Saturday, December 24, 2016

12/24: Special Delivery -- from Dave Mondy

Spot a boxy UPS truck pinballing through town -- especially today -- and there's a slight twinge.

It's not nostalgia -- I don't miss delivering UPS packages -- but I when see a brown-clad man darting toward a front door, managing that I-might-slip-on-ice shuffle, I flip back to my brief time as a UPS delivery guy. The feeling fades quickly.

But say I saw a purple Bachman's truck -- as I did yesterday, back in MN for the holidays -- well, it was instant internal time travel. Shooting me back to my mid-twenties, when I worked for years as a seasonal Flower Delivery Driver.

On New Year's Eve, I wrote about being a bartender on New Year's Eve. So on Christmas Eve, I thought I'd write about being a delivery driver on Christmas Eve.



But then, an election happened (perhaps you heard about this?). And I read all these great advent entries here (seriously, read all of them), and it seemed insane to post anything unrelated to these insane political times. It's almost all that's on my mind. All the time. But all I've got are frothing facebook posts -- mostly unposted, always unhelpful. Instead, I'm starting to show up to actual gatherings. Listening. Not writing. I know, I know, you're dying to hear my white male take on issues of the day, but alas, you'll have to hold that baited breath. For now:

The Poinsettia Holiday Happiness Bouquet© adorning the foyer of every office building?

The package pinned awkwardly behind your screen door?  

They all arrived via a human holding an honestly interesting job. And before I crash-landed in academia in my early thirties, I held a bunch of those jobs. So here's a few snapshots of, say, a single Delivery Day.


Christmas Eve, 7:00 AM-- 

Idling in a big boxy Dodge Diplomat -- an outmoded, gas-gobbling Diplomat (note to self: avoid easy political joke!) -- I'd sit in on the edge of the Bachman's lot, waiting.

Waiting for my weird car to be filled with flowers.

Bachman's Floral had a standing battalion of signature purple trucks, ferrying bouquets to the fortunate year-round, but on a few heavy holidays, they needed extra help. Specifically: Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas Eve.

On those days, if you'd taken the training and passed the proper checks, you could pull your car into their huge, heated garage...

To emerge as the operator of a mobile greenhouse. Your previously shitty car was suddenly bursting with flowers, chock-full of gladiolas, hydrangea, loose-stem roses, calla/stargazer lilies, floating carnations in odd sealed globes, a 55-lb. ficus, and especially, at this time of year: one million Poinsettias.

It's funny. You might actually laugh, actually pushing leaves aside as you order an Egg McMuffin -- quick eats, before bliztkreiging through your delivery list, trying to empty your car of its floral contents before noon -- so you could re-load a new batch. You're paid per flower. The more you deliver, the more you make. 

First on the list are office buildings -- and those always go smoothly. You wonder: Is there anything more joyous to deliver than flowers?  (Maybe presidential pardons?)

Say a name to a receptionist, and watch her call it out. Watch a middle-manager walk toward you with a big smile. Sometimes, they give you a hug. Sometimes, even better, they give you a tip.

And then, you're off to the residential deliveries. Most go smoothly. Most.


Christmas Eve, 11:00 AM-- 

"These must be from Terry!" the woman said. "Can you come in, put them down?" 

There's only one answer when an old woman asks this.

"Can you put them, where...? Right there looks good..."

Okay, will do.

"Can you, sorry, can you open them?"

Sure, okay.

"Those must be, those are carnations but these are, what, violets? I think those are violets, of some strange sort, but those are... I'd have to look in my flower book?"

She said it as if asking a question, as if asking permission. Permission to go get her flower book. But she already knew: I was a pushover. I'd look at that flower book. I'd stay.

"Would you like coffee," she said, "or I suppose this is a busy time..." 

That's the dialogue I remember, and yes: Using her flower book, we identified every bulb. I stayed there for about a half hour. Leaving her house, I worried I was behind schedule -- and I remember her sweatshirt, too: bright red and puff-painted with a giant Christmas tree. A shirt exactly like her: almost annoying, if not so endearing.

But then, I was worried about delays with the upcoming nursing homes. Rightly.


