Photo by Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Holiday parties were right around the corner, and I needed a cover story. I didn’t feel like admitting to casual acquaintances, or even to some good friends, that I drive a van for Amazon. I decided to tell them, if asked, that I consult for Amazon, which is loosely true: I spend my days consulting a Rabbit, the handheld Android device loaded with the app that tells me where my next stop is, how many packages are coming off the van, and how hopelessly behind I’ve fallen.
Let’s face it, when you’re a college-educated 57-year-old slinging parcels for a living, something in your life has not gone according to plan. That said, my moments of chagrin are far outnumbered by the upsides of the job, which include windfall connections with grateful strangers. There’s a certain novelty, after decades at a legacy media company—Time Inc.—in playing for the team that’s winning big, that’s not considered a dinosaur, even if that team is paying me $17 an hour (plus OT!). It’s been healthy for me, a fair-haired Anglo-Saxon with a Roman numeral in my name (John Austin Murphy III), to be a minority in my workplace, and in some of the neighborhoods where I deliver. As Amazon reaches maximum ubiquity in our lives (“Alexa, play Led Zeppelin”), as online shopping turns malls into mausoleums, it’s been illuminating to see exactly how a package makes the final leg of its journey.
There’s also a bracing feeling of independence that attends piloting my own van, a tingle of anticipation before finding out my route for the day. Will I be in the hills above El Cerrito with astounding views of the bay, but narrow roads, difficult parking, and lots of steps? Or will my itinerary take me to gritty Richmond, which, despite its profusion of pit bulls, I’m starting to prefer to the oppressive traffic of Berkeley, where I deliver to the brightest young people in the state, some of whom may wonder, if they give me even a passing thought: What hard luck has befallen this man, who appears to be my father’s age but is performing this menial task?
Thanks for asking!
The hero’s journey, according to Joseph Campbell, features a descent into the belly of the beast: Think of Jonah in the whale, or me locked in the cargo bay of my Ram ProMaster on my second day on the job, until I figured out how to work the latch from the inside. During this phase of the journey, the hero becomes “annihilate to the self”—brought low, his ego shrunk, his horizons expanded. This has definitely been my experience working for Jeff Bezos.
During my 33 years at Sports Illustrated, I wrote six books, interviewed five U.S. presidents, and composed thousands of articles for SI and SI.com. Roughly 140 of those stories were for the cover of the magazine, with which I parted ways in May of 2017. Since then, as Jeff Lebowski explains to Maude between hits on a postcoital roach, “my career has slowed down a little bit.”
This proved problematic when my wife and I decided to refinance our home. Although Gina, an attorney, earns plenty, we needed a bit more income to persuade lenders to work with us. It quickly became clear that for us to qualify, I would need more than occasional gigs as a freelance writer; I would need a steady job with a W-2. Thus did I find myself, after replying to an indeed.com posting for Amazon delivery drivers, emerging from an office-park lavatory a few miles from my house, feigning nonchalance as I handed a cup of urine to the attendant and bid him good day.
Little did I know, while delivering that drug-test sample, that this most basic of human needs—relieving oneself—would emerge as one of the more pressing challenges faced by all “delivery associates,” especially those of us crowding 60. An honest recounting of this job must include my sometimes frantic searches for a place to answer nature’s call.
To cut its ballooning delivery costs—money it was shelling out to UPS and FedEx—Amazon recently began contracting out its deliveries to scores of smaller companies, including the one I work for. Amazon trains us, and provides us with uniform shirts and hats, but not with a ride. Before 7 a.m., we report to a parking lot near the warehouse where we select a vehicle from our company’s motley fleet of white and U-Haul vans.
I’m an Aries, so it stands to reason that I’m partial to Dodge Ram ProMasters. I like their profile and tight turning radius: That’s key, since we make about 100 U-turns and K-turns a day. Problem is, most of the drivers in our company—there are about 40 of us—share my preference. The best vans go to drivers with seniority, even if they show up after I do. Before it was taken out of service for repairs, I was often stuck with a ProMaster that had issues: Side-view mirrors spiderwebbed; the left mirror held fast to the body of the van by several layers of shrink-wrap. The headlights didn’t work unless flicked into “bright” mode, which means that when delivering after dark, I was blinding and infuriating oncoming motorists.
I drove that beast on my worst day so far. After a solid morning and early afternoon, I glanced at the Rabbit and sighed. It was taking me to that fresh hell that is 3400 Richmond Parkway, several hundred apartments set up in a mystifying series of concentric circles. The Rabbit’s GPS doesn’t work there, the apartment numbers are difficult to find, and the lady in the office informed me that I couldn’t leave packages with her. She did, however, hand me a map resembling the labyrinth of ancient Greece. I spent an hour wandering, ascending flights of stairs that took me, usually, to the incorrect apartment. By now deep in the hole, with no shot at completing my appointed rounds for the day, I set a forlorn course for my next stop at the nearby Auto Mall. That’s when I heard a thud-thud-thud from the area of my right front tire, which was so old and bald that it had begun to shed four- and five-inch strips of rubber, which were thumping against the wheel well.
Although it was only 4 p.m., I called it quits. Some days in the delivery biz, the bear eats you. But I got some perspective back at the lot, where a fellow driver named Shawn told me about the low point of his day. A woman had challenged him as he emerged from her side yard—where he’d been dropping a package, as instructed. “What are you stealing?”
“That sucks,” I said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
“It's cool,” he told me. “I called her a bitch.”
