The Leading Indicators

Gregg Easterbook

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter 1
 
 
October 2006
Dow Jones Index: 11,200.
Unemployment: 4.8 percent.
U.S. motor vehicle production: 11.2 million.
Even when they are what you expect, things still come as a surprise. The delivery driver should have known better than to feel blindsided when he hit a freeway traffic jam at six A.M. Carmine taillights in the still-dark meant thousands had left early to beat the backups. Not long before, a person needed to be out of the house by seven A.M. to reach work before the freeways clogged. Then by six-thirty, now by six—nobody need be reminded where that trend was headed. Vehicles descended toward the city with vehement determination, tiny parts inside their engines spinning too rapidly to see, men and women inside the cars alone gulping coffee and listening on the radio to agitated voices discussing an outrage or crisis or scandal. There seemed to be a lot of that going around.
The predawn traffic was beautiful in a way only our forebears could appreciate, since they could not have dreamed of society being able to build so many roads and place so many machines on them, while today it is hard to imagine these things not existing. No one planned or wanted the traffic jam, of course. A lot happens that isn’t planned.
Coming over a rise, the driver hit the brakes as congestion worsened. There were lines of cars on the ramps, anxious to join the slowness. A bit farther along he exited and sought the convenience store where he always stopped—Grab ’N’ Get Out, a popular chain, with a logo of a stylized giant mouth. The inside was busy, clerks in smocks dispensing ice-based drinks, breakfast tacos, candy bars, cigarettes, chili dogs and microwaved bacon sandwiches to customers in construction overalls, office attire, hospital scrubs, jogging suits. Within the realm of the modern American twenty-four-hour store, if the blinds were drawn it would become impossible to sense the time outside.
The driver chose a thirty-two-ounce Pepsi with a double vanilla shot and a jumbo popcorn, waiting to pay behind a man who, at 6:09 A.M., was purchasing a travel-sized laundry detergent and two lottery tickets. Headlines on morning newspapers stacked on a rack referred to developments in several wars, but the driver never talked with his friends about wars. They did talk a lot about combat video games. The driver hurried on his way to the distribution center, knowing he’d be docked an hour of pay if reporting more than three minutes late.
At the center, workers were nearing completion of the sorting of packages that arrived during the night. The sorting shift began at one A.M. Students from the local community college, welfare-to-work single moms and recent parolees dragged themselves in while most folks slept. They earned $11.50 an hour assigning to the proper truck routes the express packages, merchandise and documents borne to the city by cargo aircraft painted with bright insignia. Short-range planes began hitting the runways of a nearby airfield not long after midnight, depending on weather. Sorters had to work fast so a backlog didn’t develop before the large long-distance cargo aircraft—heavies, to air controllers—arrived as the night was ending. Approaching, the cargo pilots sometimes saw the sunrise from high in the air, then descending to the ground, saw the sunrise a second time while taxiing.
A huge digital clock, electric numerals a foot high, hung on the wall by the distribution center entrance. More digital time readouts were stationed throughout the sorting area, arranged such that every worker had a clear view of a clock. The entry clock read 6:32 as the driver walked in.
“Just made it—I’ll get you next time,” said his supervisor, a strict woman who liked to penalize the drivers. She wore two cell phones, each in a hip holster like a gunfighter’s six-shooters, plus a radio with earpiece as worn by a bodyguard or commando, and had a portable printer attached to her belt. She made jangling sounds when she moved.
The supervisor looked out into the parking lot at other delivery drivers who were parking their cars and couldn’t possibly reach the entrance by 6:33 A.M., the cutoff time. There were several whom she would dock for being a mere moment late. This made her smile.
Bright lights inside the distribution center were nearly blinding: it was important the scanner devices had sufficient light to read bar codes accurately. The lights were the very latest low-energy models. The corporation liked to boast of environmental awareness, putting statistics about reduced carbon emissions at the top of press releases that mentioned outsourcing and canceled health benefits at the bottom.
Hourly laborers were moving boxes and sheen-material envelopes, timed on their average seconds per package handled. Not laborers—“associates,” as if it were a communal undertaking. Computers did the thinking, directing what should go where.
Most of the products passing through the sorting center were designed or conceived in the United States or European Union, then made in Asia or Central America. Digital code representing a new video game, or a fashion touch just seen on a movie star, was beamed by Internet to fabrication facilities—they weren’t factories anymore; no investor wants to hear the steam-era word “factory”—in the developing world, where workers assembled whatever struck the mood of the Western consumer at that instant. Jumbo jets guided by satellite navigation pulses picked up the goods that the developing world facilities produced. Sea transit was too slow: jets were required to ensure the orders arrived before a consumer mood swing. When dinnertime came the Asian workers sat at long tables for bowls of company-provided soup. At night they lived in dormitories so they could send their pay home to the village. The workers’ cafeterias and dorms in Central America were guarded by teenagers with automatic weapons, nervous about dying in a shootout with a drug gang.
