then, because I had to earn a living during the summer as well, I convinced him to let me do this kind of SCI-Arc summer school with him. And I called it a Western landscape course, and I figured out more or less scientifically the least visited, most remote parts of the American west, which I wanted to go to.

SD: Yeah. <laugh>

MD: So I ended up taking the students, and it was kind of like something out of Ken Kesey. It was great fun. The German students tend to wander off course once they discovered the hot springs in Nevada and Utah. I’d wait weeks for them at SCI-Arc, they wanted to go to every hot spring, any opportunity to take your clothes off and bathe in hot water.

SD: <laugh> But you did work for a tour guide company, right?

MD: Yeah, this was after the whole thing at Pensick and Gordon, when I lost my seniority and stuff and there had been the seventies wildcat and I’d organized a little support campaign, bringing people from this group that became — it had been Friends of the Panthers, and it became the Socialist Union. Had great people in it. Gene and Ron Warren, who both died in the last couple of years [ed note: Gene was an active leftist organizer and regular attendee at revived DSA meetings until his death in 2019, incredible guy, won an Oscar for doing the visual effects on Terminator 2]. Hollywood stunt men, you know, industry kids, their father made King Kong and stuff. I got them down.

But then also, this group of students came from UCLA led by this young professor Bob Brenner, who I eventually went to study with, and this other young professor, John Amstead, and they kept telling me, you know, you need to come to school, cuz I was complaining —I was trying to read Marx, I wouldn’t take lunch breaks at work in order to conserve an hour, hour and a half, at dinner to read. And I was trying to read things like Sartre’s Search for Method and so on, Volume I of Capital, and I was getting nowhere. So they said you have to come to UCLA.

Being 29 years old, almost 30, having been married and earned a working man’s wage, and you know, spending too much time in topless bars with my crazy Teamster friends, I didn’t want to be a starving student. So John T. Williams, who is this black teamster leader who helped integrate some of the teamster locals in the sixties, a real hero, he’s mentioned in the book. He told me, he said, look, you know, Grayline Tours is hiring. And you’ve got a class one license, you can easily get on there. So I went down and I got hired. And part of the attraction of the job was that if you worked for a number of months full time, then you could go on the extra board where you were part-time at nights, which would’ve been perfect for me. And I wouldn’t have to have to borrow money or have a stupid campus job. The knowledge about LA, the whole rap that the drivers gave to the tourists was proprietary. You had to buy it from somebody. Charged a lot of money, and [the other drivers] wore airline pilot-like uniforms. And I decided to, you know, screw that. And so I started reading LA history seriously for the first time, starting with Carey McWilliams.

And you know, some groups of tourists didn’t like my take at all. But Grayline had a contract with the longshoreman’s union in Hawaii, plantation workers, and they’d come over on group holidays and I would get them, and they were fantastically interested in labor and civil rights history. I just absolutely had a ball with them.

But then Grayline, I believe the franchise was owned by one family, but they decided to sell it or something. So they basically decided to de-unionize the place.

SD: Oh, so it was union.

MD: Yeah it was, but it was the cab drivers local. It was a really corrupt Teamsters sweetheart local. And so suddenly when the strike breakers are brought in — there’s a group of bus drivers. a kind of army of bus drivers, whose only purpose is to be sent all over the United States to break bus strikes. Full time industry employees. And then I got arrested allegedly for hitting one of them with my picket sign. Hitting a guy who claimed to have been a prisoner of the Viet Cong.

SD: So a war hero.

MD: It got weirder and weirder. I mean, some of the guys were okay, but a lot of these guys were — one of ’em had a bar off of Temple Street, and I think pimped out girls. Some of these guys were pretty shady. I’d never thought of them as serious, you know, coming out of the teamsters strike. But these guys had worked there for years and had the self image of airline pilots. Suddenly, they’re out there on the streets.

So we have this secret meeting, and I mean really secret, basically told you’d die if you divulge anything that happens, about what to do. I had already tried to shut down the Century Plaza Hotel, I was picketing out there with this guy who I thought was really just this namby pamby character. Turned out, he’d been a Flint sit down striker in the 30s

SD: <laugh> okay!

MD: We shut down the Century City Plaza for a couple of hours, just told union drivers you can’t deliver here we’re on strike. And then this is before I supposedly attacked this scab.

The union absolutely panicked, the business agent came down and said, you can’t do this. I said, why not? This is how you win strikes. So that was my position at the [secret] meeting: we use union solidarity, whether the union supports it or not. But the majority consensus was to hire these guys who hung out at the bar.  They were supposedly made men, but that was impossible. These guys are just, you know, drunken gunslingers. To kill the chief scab, because they’d found out he lived in El Monte or somewhere.

SD: Okay. Wow.

MD: They’d already scoped out how he returned home every night. So we all had to put money down.

SD: <laugh>

MD: I told people, I said, this is conspiracy. I mean, you know, we could get 20 years for this. And these namby pamby guys thought this is the only way you could possibly go. We’ve just gotta kill the motherfucker.

SD: Instant escalation.

MD: I had to go along with this. I had to pay the money. I mean, my opposition was registered. Thankfully the highway patrol pulled over these two characters, cuz they were drunk, and found the sawed off shotgun in the backseat. And somehow it never got back to the Grayline drivers themselves. But it was just crazy.

American workers see somebody doing their job. First instinct is to shoot em. Because they’ve forgotten all the wisdom of the 1930s. So when I started college, paying for myself, I went went back to Pensick and Gordon, cuz they needed a lot of people around the Christmas season. But I would’ve stayed in the Teamster stuff forever had it been possible.