Christmas Eve, noon -- 

Be nice, I'd always tell myself. Before mouthing, just a few minutes later, Fuck this!

For example: I had to find a "May Simington" -- just a standard Poinsettia drop-off -- but then, I was sent to four different buildings as the Diplomat idled. And when I finally found the right receptionist...

She looked down. Found the name: May Simington -- a Sharpie line drawn through it. "I'm sorry, she's passed."

It gets as unceremonious as that, I remember thinking. The black Sharpie line of death.

That very same year, as I left, I saw an old woman bashing her wheelchair against the front door.

Full of misplaced gallantry, I held the door open -- and I held that gentlemanly pose as she zoomed down the front drive. Immediately followed by a panicked attendant, yelling, "No no no no, Mary Mary Mary, no no no! Mary, where do you think you're going?" Mary didn't know. Didn't even know how she got outside. Muted crying. The sudden smell of urine. "Did you see how she got out?" the attendant asked me. "No, god, that's terrible," I replied, slinking back to the car with the undelivered Poinsettia.


Christmas Eve, 4:00 PM -- 

Speaking of flowers and death, the strangest Christmas delivery was to Lakewood Cemetery.

"This one goes to the mausoleum," the desk attendant said -- and then he drew a quick map, with a winding line leading me through Lakewood's sprawling grounds. 

But I still got lost. I circled past the giant grave of Hubert H. Humphrey several times before finally arriving at a massive stone cube.

Inside, a janitor led me down to a lower level which was (yes) completely dark. He clicked on a light that (yes!) did that flicker-creepily-before-fully-buzzing-on thing -- and then the man went back up the elevator, leaving me alone. I wandered the hallways, poking my head into various corridors, until finally finding the right spot: This large square room, the walls a grid of smaller squares. Filing cabinets for human bodies.

I found the cabinet engraved with the recipient's name, and then... what? What do I do now, I wondered. Knock? 

I set the flowers down on a stone bench and left the room -- but stopped short, doubled back, to unwrap the Chrysanthemums. Then, I faced them toward "her". Back in the car, I looked over my delivery list, where I could read reprints of the "secret" messages sealed inside the cards. The message inside the mausoleum delivery: 

Merry Christmas to my beloved mother. 


Christmas Eve, 5:30 PM --

Reading the secret messages was one of my best things about that job. Here's one of my favorites:

Dear Max,
Can't wait til you and your owner visit me in the new year. Don't worry about flying in the kennel. They give you drugs and you sleep the whole time. You'll love Colorado. We have a huge yard. While the humans are inside doing whatever they do, we can run around all we want.

But my all-time favorite message was: 

I'm sorry I asked that. I'm sorry. I was drunk, it was a stupid thing to ask, I'm sorry. Love you.

I still wonder, still want to know: What the hell did he ask?! Picture him typing that, ordering flowers online at 3:00 AM.

That message belonged to a late bouquet on the last day I worked delivery. The address adorned a hulking, old-money mansion on Lake Calhoun. An extremely elegant, extremely attractive middle-aged woman answered my ring. She wore workout clothes, and behind her, I can still see two objects: a Nordictrack Ski Machine and a giant Miro -- quite possibly an original.

Back in my Diplomat, I convinced myself she was flirting with me. Driving away, I chided myself for actually buying into the "delivery man in a porno" cliche. And, nonetheless, kept thinking: You should go back. Ask about the Miro. She'll be impressed you know it's a Miro! She'll see you are artistic and attractive and...

Of course, I didn't actually go back. I'm not a maniac. But that was the problem with being a seasonal delivery driver. You were in self-imposed isolation, self-imposed meditation, all day long on a happy holiday. If you were newly single, thoughts could get pretty desperate. Pretty dark. Even, or especially, if your car was fully infused with floral aromas.

The goal, always, was to finish before it got dark -- but within a Minnesotan December, the sun sets around 4:30 PM. So I'd always find myself finishing up the final drop-offs in the frozen nighttime. 

Fortunately, my last delivery lent me a gift.


Christmas Eve, 7:00 PM -- 

I'm so lucky I wasn't filmed.

