My nephew Eric is 48 years old, a husband, father, and grandfather. He and his close-knit extended family live in Peru, Indiana. He is the son of my late beloved brother, John. Eric is a fine human, and I sometimes think of him as the man John could have become had he not been irreparably scarred by early child abuse and his experience in Vietnam. As a long-distance truck driver, Eric is considered an essential worker. I spoke at length with him this Spring. This is his pandemic story.
Eric owns a small fleet of five semi-trucks and runs the long haul himself. He worked his way up, beginning as a driver after being laid off fifteen years ago from another job in the then recession-battered Peru, Indiana. I spoke with him about his experience during the era of Covid-19. “It’s a crazy world out here,” he says. When a load becomes available there may be twenty-five to forty companies competing for it. “My drivers are contract employees who have families to support. Before I take a load, I give it to one of them. I don’t want to lose my drivers.” He’s lost 50 to 60% of his income. Because he’s considered self-employed and his drivers are contract workers, none of them is eligible for unemployment. “The PPP [Payroll Protection Plan, part of the CARES act] did nothing for people who have equipment like semis.” But Eric says he’s “confident we’ll make it through.” He’s associated with a long-lived company and sees a better future ahead as that partnership grows.
How are you managing in these pandemic times? “I worry most about my family,” he says. His wife, Shannon, is high-risk with one kidney and other health issues. She works as the Senior Branch Office Administrator for a financial company and is considered essential, but her wages are frozen. She has the option of working from home but has chosen to work from the locked office. Both his daughters work full time in medical offices, but their hours have been cut due to Covid-19 and his sons-in-law are laid off due to the pandemic.
But what’s it like out there on the road? “It’s eerily quiet. I’ve driven through Chicago, LA, San Francisco, and Portland. What used to take an hour and a half now takes 25 minutes. I always used to avoid Chicago between 5 and 8 PM. Now I just drive straight through.” But what about eating and sleeping? “I’m getting sick of fast food.” Now truck stops are no longer serving sit-down “home-cooked” meals. Customers can go inside, but places are marked for social-distancing and you tell the clerk what you want and they get it for you. Deliveries are contactless. When the truck arrives, people are there to unload it. “You’re not allowed to get out of your truck. They unload it and pound on the side when you’re ready to go.” He sleeps in his truck. The overwhelming majority of people, he says, are keeping their distance.
Are you afraid of contacting the virus? “I take the proper precautions. I wear a mask, and I disinfect the cab every day.” The worst thing, Eric says, is missing his family and his fear for their safety when he is at home. “I go everywhere! I was literally there in Washington State when it all began!” His Mom asks why he never visits. It’s hard to not see her or his daughters and their families, his five grandchildren. “But I don’t want to be THAT guy.”
How’s Jonathan doing? His special-needs son is the reason they bought the house they live in now. He has his own living space in the lower level. But Shannon makes sure he does his chores before he can have screen time to play games with his cousin. Eric lights up when he talks about Jonathan. “He’s a germaphobe, so we have tubs of anti-bacterial wipes and sprays! We were ready.” Jonathan is 25 but is developmentally delayed, so he is more similar to a 10- or 12-year-old kid. He’s always surprising Eric and Shannon. “His Mom likes to watch reality TV, like the Real Housewives of wherever. He told us the other day that he doesn’t like her shows. When we asked him why, he said, ‘Because everybody’s always yelling.’” Eric tells me that he loves Jonathan’s teachers. They brought him out of his shell. When he went through a period when he wouldn’t talk, his teacher taught him sign language. When he graduated from high school, the master of ceremonies asked the audience to hold their applause until all students received their diplomas. But when Jonathan’s name was called, all of his classmates erupted in cheers and applause. “I cried like a little girl.” Characteristically, Eric’s concern is for his son’s welfare. “I used to be scared. I still am. What will happen to him when Shannon and I are gone? Megan says she will step up, but I worry about the burden on her.”
Eric and Shannon’s 30th wedding anniversary is in August. They were planning a special trip to celebrate. Shannon’s dream is to go to Ireland. “But,I don’t know now,” Eric muses.