I arrived in the school house, a veteran student in a sea of wannabees. The turn of the year brought the longest streak of sub-freezing temperatures in decades, and I was glad to be standing next to a 4-stroke Cummins turned over, white smoke pervading the cold, morning air, visible droplets of crystalized water vapor.
The internal combustion engine may seem distant to me now, but over the next several months, my coursework at the Diesel Technology course at the North American Trade Schools would require me to roll up my sleeves and turn wrenches like a hardened grease hand. I would become chummy with not only the Cummins, but also the legendary Detroit and even the infamous Maxxforce, the one I was suckered into buying.
The school was not located in a collegial campus or in an industrial complex occupied by big cranes and heavy containers. Instead it was situated in the middle of a dying mall in the mean streets of Baltimore County.
Diesel Tech wasn’t all sit-down textbooks, slides and lectures. It was service manuals, diagnostic codes and on-the-job touch and feel.
I would be going under the hood and getting hands, face, every exposed part of the body, covered in a thick coat of grime. That suited “the clan”, a gaggle of grungy grease monkeys who felt more at home working entrenched in the back of a mechanic’s pit than sitting in front of a computer scrutinizing mounds of spreadsheets.
They were a bunch of guys (and a couple gals) who didn’t enjoy dressing up in a suit and tie. Instead they were keen to wearing long pants – sans belt and exposed Jockeys as if it was the fashion du jour. When they rose in the morning, they would take a drag, rub their eyes and apply a thick coat of grease on their faces, like a soldier applying war paint before descending into a foxhole for the day.
There were many roadblocks in working alongside students half my age. They were more limber, stronger and possessed longer staying power. They loved going under the truck and didn’t mind shooting the crap while sharing a smoke. They came from a different generation with a vastly different outlook on life, and for now they called the shots – they didn’t give a crap who you were or what you thought.
Perhaps they would embrace my experience and career skills and pick up priceless tips to bolster their budding careers. Or perhaps they would mock me as older and weather-beaten, a relic from the days before smart phones became their drug.
With age comes wisdom but reaching middle age also meant having to ingest a potent cocktail of pain killers before engaging in any sort of heavy lifting. At 50, I was no longer young and spry and able to lift heavy bearings with a single heave. But that wouldn’t stop me from getting under the truck drenched in grease, just like the rest of the clan. My bones creaked and I was grossly out of breath, but still could hang – both in the shop and outside.
Embarking on my third career, my curiosity was piqued by how a six-cylinder diesel engine can pull 80,000 lbs of gross weight. While a Dodge Charger has the horsepower to go lightning fast on a dime, a turbo charged engine has the torque to pull giant steel beams up steep grades, slowly but surely.
During its heyday, a half century ago, the Security Square Mall competed for shoppers from DC to Philly, and attracted a whole host of anchor tenants. Now there were only three remaining: Macy’s, AMC, and Sears was struggling to survive.
Still on any given day, there is a steady flow of pedestrians and street traffic rushing to catch a show or to grab a sale, and none of them were moving out of the way of a heavy duty Class 8 truck chugging along on fourth gear.
And the mall was a hotbed for crime. Thugs with guns, drugs and paraphernalia, mixing it up and living life on the large. Several years ago two students at the school stabbed and robbed another student in broad day light. Student-on-student crime is rare, but there have been a number incidents of students and others mall-goers been assaulted and robbed. The jewelry store seems to get hit almost every month. Recently, robbers entered the Gold Vally Jewelry Store and sprayed bear spray at employees. They then took a sledgehammer and broke the Rolex case, grabbing thousands of dollars of jewelry. The spray wafted into the mall causing itchy eyes and sore throat so stores was shut down and the mall evacuated. Bear spray can’t be worse than the smell of diesel, so for diesel tech, it was just another day. To this date, the bear-spray burglars are still at large.
Another group of robbers threatened the employees with a handgun and stole money from the register. The masked men fled in a black suburban but ultimately crashed while leaving the mall. They tried to get away but the police cruiser ran into the driver and eventually all four were apprehended. The security guards mostly hunker down on station monitoring camera feeds. Perhaps Baltimore county should post police officers inside Security square. The name is actually an oxymoron – there’s really no security there, should be called “Insecurity Square.”
There are a lot of inherent dangers working with big trucks. But the real concern is outside the shop, inside the hallways of the mall, hidden pockets of the parking lot and on the mean streets of Woodlawn.
