Illustrated by Randy Garrett
It was three weeks before Christmas, and my life was looking pretty bleak. No, that’s not true. Life was looking worse than bleak. I was cold. I was broke. And I was worried. My small film production company was on its deathbed. My business partner left for Berlin to visit her lover. Everyone was shopping and leaving for the holidays.
But I had big plans, too. No, I wasn’t going to go back to New York or to visit my parents in Florida. I was going to stay right here in Nashville, go to my office every day, stare at the phone that never rang and feel tremendously sorry for myself. I mean, did I really have any other choice? As it turned out, I did.
One morning, I was pacing in front of my desk, scanning through the Nashville Scene, and there it wasliterally, in black and white, right in front of my face. A help-wanted ad. UPS needed some Santa’s helpers. You ride in the truck with a UPS driver and sit in the little jump seat. When the UPS driver makes a delivery stop, you deliver the package. This appealed to me. It seemed like an interesting job. It wouldn’t be overwhelming. It would be kind of Zen. Nice and simple. When there were no more packages and the back of the truck was empty, the workday was over. It would be a gig that was totally different for me. The other end of the job spectrum. I wouldn’t have to be creative. I wouldn’t have to deal with crazy clients. I wouldn’t have to have a million responsibilities.
All I had to do was be able to lift a maximum of 65 pounds, grab the right box from the back of the truck, run up to someone’s front door and deliver Christmas packages to people who would be smiling and anticipating my arrival with joy. Plus, I’d make $9.50 an hour. This was the solution to my problems...my worries...my life. And the best part of it all: I’d get to wear a uniform.
That morning, I drove to UPS to apply for the gig. I could hardly contain my excitement. I walked in, dressed from head to toe in black Italian designer-wear. The woman at the desk looked at me quizzically. I told her I was here to apply for the Santa’s helper position. She continued to stare in disbelief. She asked me if I was sure and looked at me like I was crazy. I told her I was never more certain of anything in my entire life. I told her about my company, how it was on the verge of bankruptcy. I told her that my business partner was in Berlin with her lover. I told her I was 48 and a half, then, pushing up my sleeve and flexing my biceps, I told her I could easily lift 65 pounds. I explained to her how much I needed this job at this moment in my life, that this was more than a job to me, that this was the key to my sanity. I put aside my pride, my dignity and I begged herI begged her to please let me be a Santa’s helper. When I was done, she was practically in tears. Then she smiled at me and said those three magical words: “Welcome to UPS!”
I immediately got fitted for my uniform. And even though I would have liked the jacket and pants to be a little more tailored, and I knew that brown was definitely not my color, I felt like a million bucks.
Bright and early the next morning, I was riding shotgun in a huge UPS truck filled with 175 packages. Arthur was at the wheel. He had been with UPS for over 18 years. Arthur never thought he’d be a UPS driver. He studied art history in college, and his specialty was the Italian Renaissance era. He became a university professor for several years and then discovered he could make more money driving a UPS truck. In between deliveries, Arthur and I talked about literature, art, opera and PBS programs. His route took us through rural areas and housing developments where all the modest two-story, red-brick houses looked alike.
That first day, we made over 100 stops. I jumped in and out of the truck more than 100 times. I carried 175 packages (weighing anywhere between 1 and 65 pounds), to more than 100 front doors for over 12 hours. When I got home, I collapsed. I couldn’t remember ever working so hard or ever feeling so sore. And I drifted into a deep sleep wondering if I would be able to get up and do it all over again the next day.
Somehow I did. I got up day after day after day, and by the end of the week, it got easier. Dogs would chase us, and sometimes Arthur had to threaten them with the big stick he kept in the back. But for the most part, people greeted us with big smiles and open arms. I was totally into being the “UPS lady.” People knew that if I came to their door, I came bearing gifts. I brought people happiness, and that was enough to make me happy too.
