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 robbers 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 “Wild Wild West.”
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.
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 took everything at face value and never understood a joke.
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.
“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.
“How far is your commute?” I inquired. Could it be worse than mine?
“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 dog?”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“Mucho gusto. Mas margaritas por favor mi hermosa.”
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 s sof 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 regularly bellowed across the shop, 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.
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 still thought I was crazy, more so for the commute 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.
Finally, on the third week, we started changing tires led by Sean Beagan aka “Mr. B” who also taught intro and electrical systems.
Safety is a top priority and we first ensured the truck was properly chocked. Then it’s important to position the jack underneath the differential which sardonically called a pumpkin. This can be done because the differential, which sits in the middle of the rear axle, carries the full weight of the truck.
“Hey kids, remember to put on your safety glasses,” hollered Mr. B. “And don’t stand too close to the inflation cage – it could blow your ass to smithereens.”
We then connected the air to the jack and raised her up into the air. Then we hooked up the impact wrench with 150 psi high pressure air and removed all eight lug nuts, the high-pitched whine could be heard clear across the parking lot.
Then we removed the entire wheel off the hub. Steers (front) were a breeze but drive (rear tandems) tires was a Son of a B * * * *. They were so much heavier, bulky and unforgiving.
Then we removed the valve stem so the tire would start to deflate. Then using generous swipes of petroleum jelly some playfully called KY Jelly, separated the tire from the rim.
The goal of the lubricant is to reduce friction between the rubber tire bead and the metal rim flange allowing the surfaces to slide over each other like butter.
“Chito, it’s been a minute now. Why don’t you check the cage- make sure the pressure is at 100 psi,” Destiny implored.
“Yes Madame purple brains, I was hoping to mount the tire to the rim,” I replied.
“Nope, that’s Tank’s job – he’s a lot stronger and weighs a ton more than you do,” she barked back authoritatively.
“That may be, but Mr. B said it’s all about technique and lubrication,” I replied derisively.
Don’t think Destiny heard me. Her attention was diverted on Jorge who had dismounted a tire and was deflating it. “Don’t forget to remove the Schrader valve core,” Destiny yelled, acting every bit entitled like an imperious queen bee.
Jorge gave her a thousand yard stare than slipped her a finger. Destiny paid him no mind – she could care less, what Jorge or the rest of the guys thought about her – she was large and in charge and that was the only way for a female to survive in a male-dominated field.
Jorge messed up last week when he was mounting the tire. After installing seven lug nuts, he realized one was missing. We looked all over for it, only to find out that he had double nutted a lug nut. What a rookie mistake. From then on, he became the brunt of all our jokes and we derisively nicknamed him “our double-nutter.”
Just when it started getting interesting, Rick stepped in “This is boring. When can we start working on the engines?
“When you get hired at a shop, 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 P.Ms. 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 changing tires, 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.
“Hey Sabita, Wanna go to Seoul Spa?” I asked as I handed her a free pass. I had purchased a book of 10 which was a 25 percent discount from the regular price of $35. Sabita Tamang was an international student from Nepal who worked at the Cricket kiosk. Since her shop was located halfway from the food court, I would often spend my lunch (half) hour there, and she mentioned that she wanted to try out a Korean spa.
“Thanks, I’ll go after my shift. Just glad there was no robbery today,” The kiosk was located next to a jewelry store, so Sabita would be my real time source for the latest armed robberies and fist fights that would enlighten her day. She was attending University of Maryland Baltimore County and was applying for the nursing program. “Can’t wait to try the Himalayan salt sauna,” she said. Her father owned a store near the Bouda Stupa temple in Kathmandu.
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.
The mall had a lot to offer. On days that we worked hard and skipped lunch, we would visit Tokyo
Seafood Buffet. I went for the sashimi. Destiny went right for the blue crabs and crawfish. Tank went right for the hibachi and the frog legs. We never ate just a little bit. We went hungry with a hollow leg. And after getting stuffed, we would go for a long walk. On nice days, a walk around the mall was a mile.
If the weather got crappy, we could go watch a movie. Our A-List membership provided three movies a week at the AMC – more than we ever needed, so we shared it with our friends by sending them the QR code. Sometimes I would go with Jada who worked at a custom T-Shirt kiosk in the mall. Since she was undocumented, she worked for less than minimum wage and often her boss would shortchange her. She got off at 9pm just in time to catch the late night screening.