For both days of my safety training, I sat next to and befriended Will, who now shows up for work wearing every Amazon-themed article of clothing he can get his hands on: shirt, ball cap, Amazon beanie pulled over Amazon ball cap. I found that odd at first, but it makes good sense. If you’re a black man and your job is to walk up to a stranger’s front door—or, if the customer has provided such instructions, to the side or the back of the property—then yes, rocking Amazon gear is a way to protect yourself, to proclaim, “I’m just a delivery guy!”
That safety training, incidentally, is comprehensive and excellent. After two days in the classroom, all of us had to pass a “final exam.” It wasn’t a slam dunk. In my experience, however, some of the guidelines Amazon hammers home to us (seat belts must be worn at all times; the reverse gear is to be used as seldom as possible; driveways are not to be blocked while making deliveries) must be thrown overboard if we’re going to come close to finishing our routes.
And there’s the bathroom issue.
The Google search Amazon driver urinates summons a cavalcade of caught-in-the-act videos depicting poor saps, since fired, who simply couldn’t hold it any longer. While their decision to pee in the side yard—or on the front porch!—of a customer is not excusable, it is, to those of us in the Order of the Arrow (my made-up name for Amazon delivery associates), understandable.
Before sending me out alone, the company assigned me two “ride-alongs” with its top driver, the legendary Marco, who went out with 280 packages the second day I rode shotgun with him, took his full lunch break, did not roll through a single stop sign, and was finished by sundown. Marco taught me to keep a lookout not just for porch pirates—lowlifes who swoop in behind us to pilfer packages—but also for portable toilets. In neighborhoods miles from a service station or any public lavatory, a Port-a-John, or a Honey Pot, can be no less welcome than an oasis in the desert. (The afternoon I leapt from the van and beelined to a Honey Pot, only to find it padlocked, was the closest I’ve come to crying on the job.)
Delivering in El Sobrante one day, I popped into a convenience store on San Pablo Avenue. I bought an energy bar, but that was a mere pretext. “I wonder if I might use your lavatory,” I asked the proprietor, a gentleman of Indian descent, judging by his accent, in a dapper beret.
A cloud passed over his face. “You make number one or two?”
“Just one!” I promised. He inclined his head toward the back of the store, in the direction of the “Employees only” bathroom.
After thanking him on my way out, I mentioned that I was new at Amazon, still figuring out restroom strategies.
“Amazon drivers, FedEx drivers, UPS, Uber, Lyft—everybody has to go.”
But where? When no john can be found, when the delivery associate is denied permission to use the gas-station bathroom, he is sometimes left with no other choice than to repair to the dark interior of the cargo bay—the belly of the beast—with an empty Gatorade bottle.
It was late afternoon on a Monday when I may or may not have been forced to such an extreme. I was dispensing packages on Primrose Lane in Pinole, and I remember thinking, afterward: Aside from the fact that my checking account is overdrawn and I’m 30 deliveries behind and the sun will be down in an hour and I’m about to take a furtive whiz in the back of a van, life really is a holiday on Primrose Lane!
Pinole, incidentally, is the hometown of the ex–Miami Hurricanes quarterback Gino Torretta, a great guy who won the Heisman Trophy in 1992. I covered him then, and a few years later when he was playing for the Rhein Fire in the NFL’s World League. Gino and I hoisted a stein or two at a beer hall in Düsseldorf. Some of the American players were having trouble enunciating the German farewell, auf Wiedersehen. To solve that problem, they would say these words as rapidly as possible: Our feet are the same!
Performing my new job, I’m frequently reminded of my old one, whether it’s driving past Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, where I covered countless Pac-12 games, or listening to NFL contests during Sunday deliveries. I’ve talked and laughed with many of the players and coaches and general managers and owners whose names I hear.
Sitting in traffic one damp December morning, I turned on the radio to hear George W. Bush eulogizing his father. His speech was funny, rollicking, loving, and poignant. It was pitch-perfect. In the summer of 2005, after returning from the Tour de France—cycling was my beat during the reign of Lance Armstrong—I was invited, along with five other journalists, to ride mountain bikes with W. on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The Iraq War was going sideways; 43 needed some positive press. I jumped at the chance, even though I loathed many of his policies. In person, Bush was disarming, charming, funny. (These days, compared with the current POTUS, he seems downright Churchillian.) I wrote two accounts, one for the magazine, another for the website. Got a nice note from him a couple weeks later.
Lurching west in stop-and-go traffic on I-80 that morning, bound for Berkeley and a day of delivering in the rain, I had a low moment, dwelling on how far I’d come down in the world. Then I snapped out of it. I haven’t come down in the world. What’s come down in the world is the business model that sustained Time Inc. for decades. I’m pretty much the same writer, the same guy. I haven’t gone anywhere. My feet are the same.
When I’m in a rhythm, and my system’s working, and I slide open the side door and the parcel I’m looking for practically jumps into my hand, and the delivery takes 35 seconds and I’m on to the next one, I enjoy this gig. I like that it’s challenging, mentally and physically. As with the athletic contests I covered for my old employer, there’s a resolution, every day. I get to the end of my route, or I don’t. I deliver all the packages, or I don’t.
That’s what I ended up sharing with people at the first Christmas party of the season. It felt better, when they asked how I was doing, to just tell the truth.
This is also true: Gina and I got approved for that loan last week, meaning that our monthly outlay, while not so minuscule that it can be drowned in Grover Norquist’s figurative bathtub, is now far more manageable, thanks in part to these daily journeys which I consider, in their minor way, heroic.