During the summer of 1956, I made city deliveries for Electra, my dad’s electrical supply company. Every other afternoon I would tool around Poughkeepsie in Electra’s large white panel van: first perhaps down under the Route Nine overpass to Sedgwick Machine, a brick box with a thick tower of brick in one corner, which was not a smokestack housing, but a shaft for testing Sedgwick brand dumb-waiters, then along the eerie rubble road beside the railroad tracks to another riverside hulk, this one with a classic industrial revolution matte black smokestack tapering primly up its hundred feet, on which descended, in white, the letters D E L A V A L, a company headquartered in Sweden which manufactured centrifugal cream separators for dairy farms, then back under Route Nine and up the hill to Vassar Hospital, with its insatiable appetite for six-foot fluorescent tubes, then east to Vassar College via Main Street, where Perlmutter’s Furniture and the French Pastry had run out of lightbulbs; from Vassar College, out Route 55 to Page Lumber, which sat amidst cornfields at the limit of my territory, just this side of the boundary between the Town of Hopewell Junction and the Town of Poughkeepsie, then whizzing back on 55 into the industrial North Side: Standard Gage, Schatz Federal Ball Bearings, Effron’s Scrap Yard, Bryce Welding, the County Jail, Kem Cards, Tri-Support (women’s girdles), then back to Electra. I loved it.
I loved it on two counts. First of all, I loved lists and charts and puzzles and games. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, after lunch, Otto Rexhouse would hand me a delivery schedule with eight, ten, twenty haphazardly ordered addresses. I would work out the most efficient route, then load the truck, last delivery in first, first delivery in last: small, amazingly heavy cartons containing fluorescent fixture ballasts, large cartons of lightbulbs so light they felt like they could float away, rolls of cable, eight-foot lengths of steel pipe, cartons of toggle switches, junction boxes, face plates, connectors, fuses, breakers and, most troublesome, fragile six foot fluorescent tubes cushioned by flimsy, open-ended corrugation.
The game I devised for myself was to make the city delivery run in as little time as possible. If the list was a short one, with familiar addresses, I could do it in under two hours. Or it could take me four hours, having been sent on a complicated detour because of road work, or waiting at a receiving dock for the Roberts-Boice driver to unload what seemed like a thousand cartons of paper towels and toilet paper, or getting lost looking for a construction site in a maze of subdivision roads so new they didn’t have signs yet or trying to find a new customer on a street I’d never heard of.
New addresses were the fillip that made the game interesting. If they were in parts of Poughkeepsie I didn’t know, I had to ask the guys. An ad hoc committee would be formed and what the best route was would be argued out. Whoever prevailed would give me verbal directions and hand me a scrap of paper on which had been drawn some lines. (There was no map of the City of Poughkeepsie in the warehouse and it never occurred to me or anyone to buy one.) It was easy to get lost looking for the grocery store on the corner after I pass the Polish Center on Dorsey Lane, then go one more block and turn left (a dissent was expressed: “No, not one more block. He should turn at the grocery”), then right at the T, and keep going, there’s a cornfield on my right, until I see a faded sign for either Weber’s Orchard or Wagner’s Orchard; a mile or two after that, there’ll be the yellow mailbox for Click-O Zipper.
Naturally, the more I played the game, the better I got. Soon, I could make twelve or fifteen stops and still be back in an hour and a half. One day, Otto Rexroth took me aside. He kindly explained that the rapidity with which I was completing city deliveries was making the guys who usually did them look bad. “Sometimes the guys like to stop for a cup of coffee, you know?” Otto said.
Aha! There was another way to do things. The fact that Otto felt he safely could impart this information to me, even though I was the boss’s son, was a sign that I had been accepted as a full-fledged member of the warehouse crew. I had no problem sacrificing my obsessive-compulsive game for the greater good. Without the warehouse guys’ support, my Electra persona would not have risen within just a few weeks from a fetch-and-carrier to warehouseman to counter guy to city delivery driver.
I invented a new game: the deliveries had to be made in the same order they were listed on the schedule. That kept me tacking back and forth across Poughkeepsie for hours. I also allowed myself a fifteen-minute time-out after every five deliveries, when I would drop in at The Three Arts or Sam Kramer’s record shop, or lean against one of the big old maples on the Vassar campus to smoke a cigarette and read The Charterhouse of Parma, which I carried with me for just such occasions.
One of the rules of the new game was that at least one leg of my route should take me through the Vassar campus, even if the college was not on the list. I never dated one, I hardly ever spoke to them, yet the Vassar Girls were a source of a deep, satisfying pleasure: the pleasure of imagining what they were thinking as I drove by nonchalantly, at the campus speed limit of ten-miles-per-hour, a handsome, tee-shirted, carefree young vehicle wrangler, leaning a casual elbow out the window, hair tossing poetically in the ten-mile-per-hour breeze, and with deep, intelligent eyes that ordinarily you never saw in a guy driving a truck, except in the movies.
One afternoon, I had shouldered an eight-foot length of one-and-a-half-inch galvanized pipe up the steps to the receiving platform and was cradling it in my arms on my way to the pallet where I was stacking them, when I noticed a pair of Vassar Girls strolling by. Girls seldom made their way down into the trough where the utility buildings were hidden away. I wondered if they had noticed me, then tripped over my feet. The pipe rolled out of my arms and slammed down flat on the raised concrete platform. It was the loudest noise I have ever heard. My ears rang painfully for a week and my long descent into partial deafness commenced.
Vanity. I paid the price.