My second week, I was the Santa’s helper for two different drivers. In the mornings, I rode with Pete on his route through blue-collar neighborhoods. Pete had just turned 26. I looked at him and thought, “My God, I could be his mother.” He was polite and protective and kept calling me “ma’am,” which irritated me to no end. When he started to treat me like his mother and took an 85-pound package out of my hands, I knew I had to put a stop to it for my own self-respect and for the women of the worldin the name of sisterhood. I had to prove to him I wasn’t some middle-aged wimp. I had to show him that he and I were playing on equal ground. So I grabbed that 85-pound package right out of his 26-year-old hands, whisked it off, delivered it and shattered Pete’s stereotype about women, especially middle-aged women, being weak and helpless.
After we got that clear, every morning in between deliveries, he’d talk, I’d listen and then he’d ask me for advicemostly about his love life and life in general. I told him I didn’t have any answers, that I could just speak from my experiencesthe good and the bad. And Pete would turn off his heavy metal music and listen closely to me, like I was making sense, like I was some wise old sage. But I was really a woman in her late 40s who just realized the more she lives and the more she loves, the more she doesn’t understand.
In the afternoons and for my last week, T.J. was at the wheel. He had been driving a UPS truck for over 22 years. T.J. had seniority and therefore had the best routethe most beautiful areas and the most upscale neighborhoods in Nashville. We’d enter private roads and driveways marked with “no trespassing” signs and find ourselves on incredible estates with acres and acres of rolling hills dotted with beautiful horses. Or we’d drive up one of those mysterious long and winding private driveways that lead up to the top of a hill, and there would be a tremendous home that was right out of the pages of Architectural Digest, built from imported wood and custom-tinted glass, with Italian marble floors and an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the middle of the foyer.
I was a tourist in a town where I had lived for 13 yearsdiscovering places I’d never known existed. I felt like I was traveling in a foreign country, seeing things for the first timetaking it all in. Every day, I was in awe of the beauty, in awe of the moment. For the first time in a long time, I was living life in the present and enjoying what it had to offer. And T.J. was my companion and travel guide.
T.J. was about my age. He told me he had a wife who didn’t understand him and two precious little daughters he adored. He beamed when he showed me the photo of the beautiful little blonde girls smiling at the camera. As we drove along the black-posted fence of a picture-perfect Tennessee walking horse farm, he told me horrifying stories of his time spent in Vietnam. There was the army buddy who died in his arms. The innocent women and children he saw die. And now, after all of these years, the nightmares kept recurring. He planned to retire in a few years and move to Florida because it was always sunny and he wanted to show his girls the ocean. During my last UPS week, T.J. and I were like a couple of old friends. We’d talk and reminisce about a lot of things that happened in our lifetimeVietnam, Woodstock, the assassination of President Kennedy, marijuana, LSD, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
On my last day, T.J. and the other drivers bought me lunch at Captain D’s. The parking lot was filled with UPS trucks. I was the only woman, the only Yankee and the only Jew, and yet we’d bondedme and the boys in brown. T.J. and I worked late that night. It was Christmas Eve and we had finished delivering the last of the 223 packages. Our final stop was The Loveless Café, the funky but famous fried-chicken-with-biscuits-’n’-gravy restaurant out in the middle of nowhere. Right beside The Loveless was a small white trailer. An old beat-up plaid couch with coils of springs poking out rested on a nest of weeds, next to an old rusty washing machine. Inside, the trailer was filled with boxes and boxes of Loveless Café’s blackberry and strawberry jams, peach preserves and country hams that had to be shipped out before Christmas. T.J. and I loaded the boxes onto the truck in silence. And there was sadness in the silencethe sadness that comes with saying goodbye.
The day was over. T.J. closed the back doors of the truck and went back inside the trailer to get the paperwork signed. I waited outside, standing on the porch of that trailer and watching the most glorious red and gold sunset. At that moment I knew that whatever was next, whatever lay ahead, I was going to get through it just fine. Santa’s helper couldn’t have asked for a better gift than that.
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