After the first week of school was now in the history books, my class hauled ass down Security Boulevard to unwind. Someplace where we could mingle without our grease-stained uniforms and the steady gaze of our instructors. Where we could wear our shirts untucked and our caps backwards and check our phones without getting demerits. Earlier in the week, I had added City View Bar & Grill to RUNINOut, so that was an ideal place to kick off our end of week festivities.
There were only six in my class, and they were mostly kids except a brawny hooligan that looked like he could bench press a pair of rims, and a fellow from Africa who take everything at face value and never could tell the difference from a joke and bitter sarcasm.
He resembled T’Challa in the Black Panther and spoke with the same native accent.
“Good afternoon, I’m Tatah, but everyone calls me Jude.”
“Like the Beatles classic?” I asked derisively.
“No, way, that was waay after my time.”
“Hey Jude, where are you from?” inquired Virginia, the socialite server who had more tabs open than parking tickets from Baltimore County.
“Cameroon – the trucking capital of Africa.” His accent was strong and rich and his handshake was firm and steady.
“I drive two hours each way from Woodbridge VA – that’s four hours roundtrip,” he answered shaking his head. “I’m blowing $100 in gas a week, which leaves me with no beer money.”
“Really, you must have a big, loving family,” I added. “If it was me, I would camp out in town.”
“Well I have a stay-at-home wife, five studious children, a two-story house, a big yard. Did I mention a German Shepherd?”
With two kids in high school, Jude was nearing 50 and his family had recently migrated to the US.
It was good to know that I wasn’t the only geriatric in class. Back home, Jude was an esteemed engineer and a professor. In the U.S., he was just another straphanger, and had to go back to school to learn a new trade.
Wow, what a horrendous drive and sacrifice. My drive from DC pales in comparison to his from northern Virginia. Clearly Jude was motivated to come home to his loving family and raise his children in the burbs. Just for that, he deserves a drink or two.
“So you guys staying for happy hour. We got the best deals in town,” Virginia asked.
“Absolutely, we need to drown out the stress from school by imbibing in booze,” shouted a comment from the peanut gallery.
“Say, can I get you a beer,” I shouted across the table to the buffest guy in class.
“Sure thing Loose Cannon please.”
I returned with a handful of Heavy Seas, handing one to Jude, one to Rick, and the big one guy with a big arms and a thick neck.
“Thanks Bro, my name is Theo, by the way. Some people call me Teddy or Tank.
I did a one over and easily preferred the latter.
Tank was not your typical student, late-30s, and an ex-felon on a second chance after spending seven years at the state pen in Hagerstown. As his name suggests, he had the thick frame and big shoulders of a linebacker and he could lift a whole tire and wheel off the ground like it was a bag of rags.
Maryland’s recidivism rate is quite high, so the state has incentive to train newly released felons in one of the state’s most demanding jobs. And Tank Teo hoped to make it through training without spending another night in jail. We would be watching his back.
Then there was Rick the only White kid in class. His dad had found a younger wife, so Rick had to move in with his aunt. She gave him one ultimatum: It was either trade school or the military, and he chose the easier route where he could still smoke dope and grow his hair out.
Jorge was half Mexican and half Salvadoran and cussed aloud in Spanish, thinking we didn’t understand. He was still trying to get his green card, and hopefully attending school would help him gain permanent residency. His wife worked at a Taco shop in Jessup and his two kids were born in the U.S and had never visited their native land.
Jorge was at the bar chatting with the bartender.
“Hola, senorita. Can you make me a margarita – tall and skinny like mi chiquitas, por favor.”
The bartender grabbed a scoop of crushed ice into the shaker and poured a shot of Jose Cuervo like a pro. Then with all the energy she could muster from her tiny frame she vigorously shaked until the outside of the stainless became frosty. She then strained the mixture into a cobalt blue cocktail glass, garnished with lime and a half rim of salt.
Virginia, server at City View, and I sharing a laugh
Jorge immediately guzzled down the tequila infused spirit “Increible, La mejor.”
She smiled back with her eyes and grabbed a bottle of patron suggestively. “Welcome to City View where the women are loose and the drinks are strong.”
Just as our scragedy group of wanna be mechanics was represented by many races, we were also a co-ed class that mirrored a glimpse of street life in the city.
Destiny sported purple braids shoulder length. Having to crawl under a truck and lubricate grease fittings, it would be a challenge to keep her hair clean. But she didn’t care. Truck lubrication kept her dreads from drying out and kept her weaves loose and shiny.
