A Boxkicker’s Christmas Carol
“Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter” goes the familiar verse from Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known among us lowly and unread rabble as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” poem. In this case it was one of the dogs barking at the banging on the garage door in the middle of the afternoon that I sprang about to see what was the matter.
By sprang here, I mean slowly rambled from my desk to the other end of the house, out the front door, down the sidewalk and around to the garage end of the house where said door banging was going on. As the other dog didn’t seem to care at all and seemed rather put off by having his nap interrupted, I assumed it wasn’t earth shattering like an armed assault, attack of a giant octopus, or the return of Christ so I wasn’t exactly in a hurry or going to push my physical limitations.
When what to my wondering eyes did appear, utterly unsurprisingly, but a feller in a UPS uniform who was on his 3rd of 5 large, heavy boxes, stacking them from the trunk of his personal vehicle against the garage doors instead of the 60-odd feet to the front porch from whence I had just come.
The problem was, he was in the process of rolling that third box, end over end, across the concrete. This, of course, is a no-no in the transportation and freight delivery business that everyone would know, even if they did not have nearly 20 years of working in the field that I do. Some of that work from my previous life also gave me the habit of walking softly, so I had come to a halt and was standing within 6 feet of him before he noticed, stood bolt upright, glanced around, then stared directly at me.
Oh, bad word, was right. Holiday videos of delivery folks — both good and bad — are their own cottage industry on social media. There were a couple of things I knew, that he probably didn’t know I knew, right off the bat. Boxy McBoxkicker here was a clearly a seasonal hire, either supplementing his income or trying to get his foot in the door. He had no guarantee and little hope of work after the holidays, none of the stability of the union-backed full-time employees he was brought in to help supplement. He was young, really young, though to declare my own biases that seems to be more and more people these days. He was dog tired, as I could tell in his movements and postures even before he set about abusing my poor shipment. Despite it being a chilly day he was sweating and obviously fatigued. He was not a big kid either; even crippled and 70 lbs lighter than the last day I was a boxkicker not too many years ago, I was still bigger than he was.
Now add to it an open mouth, a shocked expression, and a boatload of fear coming from his eyes and general disposition and he was not an impressive sight at all. It was flashing before his eyes, the realization of what could happen, what should happen, of what that one moment might cost him. Of what I, a complete stranger, could take away from him, and frankly had a right too.
Fortunately for him, I knew some things he didn’t, and I just needed to know how he would react to decide how to handle this situation.
First I had to get him to talk. Not easy. He fumbled for something to say, then quickly picked up that box and the remaining ones in a rapid manner, trying just to play it off. Seeing that wasn’t working, he went with the “have a pleasant day, sir” and tried to just depart but saw that wasn’t working either.
“What’s your name?”
I got a string of words and sounds, vaguely recognizable as human speech, but nothing remotely like what I was requesting.
“Your ID, then, if you forgot your name.”
“Man, I…” and now the panic was setting in. You could see the mental fumbling from the eyes and actions even without the word salad that was coming out of his mouth before a half-heartedly defiant “Why you gotta know that…” came out, which he instantly regretted but couldn’t get it back in his mouth once said. He fumbled both for words and to do something with his hands, among other things dropping his handheld on the grass as he search for anywhere to be but where he was.
“I could use your license plate and call your freight service center, or you can do the right thing here and give me your name.” It wasn’t my long-retired sergeant voice, but it wasn’t half-assed either. It meant business.
And he knew it. The façade dropped. The shoulders slumped. The resignation hit him. He gave me the name.
What Boxkicker didn’t know standing there, was while he was seeing this scenario play out one way in his mind, I had already been on both sides multiple times. I’d been the boxkicker that did something stupid for 2 minutes out of a 12 hour non-stop day of work. I’d been the employee that screwed up. I’d been the supervisor taking the angry customer call wanting to know what I was going to do about such and such for this and that. I’d been the customer dealing with both. I’d been the manager knowing the supervisor and employee both needed something to correct what happened or to deal with a difficult customer being unreasonable.
What Boxkicker needed was a break.
Besides it was time to let the kid off the hook before he broke down and started begging and crying on me, because no one wanted that.
“What time you start this morning?” I knew it would be some ungodly hour, since 10 days before Christmas is busy season. Walmart workers call it “blitz” while boxkickers call it all manner of names that we cannot print in polite society.
