In my life, I've probably covered a million miles on the road, all to earn a living. I've driven cabs, delivered furniture, worked as a document courier, performed medical deliveries, sub-contracted for an overnight service (one of the FedEx wannabes), hauled for a corporate mail service, delivered pizza, run a route for a tire supply company (delivering everything from wheel weights to floor lifts), was a drug mule, and drove the truck for an organic catering company.
That last one was a bit amusing. The owners --- who looked and behaved like you'd expect from an organic catering company --- were sick of their vans getting smashed up by the foodies, so they hired me. They had three vans, and at any given time one would be in the shop getting body repairs. This made me suspicious: the odds of every single employee at a catering company being recklessly negligent, utterly incapable of holding the road, were very low. I asked if I could drive the two vans before I signed on. Sure, they said.
Kamikaze pilots had more concern for the mechanical reliability of their Mitsubishis than anyone at that company did for the two vans I drove. Both had tie rods that were shot; they may as well have been using bungee cords. There was nearly a half-turn(!) of play in the steering wheels:every bump, lump, dip, and pothole would point the vans in a new direction, so you spent plenty of time spinning the wheel back and forth trying to hold a straight line. You couldn't.
All three vans were Chevrolets, full-size commercial vans. One had a mysterious slapping sound coming from under the engine cover. I unbolted it, didn't see anything out of place, so I popped the hood and was greeted by the sight of duct tape, good and frayed, wrapped around the serpentine belt.
Both had the heaters cranked up to High. The company was in San Francisco, but it doesn't get that cold. I turned the heat down, and the smell of coolant began funking up the van, along with the temperature gauge needle swinging skyward. I got a pair of heavy work gloves from my own car, popped the hood, and got the radiator cap off. (Note: this is a dangerous and stupid thing to do.... But I had a hunch I'd be safe.) I should have had to dodge a geyser of coolant and steam. A good amount of steam, but otherwise.... Nothing. The radiators in both vans were, for all intents and purposes, bone dry. Not even anything in the coolant reservoir, and those things are a joke.
(Personal advice: check your coolant starting with a cold engine and the cap off the radiator. Run the engine until it's at a normal temperature, then add your coolant to the radiator until it's topped off. Put the cap back on. Feel free to delude yourself by filling the coolant reservoir, too, but topping off the actual radiator is what will get you home at night.)
Topping off one van's highly entertaining handling was its brakes. Try to use the brakes with more than the most gentle pressure and one of the wheels --- the right rear, I believe --- would jerk the van in that direction.... Forcing more wrestling with the wheel. This was just gangs of fun to handle at the top of Market St.
I already knew what to expect, but I checked the oil and tranny fluid in both vans. The oil in both seemed to be topped off (unless there was a clog), but was jet black. I honestly suspected the oil in these vans, both about four years old, had never been changed. Ever. They'd just add more (probably when the idiot light told them to).
How the vans moved forward was anyone's guess. I checked the tranny fluid --- a dirty rust color, and so low it was barely on the stick --- and wiped some on my bare fingers, rubbing my fingers together. It may as well have been water. (Note: transmission fluid is, to oversimplify, a kind of oil. It should be somewhat slippery.)
What else: each van had a headlight out, one didn't have functioning signals on either side, the right rear-view mirror was shattered on one, both had a couple tires so bald they could be shined, one had no brake lights, the starter motors on both grinded for a few seconds after firing up, the driver's door on one had to be lifted up two inches to get it to latch due to horribly abused hinges, like people swinging on the door for fun, no horn functioning in either one (a citeable offence, in fact), and puddles of oil under each one; the oil had started to break down the asphalt where they were parked. Neither parking brake worked to any extent, a serious problem in San Francisco: the pedals dropped to the floor, accomplishing nothing except telling me the cables were shot (or the rear brakes were). And there was a goddamn fucking Phish sticker in the middle of one of the left-side rear-view mirrors, eliminating the ability to use the mirror. Hey, who needs to see behind you, especially in a van? And on the left side, your merging side? There's still the center-view mirror.... Which is useless as tits on a nun in any van, even more so when said van is full of organic tomato/basil dipping sauce, free-range meatballs, and pasta salad.