Even in a grease-stained shop filled with salvaged parts, rusty nuts and gutted out engines, She still tried to look the part of a lady. She wore make-up liberally and sported glitter in her manicure with elegant lashes shading her sunken cheeks. But down inside, she was every bit a grimy wrench turner as the rest of us.
We all got nice and wasted and that night slept as soundly as a cold engine on overhaul. We needed the weekend to recover because on Monday, we wouldn’t waste any time getting down and dirty.
Since we were not yet trained to make any repairs, we were assigned to tear down an old truck – something that wasn’t possible to screw up. Or was it? These were International trucks that were once used for training and would be broken down into spare parts for the nearest junkyard or shipped somewhere far away, across the pond to someplace remote like Nigeria. Everything goes even the wiring and upholstery. Apparently there is a market for spare parts overseas, where the long arm of the law doesn’t reach. There’s no EPA or CARB (California Air Resources Board) in Africa, so developing nations can do more with less, and we were happy to offload our headaches.
The Diesel Tech school was ruled by Mr. Fritz Pontzer, a no-nonsense instructor whose commands easily bellowed across the shop as if he wore a built-in megaphone. He barked loud, and he wielded a even bigger stick. He ran a tight shop and had no issue with issuing demerits like candy on Halloween — sending students home for the day for simple infractions such as not tucking in their shirt or wearing the wrong ballcap – one without the school’s insignia. Even with a shop filled with unkempt misfits, cussing was not allowed and doing so would also get you sent home quicker than an impending nor’easter.
Pontzer knew how to relate to the restless, Gen Z’s who loved their smart phones and video games and were reluctant to crack open a book.
“Ok, Theo, your choice of questions,” Pontzer stated.
“Brakes for $100, Mr. P,” Theo responded.
“This air brake system component functions as a lever,” Mr Pontzer quipped, as he started to whistle the Jeopardy theme song.
Theo huddled with his group, Rick and Jorge and was quick to come up with an answer.
“What is a slack adjuster!”
“You got it Tank. Your group is now in the lead.
The rest of us gasped at how super easy this question was.
“The automatic slack adjuster is designed to compensate for brake lining and drum wear and should have no more than 2 inches of play,” Pontzer declared.
Playing jeopardy was fun and it was a great way to learn a topic and prepare for the upcoming tests. And there was a sense of pride for which team scored the most points just like there was for changing out a flat tire or for adjusting a clutch.
Since the mall was located over an hour north of DC, and there would be homework most nights with pop quizzes to keep us on our toes, I would have to stay there on weekdays to avoid having to battle the brutal BW (Baltimore – Washington) traffic.
But renting my own place was not an option – I already had several in DC. And since my experiences with Airbnb was not up to par, my options for a place to stay were limited. Since I decided not to commute, I would have to hunker down and spend the night in my car, parked in a secluded spot somewhere in the sleepy mall, hoping no one would notice, and praying that I would not make the news the next day.
On weekends, I would head home to do laundry, read my mail, catch up on housework and enjoy the going-ons in vibrant DC. My friends, Wayne, Jason and Quentin, thought I was crazy, more so for commuting to Baltimore, than for attending trade school. Woodlawn wasn’t Mayberry and the utopia years had long withered away. Throughout the last decade, Baltimore suffered from terribly violent years with homicide rates soaring.
“Keep your head in a swivel,” they warned. “You don’t want to become another figure in Baltimore’s bourgeoning crime stats.”
Thankfully, I was too busy focusing on my studies. In the beginning there were lots of reading and lectures, I felt I was getting another degree. Kids with ADHD like Rick and Destiny were going stir crazy. Listening to their iTunes and taking naps on the desk. Mr. Pontzer would often interrupt their beauty sleep shouting madly into a bullhorn. Sure enough, they jolted like a stressed cat grabbed by the scruff of their neck We all needed a good laugh and they both needed a good scare.
“This is boring. When can we start working on the engines? Rick asked.
“When you get hired at a shop like the TA, all you’ll be doing for the first six months is tires and oil changes, if they trust you enough,” said Mr. B. “And perhaps some PMs (preventive maintenance) here and there.”
“With all this schoolwork to learn engines and transmissions, and we’re no better than a tire and luber?” Rick sighed, shaking his head like a disgruntled schoolchild.
“Shut the hell up White Boy Rick,” Destiny hollered. “Do what Mr. B say do,” But even her words sounded empty, and she couldn’t help but feel the displeasure over the truth.