Nine hours into a day, and still more to go. Been there. Miss it. Missed the days I could crank out 12, 13, 14 hours of work and the pride of it outweighed the tired and sore of it. 3 years removed from working full time like that, and nearly two since the doctors and lawyers finally got it through my head that part of my life was over with and I needed to let it go, I still miss it. Hearing them read off the list of limitations was like hearing a death sentence, and you spend the days after finding ways to feel alive again without your vocation to lean on as a purpose.
Meanwhile, Boxkicker was rapidly working through the stages of grief, and had reached the bargaining phase. “Man, I’m sorry, I really need this job…”
I listen to the rest of his spiel but all I can think about is the dozens of times I’ve had this conversation. I ran the same lines on JJ Mullins back in the day when I dropped a TV off the belt throwing one of my first trucks in the back of a Walmart in my teen years. More than a few times since then. Most of the time I could talk myself out of whatever trouble I was in. Sometimes not. Then later I was the one in charge, hearing the reasons and excuses and trying to figure out what to do with an employee and situation that had gone end over end like my boxes against the garage door there.
But the thing is, you miss things when you can’t work anymore. Before it was taken away from me, I loved supervising, and mentoring, and working with my employees. You miss that interaction — both good and bad — because either way you were doing something, teaching something, making something that really mattered: investing into people. There is no substitute for that.
And here it was in my driveway. Lucky for Boxkicker.
“Relax,” I interrupted him. “I’m not going to bust you.”
I tell him several things, and I have his full and absolute attention. I explain, for the umpteenth time in my life but maybe the first in his, that those two minutes of tired and frustration in a 9 hour day is enough to ruin you and your life. I remind him integrity cost you nothing till you fail to use it at the right times, which is all the time. I pick up his handheld that he dropped, and remind him that every person around has a phone with a camera that can video him at any moment. That isn’t even counting doorbell and security cameras that could be sent to his company before he even made it to the next delivery.
I empathize. “Sir, you don’t even know how hard it is right now….” he begins and tells me his story, why he works, how hard it is out there, what’s going on in his life. I do a lot of nodding. “I know, man. But you know what’s even harder? Not working.”
Now I tell him about me, how I was him, how I achieved things he can too, if he stops taking shortcuts, and how I can no longer be that but he has a chance to be. How he should appreciate the very thing he found so intolerable 5 seconds before he realized I’d crept up on him. How the next person won’t want to help, they may just want a viral video, or to vent, or to make themselves feel good at another’s mistake and expense.
“That one bad decision isn’t worth your life, and only you can protect and guard yourself,” I tell him.
“They heavy is all…”
He meant the boxes. “I know man. It’s always heavy.” I’m not just talking about the boxes, not sure if he gets that or not. “The right way is always the harder way. But it’s worth it…and it certainly ain’t worth what the wrong way will cost you.”
We talk some more. He gathers himself. I explain the other side of things. “I hate being the boss and having to discipline or fire someone. Don’t ever give them that chance. Do it quicker, better, and cleaner than the next guy and you’ll always have work.”
It’s mostly true. I don’t tell him all of it, how a company can fire 320 people all at once to clean up a spreadsheet and your quality of work doesn’t matter a bit then. Or how a surgeon can do the medical equivalent of rolling a box across concrete while you are asleep on his table, taking shortcuts in your medical care, and really jack your life up. Of how most of your life isn’t really in your control, and almost all the important decisions about you are made without you being in the room or even knowing the conversation is going on.
But I do tell him this truth: that working hard and having integrity in what you are about at least gives you a chance. And a chance is enough for a young person trying to make his way in the world. It’s all he can do. Nothing wrong with being a boxkicker, it got me started on a life that, for all the good and bad, I’m thankful for.
He surprises me a bit. He sticks out his hand. “Thank you, sir, I really appreciate you.”
I take it. I don’t tell him how much I appreciated feeling like I was doing something helpful for a few minutes. I’ve been in the people business long enough to know he could go two houses down and do it all over again. Or maybe, just maybe, he will think about what I said, like I did telling him things I heard mentors tell me long ago, almost like I could hear their voices as my words came out. Maybe in 20 years he will be telling his own new guy that doesn’t know how to do it right.
In the meantime he sprang to his sleigh — or in this case his personal vehicle full of packages — to his team gave a whistle…which was just him turning up Travis Scott.
And away flew like the down of a thistle — whatever the hell that is. Out of my drive
and off to the next stop he went.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight…
Well, not really. We boxkickers don’t really exclaim. We gripe, and complain, and moan, and lots of other things because the celebration is short and the grind is often. But every once in a while we do get happy with a job well done. Which is what I was talking myself into thinking at the moment, hoping it was true.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Especially the boxkickers bringing the presents, overworked and underappreciated modern Santas they are.