I went back inside to give them the keys to their deathmobiles. Both smiled at me and said, "So, shall we start on your I-9?"
I put my elbows on the counter and my face in my hands. "I.... Am not an employee here. I'm not sure if I will be. Thus, I am going to speak honestly and freely. Are you people insane, or just run-of-the-mill idiots?"
They gaped at me.
"Both of those vans are utter fucking deathtraps. I'll assume the van that's in the shop is in the same conditon--- "
"Oh, that van is older, it's got a few problems."
My turn to gape. "Do tell, do tell. Have either of you driven those vans?"
"Oh no, the crew is in charge of the vans. We give them the responsibility of keeping the vans in order."
"Fire them. Immediately."
"I said, fire them. First for not doing their job, and second, they will --- not maybe, not possibly, but will --- cost you your company. Those vans are so dangerous and poorly maintained that it's a matter of time before one of your crew ends up killing someone while they're at the wheel. That will result in a lawsuit so expensive just to fight that you will lose your business. This town is chock full of talented food service workers, you could replace your current crew by nightfall, and in the meantime you get a hold of Enterprise and rent a van or two from them."
The man said, "I don't believe what I'm hearing here! You just walk in and tell us what to do?"
I said, "Consider it rather brusque advice."
"And just what is so wrong with our vans?"
I drummed my fingers on the counter. "Right. Come on. Lock up, we're going for a ride. I'll talk, and you can observe. I'll point out some problems before we leave; if you have some food handling gloves, grab a few pairs so we're not getting dirty." I scooped the van keys off the counter.
We walked to the closer van, and I popped the outside hood. I pulled on a pair of gloves and started.
"That...." I pulled the oil dipstick ".... is the wrong color for motor oil." I pulled the tranny dipstick. "Transmission fluid should be a happy red color, not rusty and dirty. It's also lost all its viscosity. I don't know how this fucking thing moves forward. Let's see. That white crap all over the battery? It doesn't belong there. It's a sign the battery is gonna die, and quick. See that down there?" I pointed at the duct tape on the belt. "That is known as a 'poor idea'. These serpentine belts run everything on a Chevy. I'm assuming someone noticed it was fraying --- who knows when, since nobody takes care of your vans at all --- and decided duct tape would be a better idea than spending twelve dollars on a new belt. That's not just lazy, that's stupid. Do me a favor, reach in and turn on the headlights."
The man did as asked, then joined me at the front. The woman stated the obvious, "One's out."
"Yeah, on the other one too. One of these, I forget which, has no brake lights, and the other has no working signals. Nothing, in either direction. Dangerous and illegal, and the citation goes to the owners of the van. You two.
"Okay, we're going for a short ride. Which of you two is feeling braver?"
They looked at each other. "Ahh.... Me, I guess," said the man.
"Why, what's the matter?" asked the woman, sounding worried.
"Someone decided to turn the passenger safety belt into a goddamn macrame project," I said, as we got in the van. "Whoever's riding shotgun is at a high level of risk. And of these two vans, I consider this one to be safer. Barely."
The man exclaimed, "My God, Jen, look what they've done to the inside!" There was Sharpie graffiti and stickers for hippie-shit bands all over the dashboard.
I fired up and told the man, "You won't be looking out the window much, 'cos there's things I want to show you."
I pointed it out the driveway, waited for a break in traffic, and hit the gas. The van bogged, acted like it was going to cut out, then caught and lurched forward.
"Okay, that's one. It needs tuning something fierce. I'll come back to that, watch the steering wheel in relation to where the van is pointed."
He watched in amazement and horror as I whipped the wheel back and forth, trying to hold my lane and the overall curve of Market St., the nose pointing in random directions as we went over any random bump or pothole. "Hell of a ride, eh?" I said. "Yeah, I always love a goddamn challenge!"
From the back, the woman said in a shaky voice, "You're moving the wheel.... And the van doesn't follow...."
"Yeah, both of the vans have minds --- shit! --- of their own." My outburst was due to the van seeming to want to sideswipe several parked cars. I had the wheel cranked at a ninety degree angle off center.
We got to the bottom of the hill and I managed to get the death trap turned around, feathering the gas pedal in order to keep the engine alive and gain speed for the hill.
"Is the heater broken?" asked the man, wiping his brow.
