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Guestwords: Amazon Time

Wed, 04/05/2023 - 18:19
Jeff Nichols Photo

I did not want to spend another winter sitting on the couch. All jobs, after all, have dignity, and the concept of delivering packages in a van seemed simple enough. And rewarding: You start the day with a full van and finish with an empty one. I could wrap my head around that.

Whether you have money or not, as we age it’s always necessary for our neurotransmitters to find ways to get out of our comfort zones or we will simply rot. Or worse, become bitter. If you have not worked in a while, or in my case, tragically, basically not at all, or are living a sedentary existence, taking a job as a delivery driver at Amazon in Westhampton Beach is an option.

There you’ll become acquainted with technology, especially the use of apps and an Android phone and tablet, inevitably opening new circuits to your brain. You’ll also feel plugged in to the work force again — a worker among workers. Finally, if I did it, a highly learning-disabled person who was in special needs classes throughout high school, believe me, so can you. 

I’ve always been attracted to the concept of delivery — for a florist would be great, or a Coca-Cola route? Those guys always seem happy to me.

In October I jumped through some basic hoops at Amazon. I took a drug test, and they ran D.M.V. and background checks. They do make you go through a small obstacle course with a cargo van. The backward S through cones is daunting but the only challenging part. 

A week later, at the huge Westhampton Beach dispatch center at Gabreski Airport (8,000 square feet, small by Amazon standards), I went through three days of mundane classroom training. It was nothing practical, all about company culture and putting the customer first, and what to do if you’re attacked by a dog. The takeaway of that one-hour video: Put the box between you and the angry canine, scream for help, and when all else fails run for your effing life.

I was only a part-timer, 22 hours a week, but apparently full-time drivers get attacked roughly once every six months. (Drivers have also been known to pee in Gatorade bottles or use buckets, etc. There is no other choice; you are on a suburban street with no time to find a Starbucks.)

For three days in training you watch these videos and answer multiple-choice questions regarding them on a tablet. These seemed designed less to teach you things and more to see if you will crack. (“What? Another 100-question test on how to open van doors? I am out of here!”) Two hours are spent finding work shoes on Zappos rather than teaching you practical stuff you need for the job, like how to fold tote containers after they’re emptied, or load a van systematically, or scan VIN numbers and sort packages, or take clear pictures with a phone.

If the training were more hands-on, it would weed people out. If they can’t find, scan, and deliver a box inside of five minutes in a warehouse, they certainly won’t be able to do it on a dark street in Shirley-Mastic.

I’m going way beyond my expertise here. This little piece is certainly not an exposé on the Amazon company. Procedure, management, health of the company, and so on. Should they unionize? What’s going on with the stock? Why are they killing mom-and-pop stores? That would take a real journalist. No, this is just one old burnt-out humorist’s short experience.

Basically, I liked the job. It was hard but rewarding and fun. The staff is made up of hard-working, mostly young, nice people who will help you. They say kids today don’t work hard, but based on what I saw, I would argue to the contrary. I would recommend doing it with a friend, if possible, so you can commiserate, but don’t do it as a gag, or for a story to tell at a cocktail party. The first day is so brutal you won’t survive if your motives are not legit.

I did not need the money, necessarily. I did this job for dignity — I felt my mother’s Puritanical work ethic coursing through my veins as I dragged five-gallon jugs of water up a staircase in an Eastport mansion. (Yes, people order jugs of water.) She would’ve been proud. 

I’ve worked boring retail jobs before, I was a substitute teacher in the East Hampton School District for two years, I ran an East Hampton Town septic pumpout boat for two seasons, but there’s something rewarding about working for Amazon: You drop off 200 packages, you feel like a real badass. You’re moving merchandise! 

While in okay shape, I was worried about my age (a rough 57) being a problem, but I noticed that there were plenty of, or at least a few, nimble drivers, both men and women new to the job as I was, close to 60. They had a certain blue-collar air and confidence about them that I just could not summon or fake. They’d done hard jobs before, this was a piece of cake. They were proud workers.

Regardless of age, to be a driver you must possess some mobility (get in and out of the truck at least a hundred times), be able to work nonstop (no breaks) for 11 hours (at least), and, most important, be tech-friendly. Like it or not, we are living in a gig economy. All the routes, communications with dispatchers, van assignments, and paychecks are handled on apps. There is a mentor app you must sign in to every morning, and the mentor will go over your driving mistakes and speed of delivery and what you should work on. You have no boss; the phone is your boss. And it wants 20 stops an hour, goddammit.

There can be mixed messages at Amazon: Go as fast as you can, but don’t speed or roll through a stop sign. And you’re watched; there is one camera perched on the rearview mirror and two others.

The first day out, I was given a “baby route” of 80 stops. I truly thought my instructor had said eight. I remember thinking, “Now that’s a reasonable amount of stops. I’ll do four houses in the a.m., have a nice lunch at John Papas, then bang out the other four houses in the afternoon.”

Boy, was I off. Amazon works off an algorithm, the more you can do, the more they give you. Returning to the station with even one box is frowned upon. Many houses have long driveways, entry codes, dogs, and instructions (“Please leave on back stoop”). Imagine getting out of your car and ringing doorbells 120 times; that’s a lot of getting in and out of your car. Add to that finding packages, scanning boxes, taking a picture of the box at the doorstep, and getting back in the van, putting your seatbelt on at all times. The pace is brutal.

You train with someone the first day. I kept insisting that I was too old for this job and should go home, so they assigned me to a likable 61-year-old. He was hunched over, a wisp of a man, but as it turned out he was an absolute animal, a savant, possibly on some kind of spectrum, dead-focused on getting the job done. He wasted no time and was always organizing packages then grabbing them and running to a doorstep. Since I knew he could get Social Security, I asked him why he was doing this job, and he answered that he did not do well watching TV on the couch, and he was broke.

It was late November, so not all houses had had leaves removed, and I was worried about him tripping, which he did once. Going across a lawn he hit a series of sunken flowerpots and everything went flying, but he was not hurt, collected himself, and carried on unperturbed.

When I told him to slow down, his answer was “We can’t, dark soon.” All the drivers kept referring to the dark as if they were in a werewolf movie, as if demons would come out then.

He was right. Darkness made it all tougher: reading the labels, scanning the boxes, finding loose packages in the back of the van, finding the houses — not all of them have numbers, or lights on walkways. And then there’s the worry of tripping over things like wires holding up huge distorted Christmas characters like snowmen and elves. (Shirley-Mastic has some real monsters, I was impressed by the dedication; one great one was of Will Ferrell.)

I made it through a modest 22 days, made some decent money, and walked away with self-esteem and a profound respect for all delivery people. Though in the past I’d tipped, I never really appreciated delivery drivers. Often all I would say was “Is this it?” or “Anything else?”

The next time you race through a puddle and splash a little postal truck with your S.U.V., think about how there is a person in there with a headlamp going about his or her work: getting packages to you. Tip them.

Jeff Nichols lives in Springs. “American Loser,” a movie based on his memoir, was a Spotlight entry at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2007. It can be seen on Amazon Prime Video.


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