And the theater had just outfitted their seats with leather recliners – perfect for taking naps and cuddling. AMC even sported a full service bar and we could bring drinks inside, but most of the time we snuck a bottle of vodka in our backpacks and brought popcorn from the mall.
And if we 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.
“Could sure use some crabs about now,” Destiny mentioned wishfully.
“What kind: Dungeness, Chesapeake Blue, Snow crab?”I snapped with a tone of sarcasm.
“There’s only one kind of crab that matters in B-town, and that’s the one caught in the traps and nets in the Patapsco or the Bay.”
“Perhaps, but that’s not the only tasty seafood that comes out of the Bay – there’s oysters, clam and rockfish, to name a few.”
“Well that don’t impress me much.”
Then I made a phone call, my face still stained with a thick coat of grease.
“Half a dozen male, half a dozen female – jumbo and steamed,” I requested.
Crab Crib was only a hop, skip and a jump from the trade school.
As usual, there was quite a line, so I was glad I called ahead.
The staff is so friendly here. They were pleasant with the customers which definitely made waiting well worth it.
They were quick and efficient and we were back at the school before the evening class arrived.
Destiny lined the shop table with yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, then sprinkled a bucket of Old Bay all over the spongy meat. Old Bay, is a blend of every eye-tearing spice you could round up from Auntie’s kitchen cupboard.
I prefer mine with just pepper and butter, but Destiny like most native Baltimoreans was a “cayenne pepper” spice girl.
Crab to me tastes like a soft, squishy white meat that resembles fish or the lean part of the chicken. But to Destiny it was like morsels from heaven.
By the time we got done sucking up the steamed cetaceans, it was time to clean up those crab shells and head over to the Game, a lively sports bar offering a nice selection of bar treats and affordable drinks near the Horseshoe Casino.
If you’re a gamer or a Ravens fan or both, then GAME is right down your alley. A couple of other students from the graduating class joined Destiny, Jada and me. Mechanics enjoyed playing video games just as much as they liked working on engines. They were natural introverts, but tonight, they would let their social side show. It was Wednesday night which meant HiScore or Happy Hour for Gamers.
Rick enjoyed playing the American Truck Simulator. After working on engines all day, there is nothing more relaxing than sitting behind the wheel and driving on the open road. Some of us will get our CDLs after finishing trade school. While others can just live the dream.
GAME has more than just PS4. They also offer traditional games such as Pool, ping pong, Air hockey, Jenga, corn hole and darts. This appealed to the diesel techs who loved been on their feet, moving around, keeping their hands busy. Jada was partial to beer pong except she didn’t like the beer. Lucky for me, I was happy to oblige in her place.
After satisfying our gaming addiction, it was time to head back to Security Mall to crash for the night. Had to catch some Z’s – Pontzer had a pop quiz for us first thing. I drove Jada back to her home down the road from the mall. Destiny drove her old Toyota back to Security Square.
“Do me a favor, come to my car first thing in the morning and knock hard,” she pleaded. “Don’t let me be late for school again.”
When I got back I saw a couple of dozen free wheelers doing donut holes in the parking lot like it was the grand prix.
This was not a random collection of mischievous kids looking for fun. Instead, it was an organized group of guys and gals chasing danger, drugs and lawlessness – living life on the edge.
Kids in hot rods and illegal street racers spinning around in a dark, empty parking lot. They are natural-born thrill seekers who have nothing better to do and no other goal but to invite danger and elude the law. It was an accident waiting to happen, and I didn’t want no part of it.
Smoke mixed with the smell of burning rubber filled the night sky, resembling pressurized steam from a catapult on a busy flight deck of an aircraft carrier. It was exhilarating to watch but dangerous to be in midst of all this madness.
They didn’t know I was there. I sat in the safe confines of my car recording the entire event on my iPhone, hoping it would not be recalled as criminal evidence.
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.
I still had eight more months of the program to go – what were my plans and how would I survive?
I started my trucking career two years ago in rural Virginia doing pre-trips, learning how to check my tires and lights so I would prevent accidents and save lives on the road. Now I’m back in school in suburban Baltimore county learning how to change tires and trying to survive on these rough streets.