La Cucaracha

Watch where you step

I’ve read on more than one occasion that in a nuclear war one of the few surviving species would be cockroaches. Of course that has never been fully proven, thank goodness, but apparently they have amazing survival skills.

When we lived in Florida, we had an exterminator who came once a month to spray for cockroaches. A few days before the exterminator was scheduled to come again, we would begin to see cockroaches in the house. We usually knew this because one of us would get up in the night to go to the bathroom and step on one of the critters with our bare feet. It’s an experience you don’t want to have. It’s an ugly mixture of fear and disgust when you squish one.

A few years later my wife and I moved to California so she could attend graduate school. I left my tenured teaching job in Florida and found myself trying to find employment. I interviewed for a few teaching positions but being licensed in another state appeared to be an obstacle.

While I was debating whether to return to college, a friend of ours in the big Berkeley brown shingle house that five of us were sharing, said I could take over her route as a catering truck driver.

Driving a catering truck didn’t sound all that appealing until she mentioned how much she made a day. It was triple what I had been making as a teacher. So off I went at four AM with my friend to learn the intricacies and secrets of driving a catering truck.

Soon I was solo on the waterfront of Oakland, cruising Highway 17 full of food that would make anyone with a desire to live past fifty cringe in terror. Along with all the pre-made sandwiches, candy and soda, I was carrying 25 gallons of high test gas, ten gallons of propane and a lighted burner that kept my gourmet delicacies warm.

Highway 17 was the main, actually the only, legal heavy truck route in and out of the East Bay. Aside from the constant stream of truckers trying to make time, there were bone jarring pot holes to avoid. Added to this was an array of interesting objects that regularly appeared. There were big hunks of wood dropped off a bouncing semi. Other objects came from vehicles losing various parts. There were also things that were hard to explain: mattresses, furniture, clothing, buckets, tools, etc. And then there were things that were once identifiable but had now, after numerous encounters with eighteen-wheelers, become unidentifiable. They were the UFO’s of Highway 17.

I couldn’t disparage the semi’s too much because they were part of my daily income. Some of my stops were at food warehouses where they were lined up to unload their shipments. The truckers couldn’t leave the site, so they depended on the catering truck to provide them with nutrition.

When I would pull up to a business, I would sound my horn which played the Mexican folk song, “La Cucaracha”. A shout would go up, “roach coach!”. Drivers and workers would stream out to line up for my offerings. I would take in money so fast that I would have to stuff it in my pants pockets like a squirrel with nuts in its cheeks. I learned to add and make change at lightening speed. By the end of the day my hands would be black from handling so much paper money. Something that now, in the midst of this coronavirus, could make me deathly ill. In those days money might have been dirty but it couldn’t kill you. My how things have changed.

I was always worried that carrying so much cash would make me a target for robbery. I was on the Oakland waterfront after all, not the safest place to be flush with cash. It was only much later, after I had left catering, that I learned why I wouldn’t have needed to worry.

There was a sensational trial at this time involving the Hell’s Angels. The Federal Government had arrested a number of the Hell’s Angels on a variety of charges including money laundering. The catering company I had worked for was a major “laundry”. It was the perfect cover. A catering company dealing only in cash could divert money for drugs and other nefarious things, do a deal and replace the money and keep the profit. I had always wondered why all the employees in the warehouse where we bought our food, were carrying barely concealed firearms. Now it was clear. It also became clear why no one ever robbed one of the trucks. It was known on the street that it would be a death sentence. Wow, this naive school teacher from Florida was protected by the Hell’s Angels!

I learned a lot from my time on the roach coach. I learned to relate to people I never had contact with before. I learned that even a criminal enterprise could provide a decent living for people that was better than society provided for teachers who educate their children. I learned to drive like a bat-out-of-hell to keep a schedule because people relied on me for nourishment, bad as it was. These were the people who drove trucks, worked in factories, unloaded ships, and forged industrial machinery that made it possible for the rest of population to have quality food and goods. I wish I could have brought them better food.

I was, for a period of time, a human cucaracha. I did what I did to survive and ultimately thrive. Marilee got her two Master’s Degrees. A little while later I got my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.

Just as our Florida roaches knew when to hide and when it was safe to come back to the kitchen, I hope we all will do what we have to do to survive and ultimately thrive during this challenging time.