In the other bay, the next senior class was working on bearings and seals, led by Mr. Hale. Wheel bearings reduce friction, from the tire and wheel allowing the truck’s wheels to rotate with minimal friction. They carry the brunt of the truck’s weight and take loads from every direction. Diesel Tech had four instructors and there were three different classes at any time. Even though we had a different curriculum, we still interacted during school and after. The idea was to network and learn from each other. We might need each other’s help when we finally got the hell out of here.
“Wheel-end seals are made up of multiple parts with close tolerances. They also are vital to the safe operation of heavy-duty vehicles. For these reasons and others they need to be inspected on a regular basis,” Mr. Hale advised.
After getting under the truck, I felt dirtier than the men’s commode. I knew exactly where I would be going after school. After changing out of my damped, stained uniform I headed into the safe confines of the mall to take my obligatory shower.
Catering to the large influx of Korean immigrants to nearby Howard County, Seoul Square was built adjacent to the mall in the mid 2000s offering a wide variety of Korean food and drinks, even a dance hall and a Korean bathhouse, aptly called Seoul Spa.
It took me a while before I mustered the courage to visit Seoul Spa. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Korean Spas, but never made the effort to bare my soul. And I’m glad I finally did.
For first timers visiting a Korean Spa can be a nerve-racking eye-opening experience. The uniform rules in the wet spa is very simple and totally non-negotiable. Nothing should be worn.
The heat from the sauna loosens stiff joints and inhaling the steam loosens airways and clears sinuses. It was something I looked forward to especially since I felt like I had just gone apple bobbing in a barrel of grease.
Just as I would expect from any Korean Spa, there were a handful of gawkers – guys who seemed like they were more interested in the local scenery than the serenity of the spa.
A few positioned themselves in strategic areas so that would be provided with a prime view of people walking by in the buff.
Some even tried to make small talk. I didn’t mind making friends at the gym, but in a spa where everyone is totally nude, I felt a little uncomfortable. It was hard not to stare and feel free of shame and judgment. Needless to say, the clean was well worth the pain.
Whenever my classmates needed pocket change for drinks or smoke, we could donate our plasma for cash at Octa Pharma. The secret to donating plasma was doing it every other day, twice a week, each month, until our arms scarred by the puncture of the 17 gauge needle.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, the lines got long, so Rick would often leave school early to get a head start. They pay up to $30 per donation (depending on body weight) which was barely worth the shame and suffering. You had to answer the same litany of questions every time: probing questions about our sexual history and use of drugs.
“From 1977 to present, have you ever had sex with another man, even once?”
Well, I answered no to that question two days ago, and I’ve been too busy to even think about sex.
If you’re able to tolerate the interrogation and donate at least 6 times a month, you’ll get a $25 bonus. If you manage to donate twice a week for 4 weeks, you get another $30. And that was enough to buy a 2 Liter bottle of gin. Rick easily made $200 a month and he sat on the lounge chair listening to music and playing video games. He knew had to study, but this experience was cathartic. The apheresis machine, which separates blood from plasma, beeps frequently like an annoying smoke detector.
Donating plasma made you sleepy, and it also triggered your hunger. Plasma nurses walked by every now and then giving you a tap to wake you up.
“Remember we’re saving lives today, not just here but for the rest of the world,” one nurse proclaimed, trying his best to lift up or moods.
The US is one of the few countries where it’s legal to pay for plasma donations. That’s why our country provides 70% of the world’s supply. So every Monday, Rick, Destiny, and I would roll up our sleeves and make our contribution to humanity. Jada wanted to donate, but she didn’t have a social security card.
Tonight, I would be willing to pony up for a hotel. The Howard Johnson in Pikesville became my cozy pad, away from home. But it was far from Utopia.
Just a year ago, a notorious criminal couple had posted ads on Backpage to lure unsuspecting johns to their room for a full-body massage only to be robbed at gunpoint with a replica handgun.
The crime spree was executed to perfection for several months without a hitch. That was until one of the victims finally pulled out a real gun and fired real bullets at them. When the “Backpage Bandits” were caught, their reasoning was that they wanted to move out of one of their parents’ home and needed to pay for rent to live on their own. Suffice it to say, they were able to live rent free in state prison for several years, albeit apart.
Knowing the reputation for crime and to spread out my budget, I would never stay two nights in a row at a hotel but could stay every other night. But there were exceptions, such as when the temperature plummeted to the sub 30’s.
Whatever it takes, I had to get through Diesel Tech. Then I can start my trucking career as an owner operator in my truck.
Soon I wold bring my truck here to Security Square, a safer and warmer refuge to survive these cold winter nights.