The side street was barricaded, and two police officers were detouring traffic. I was at the intersection of 20th, Q and Connecticut in downtown Washington D.C., a few minutes after the closing bell of the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, here to pick up my tent, table and coolers. This was part of my weekly Sunday afternoon routine, and only a few orange traffic cones stood between me and my destination. A few orange cones, of course, and two stern-looking D.C. cops.
The officers, one tall, one short, but both imposing in their dark blue outfits, were waiving the detoured traffic forward with dramatic hand gestures, whistles pursed on lips. I pressed the button for my hazard lights, and leaned out of the window.
“I’m picking up for farmers market…” I hollered over the din of cars passing beside me, but before I could finish my sentence, a shrill blast from the whistle cut me off.
“Sir!” the tall officer commanded, pointing first at me, then towards the obedient stream of traffic. “Over! Now!”
As I attempted to speak a second time, explaining my situation, he repeated the sequence, this time louder. “Sir! Over! Now!”
“But… I’ve got to get into the market,” I appealed, not yet ready to capitulate. I pointed in the direction of my stand. My employee, along with a pyramid of meat coolers, was no more than a hundred feet of smooth asphalt away. “Look,” I added, gesturing. “I’ve got to get in there, to pick up my stuff.”
By now, the second cop, the shorter one, had taken an interest in me as well, and marched briskly to the side of my truck. His whistle was firmly lodged in the corner of his mouth, ready to blow my ears off at a moment’s notice.
“You!” he snapped, beaming me a glare that burned straight through his sunglasses. “Get over! Right now!”
I knew that following the detour would send me a good twenty minutes out of my way. Such unexpected delays have a cascading effect, postponing the departures of my fellow vendors on my return trip, back at the Takoma Park market. In my line of work, these sorts of things are serious considerations. I realized the moment had arrived to play my trump card.
“Look,” I replied, in a voice meant to be simultaneously persuasive, firm, and slightly desperate. “I’m in a truck here!” I paused a moment, allowing the gravity of the word ‘truck’ to sink in before repeating, for emphasis. “I’ve got to get that stuff on the truck!”
Ah, the power of the box truck. You see them every day of course, on the highway, or backed up to a loading dock. Downtown, they’re pulled along the street with their flashers on, the delivery man dodging traffic with a familiarized nonchalance that, to normal people, seems almost suicidal.
The box truck exists in a loosely defined, rarely discussed category of transportation. Clearly not in the ‘passenger vehicle’ class, the domain of sedans, pick-up trucks and SUVs worldwide, it’s not as imposing as a tractor-trailer either, for which a commercial driver’s license must be obtained.
Instead, the box truck is relegated to an in-between place, small enough to be safely -if nervously- driven by a novice, but undoubtedly not a machine to be taken out on a casual Sunday drive. However, once you get over the feeling that you are driving around in a huge fishbowl, with its enormous glass windshield and unusual oval confines, a genuine sense of empowerment settles in. Without realizing it, you find yourself humming the tune to Jerry Reed’s East Bound and Down, and hoping that the kids in the car ahead of you ask you to blow your horn. There’s just something about a box truck that seems to say, “I’m friendly, but I’ve got work to do. No offense, but get the heck out of my way.”
As such, living in this twilight realm between form and function, being a box truck driver makes one feel like a bit of a transportation outlaw. Need to double park on a city street? No problemo. Simply lower the brim of your ball cap, apply a ‘damn serious’ expression to your face, and start dollying some freight across the street. Ditto for bus stops, and No Parking signs (not to disappoint, but the word ‘outlaw’ is not synonymous with ‘total jerk’; handicapped spots remain strictly off-limits).
All things considered, the box truck is a hugely under-appreciated mode of transportation. It allows the driver to haul several tons of stuff all over the city, suburbs and countryside, while safely violating all sorts of minor traffic laws without anyone so much as batting an eye. This might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s the world’s most flamboyant stealth-mobile. Combine all this with the feeling of accomplishment that comes from professionally navigating such a utilitarian, hulking machine, and you’ve really got a winning combination.
Which takes us back to the confrontation with those police officers. The short cop chewed on his whistle for a few moments longer, looking down the broad length of my truck as though truly noticing it for the first time. Then, magically, as if I had uttered the words ‘open sesame,’ the officer stepped aside.
“Let him through,” he told his companion, thumbing in my direction as he headed back towards the merging traffic. “He’s in a box truck.”
So, the next time you’re debating between a Toyota, a Ford, or a Honda, keep a soft spot in your heart for the big white box truck. It might not go from zero to sixty in less than 10 seconds, sport German-engineered handling, or even look very cool (as in, not cool looking at all. Ever. Under any circumstances). But for hauling frozen meat each week into the nation’s capital while dodging a half-dozen traffic violations along the way, there’s really no comparison.
One day, they’ll finally invent something truly special: the flying meat truck. Until that morning comes, I’ll fire up my big truck each Saturday at 4:45 a.m., an outlaw in a t-shirt and frayed baseball cap, and lumber down the road in search of a new adventure.