The delivery driver grabbed his day’s assignment sheets. He took one of the new memory sticks to insert into his portable scanner, beginning his day’s timings. Everything he did, down to bathroom breaks, would be timed.
The driver jogged, rather than walked, to his truck to help the preloaders prepare it by placing packages and envelopes into the reverse order they would be removed. The preloaders too ran back and forth, never merely walking. Once deliveries commenced, the driver would run from his truck to homes or offices, then run back. If delivering or picking up items that required dollies, he was allowed to walk when dragging a dolly that held weight, but expected to run when it was empty.
A generation previously, overnight nationwide delivery was not available even to the aristocratic. Now if a package containing a shirt or child’s toy did not arrive at the correct door the next day for a nominal charge, people were irate. Accomplishing this was possible only if drivers ran from curb to stoop, if single moms reported to sorting centers in the middle of the night, if associates waived their lunch breaks. Still customers complained about the cost. Should the package contain a video game or new-model mobile phone, its price would not be possible unless big public companies pressured Asian suppliers to treat their labor force as glorified livestock. Still customers complained about the cost.
As the driver departed for his day’s route, yellow sun was beginning to heat the city. Now the highways were packed with cars, trucks and buses. Developments such as cell phones and Web connections made aspects of life less time-consuming, but the time saved was mainly shifted to driving and thereby lost, netting no gain. Often not even shifted to driving, rather to sitting in barely moving cars. The backed-up roads were among the contemporary influences bringing out the worst in people. Men and women who were polite in person became, once in cars, Hun horsemen charging across the steppes. They would maneuver madly, horn blowing, to get a single car-length ahead, as if there were a reward for doing so. All that effort to attain the nice car, and the world refused to get out of your way.
Leaving the highway, the delivery driver beheld a portion of the glowing suburban alternate universe that swells from the nation’s cities. Homes, townhouses, offices, schools, stores, restaurants, filling stations, all with cars parked in every available spare bit of square footage, including, on the less pricey streets, on what were once lawns, now paved over to create parking space for the three- to five-car household, or for immigrant families squeezed in together. In much of suburbia, the car-to-adult ratio approaches 1:1. So many resources had been brought to bear to build suburbia and its automobile network that it was a wonder the Earth wasn’t hollowed out and in danger of collapse. People might be struggling financially, but cars are doing really great.
Once off the highway, the driver retracted his truck’s sliding doors and locked them in the open position, making his “package car,” as the drivers called their vehicles, appear to have no doors. Except on the coldest days, express-delivery drivers keep the doors stowed, to save precious seconds. One hundred stops a day, one hundred openings and closings of a truck door—that’s a lot of wasted time.
The driver ran, ran, ran through the morning part of his route, thinking about the World Series or about lunch. Arriving on Cobblestone Lane, where there were no sidewalks, much less cobblestones, he delivered North Face jackets and desktop printers. The neighborhood was the kind where the dimensions of a house served not just to contain what was within, but as an advertisement.
The truck approached the curved driveway of a regular, Margo Helot, to whom delivery companies brought packages nearly every day. The Helot household rested on a crest of tasteful affluence. Five-bedroom home fully redecorated. Two delightful children with good grades. His-and-hers fancy cars in the drive—Margo drove a Lexus, described by the automotive press as an “entry-level luxury” product. Day after day the driver brought this house packages from the kinds of places from which all Americans wished they were receiving packages: Williams-Sonoma, Bergdorf Goodman, Under Armour, Pfaelzer Brothers, L.L.Bean, Villeroy & Boch. Packages from L.L.Bean: a person could feel good about that, because this business is still independent and still makes its wares in Maine. At least, that’s what they want you to believe.
Needing to pick up his pace, the driver swung his truck into the Helots’ drive. Delivery personnel were supposed to stop on the street so as not to inconvenience a homeowner who might require the driveway at the same moment a package arrives. But drivers trying to shave time may take shortcuts.
The truck started up the curved incline toward the house. There was the sound of an enormous beer can being crushed. The driver’s head jerked forward, then backward as the airbag fired. Behind his eyelids he saw the miniature lightning bolts depicted in cartoons when a talking raccoon is hit by a falling anvil.
The UPS and FedEx trucks, one arriving and moving forward, one departing and backing up too fast, had collided in the driveway.
Hearing the metallic crunch, Margo came to the door. Observing the collision, she ran to see if anyone was hurt. As she did this, a DHL truck pulled up. It takes a lot of deliveries to sustain a high-end lifestyle.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Gregg Easterbrook