"Naw, that's just somebody's solution for not bothering to add coolant. We're already running hot," I said, pointing at the temperature gauge. "Both vans are basically running with no coolant. It's almost like someone was trying to kill these vans on purpose," I said with a sideways look.
We got to their kitchen, a former coffee shop, without hitting anything. I pointed out the non-functioning parking brake as I came to a stop.
"So! You two wanna ride in the dangerous one now?"
The woman asked, "How does that happen to a steering wheel?"
I explained, "Not the wheel, ma'am. The tie rods. Simplest explanation? All you gotta do it go into enough curbs, fast enough, and often enough, and you damage the bars that steer the wheels, the tie rods. They just get worse and worse over time. I don't think I've seen or driven anything with tie rods so bad that a wheel or two just plain didn't come off before this."
The man stood with his arm around the woman, presumably his wife, staring at the vans. "My God," he muttered, "how could they.... We put so much trust...."
I walked over to the other van, the one with the Phish sticker obscuring all rear vision on the left. I used a thumbnail to lift a corner, then peeled the whole sticker free. I slapped it on my hand and walked back to the couple.
"Tell me," I asked, "would it be fair to describe your crew as hippies?" I held my hand up, displaying the sticker.
The woman chuckled. "Yes, that's a fair assessment."
"That's your problem, right there. Fire them and replace them with professionals, or even wannabes. There's three different culinary schools in this town, so you pretty much have your pick of employees. But can the filthy scumbags you got now, ASAP. They're useless, and always will be."
The man said, "I don't follow you."
I said, "Look. I've met decent hippies, up in the Sierras. Good people: generous, hard-working, honest, good values.
"But I've spent even more time dealing with the hippies in Berkeley and S.F. Every hippie I've met in either town thinks that the world fucking owes them lunch, you know what I mean? Of course they trashed your vans: they aren't theirs, are they? So why should they give a fuck? I'll bet the demands --- not requests --- for upping their pay never ceased, even though they are probably getting a decent wage. Still acted like you were Hitler, right?"
The woman quietly said, "There have been.... Some tense moments, yes. The idea of "We're struggling ourselves" meant nothing to them."
"Never will. Remember, the world owes them lunch! You two own a business, which automatically puts you in the category of 'greedy capitalist scum,' no matter how well or poorly your business is doing. Sack. Them. Now."
"Damn right! Those patchouli-reeking creeps don't give a shit whether you succeed or fail as a business, they don't care about your equipment.... Dare I ask about the food? And like I said already, they're gonna kill someone with one of those vans, and any insurance investigator will find all the mechanical problems and say, "They're guilty as hell, they had a vehicle on the road that should have been in the junkyard."
"Good god, Anise. I don't know where to start." Peachy. Two business owners with no decision-making or organizational skills. Anise (the women) and her husband Paul, owners of Stone Soup Organic Catering, could rock a kitchen, but probably needed a full free day to balance a checkbook.
"May I?" I asked.
"Please," they said. They were taking advice from some punk they wanted to drive their vans. No winos were walking past, so I'd do.
"How many phone lines you got here? We need 'em."
"Um, two, plus Paul's cell phone."
My advice? Start calling the culinary schools and rounding up anything with a pulse willing to work your events tonight. Make 'em a good offer since it's on short notice, and steady hours at a regular rate if they wanna stick around. How many events you have tonight?"
"Um, four," replied Paul.
"And their timing?"
He told me. Two vans would work if nothing went wrong.
"Okay, call Enterprise down in Burlingame and get two full size vans on a weekly rate. With luck, you won't need 'em that long, but I gotta get a hold of some people--- actually, there's a few people I need to get on the horn. How do you feel about having a Field Marshall?"
"What do you mean?"
"Look, you let the herd of fuckups you have now have too much freedom. They needed somebody breathing down their neck.... Or at least thinking someone's breathing down their neck. That won't change, no matter who your staff is. Having someone who knows food service, has management experience, and can command respect, if not fucking fear, without raising their voice is crucial. Maybe you guys can get much more repeat business."
Anise exclaimed, "How did you know about that?"
I held up the Phish sticker. "It came to me in a fuckin' dream, lady. Can I use your phone, please? I need to talk to some people."