Had camera phones already been ubiquitous, I'd be a GIF Star right now, my folly endlessly replayed beneath the caption, DELIVERIES: YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

The 55-lb. potted Ficus had been in my backseat all afternoon -- with delivery instructions reading After 5pm, so I put it off until the very end of the day. And trying to lug the damn thing up a tiered walkway around Nokomis, I fell. Though "fell" doesn't do justice to my spill. 

This was a cartoon-character-slipping-on-a-banana, leap-into-the-air-before-crashing-down, ultra-embarrassing tumble. Listen: I had dirt from the Ficus pot smeared across my chest when I rang the doorbell.

I suspected my back was fucked, but driving home, I assured myself I was fine -- and then, in my apartment parking lot, I couldn't stand to exit my car. Had to barrel roll out the side, resting my knees beside the open car door; then, I pulled myself upright using the seatbelt like pulley. Without the adrenaline burst, I'd be kneeling there still. Back in my apartment, I collapsed on the fake parkay, crying.

The only positive of physical pain: It drives out all other kinds. A person in pain desires only cessation of pain -- and if it arrives, he's happy. It took an hour to find a painless position on the couch, and another hour for the Advil and Maker's to kick in, but then: euphoria. And then, the happiest thought: I'll never be able to do this again.


Honestly, I liked delivering flowers -- but as with so many jobs I've enjoyed, there was this counter-intuitive relief (this exhale) the exact moment I knew I was free of it: That was cool... and thank good I never have to do it again.


Christmas Eve, Coda -- 

Speaking of pain cessation and flower deliveries...

Yesterday, flowers were delivered to my brother's hospital room. 

Some delivery person dropped them off just moments before I arrived. The flowers were still wrapped, and as my sister unwrapped them, we saw: roses, interwoven with pines boughs, revealing a Christmas tree motif. It looked pretty good. Then I looked back at him.

My brother's heart has never worked quite right.  

If you spotted him walking around, day-to-day, you'd never know this -- but one of his mitral valves loves to allow a backflow of blood. Oops. A tiny, important flaw. In eons past, we'd never know this, of course. He would've just keeled over at some point. And even a few years ago, even if we knew what was wrong, the only solution would be to apply a bone saw to his chest plate, just to fix this tiny trouble.

But now? 

On Wednesday, they simply stopped his heart for an hour, deflated one of his lungs, and sent robotic arms into his chest cavity -- via a keyhole incision in his armpit -- to stitch things up.

And today, just two days after his surgery, he left the hospital as an outpatient. And here's my question:

Did you know we could this?

Watch this video of a surgical robot pealing a grape, and then restitching a grape.

Did you know we already had this technology? 

It seems so sci-fi, but yeah, humans can already do this. We're amazing! Right? My brother has a long recovery ahead of him, but I'm already humbled by his willpower (handling pain that puts my ficus injury to shame). And here's the thing about this fellow: Even if I were to ignore my personal bias, I'd conclude that he's the type of guy we need more of, not less. A philosophy prof teaching critical thinking and ethics to med students at the world-famous Mayo clinic. A thoughtful, empathetic guy. And now, because of things humans invented, he can hopefully stick around a little longer.

I didn't mean to add this odd addendum at the end of this post. But I've been so myopically pessimistic lately. And I've talked on the phone, a lot, with my brother about our mutual pessimism regarding The State Of Things. And yet, if only we don't fuck everything up, I've now seen firsthand that humans can do such cool things. It makes me think of so many other cool things I've seen this year: Moonlight, for example. Other great movies. Other great books. I'm tempted to ramble on now, recommending many things, as if this were a year-end list. 

But no one, no one, needs that. From me. So instead, I'll just add a final "delivery"...  a final restatement: If only we don't fuck up everything, we can do cool things.

That seems like a corny conclusion. Something to write on a website at 3:00 AM when ordering flowers. Something to keep private.

Thank god no one can read this sealed card.

Dave Mondy has been honored for his work in many genres: food writing (Best American Food Writing), travel writing (Solas Awards), creative nonfiction (notables in Best American Essays), sports writing (Iowa Review nonfiction contest), radio (Prairie Home Companion), and theatre (many national tours, fringe festival awards, etc.). He currently teaches creative nonfiction and other writing classes at the University of Arizona.

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