John McPhee goes deep, drilling into the back stories of common places and objects, things that pass in front of all of us, but that we don’t really see. He zeroes in on a target — be it the wondrous flying machine about which he wrote in “The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed” or the improbable sinking city of New Orleans about which he wrote in “In Control of Nature.” Then the magic begins. He weaves economics, history, archeology, science, and observations of the natural world into a narrative that is light on its feet, funny, informative, and, most of all, wonderfully human.
He has done it again in his just-published book of essays, “Uncommon Carriers,” which provides an intimate look at a variety of conveyances, including 18-wheelers, UPS conveyor belts, strings of barges as long as the Empire State Building is tall, and lobster elevators. He talks about his book on Sunday, June 11, at 2 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, where he is joined by his daughter Martha McPhee, whose latest book is “L’America,” a well-received novel the Washington Post calls “luminous.”
In the first section of “Uncommon Carriers,” McPhee, who admits to his own forced attendance at “bad driver school,” rides from Georgia to Seattle with Don Ainsworth, a skilled professional truck driver, the owner of 65-foot chemical tanker, a “tractor of such dark sapphire that only bright sunlight could bring forth its color; a stainless-steel, double-conical trailer perfectly mirroring the world around it.” Happily riding along with him, we learn about the tricky business of safely transporting dangerous liquids, and also about truck stop culture, the rules of the road, and why its better to gas up in Idaho than in Oregon.
We also come to know Ainsworth, and this is one of the places where McPhee leaves all of the Discovery Channel programs on supertankers and the like in the dust. His ability to tease out the unique humanity of the truckers, tug boat operators, train spotters, UPS sorters, lobster elevator entrepreneurs, and coal train engineers he hangs out with in this book of essays is a delight. A Princeton professor, long-time New Yorker staff writer, author of 27 books, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, McPhee shows tremendous respect for the expertise of the working people from whom he learns about parallel worlds.
Describing Ainsworth, he writes, “He spoke trucker. A dump truck was a bucket. A moving van was a bedbugger. He also used words like ‘paucity’ and spoke of his ‘circadian rhythms.’ He frequently exclaimed, ‘Lord help us!’ He said ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ probably no more than you do.
“He seemed to have been to every jazz festival from Mt. Hood to Monterey. He had an innate pedagogical spirit, not always flattering, but always warm. Twenty-two miles into Oregon, he explained the time zones of the United States. ‘There’s four time zones with an hour’s difference between them,’ he said. ‘Spread your four fingers. There’s three zones between them.’ Or, as a Montrealer is said to have said to a Newfoundlander laying sod, ‘Green side up!
“Each morning, everywhere, he hunted for the ‘the Walleye,’ often in frustration, because the Walleye tended not to be where his truck could go: ‘You just don’t roll around with hazmat placards looking for the Wall Street Journal.’ He referred to the Journal conservatively as ‘the best written paper in the world.’”
It is a sad moment when Ainsworth and his pristine tanker — “so shiny you can part you hair in it” — drop McPhee off.
He is then off to Lake Revel, “a pond in the foothills of the Alps,” where he spends time with ship captains and pilots taking a five-and-a-half day, $15,000 course in advanced navigation techniques, putting miniature ships through incredibly difficult paces. From navigation simulation, he moves on to the real thing, gliding down the shallow, narrow Illinois river with “fifteen barges wired together in three five-barge strings.”
In one of his most fascinating ventures, McPhee sets out for the offices of Clearwater Seafood, “an all but windowless building beside the open ocean in Arichat, Nova Scotia,” where he finds that “a million lobsters are generally in residence, each in a private apartment where temperatures are maintained just above the freeze point.” He describes the “lobster apartments” as “very tall stacks, thirty-four levels high, divided by canyonlike streets.”
Where the essay on trucking is exquisite for its blending of human culture with slyly slipped in lessons on the technology that carries vast quantities of orange juice, paint thinner, and wine from coast to coast, the lobster essay is a frothy font of crustacean trivia. Perhaps the most interesting is that “On the eve of Christmas Eve, planes heading east for Paris have almost infinitely more lobsters in them than human beings. In annual consumption of lobsters, France is No. 1 in Europe. Clearwater has two customers in France, and is not looking hard for a third.”
Americans, McPhee relates, are nearly alone in demanding large lobsters, but “now and again, a lobster with claws the size of bed pillows goes to Japan to be featured in a display.”
Another fascinating fact is that “Long-distance travel will stress a lobster and affect it physically. Among other things, it loses weight and accumulates ammonia. This can happen on a smooth highway, let alone in giddy turbulence at 30,000 feet. If a lobster succumbs, the ammonia will detonate as a shaped olfactory charge. The next time your quarterback is sacked unconscious, put a dead lobster under his nose and he’ll stand up ready for action.”
The need for a lobster travel break en route to dinner tables all over the world leads McPhee to UPS’s new air superhub in Louisville, Kentucky. He travels there with a load of lobsters destined for the rest-and-rehabilitation reservoir Clearwater has built near the airport, a facility that has caused “Louisville to become the flying lobster capital of the United States.”
Once there, McPhee wanders away from the lobsters and into the most alien parallel world of all, UPS’s uber-automated sorting facility — the sort. “The core of the hub is not an infinite indoor space, of course,” he writes. “It is only a scant half-mile long, but it seems infinite because if you are in the vastness of the sort you can see only a short distance in any direction, including up. I was never left alone there, but if you were left alone there you would need a compass no less than you would if you were dropped into the forests of Gabon between Makokou and Mekambo. You make your way forward through dense stands of columns — columns three inches square supporting conveyors, columns sixteen inches square rising to the roof — and you look up through grids and grates and through more grids and grates laced roundabout with six-sided boxes in skeins like fast-moving scarabs.”
But UPS is not all automation, McPhee discovers, and he writes about how UPS obtains human labor. “It recruits students. It pays tuition. It gives medical benefits and assistance with housing. It pays for books. It gives bonuses for passed courses. UPS is both the founder and the endowment of Metropolitan College, which has classrooms at the hub and also outsources its students to the University of Louisville, Jefferson Community College, and Jefferson Technical College. More students go to Metropolitan College than go to Haverford.”
Before leaving the UPS hub, McPhee is granted the most unusual privilege of peering into its Customs area and riding out to its hyper-secure runways.
“In the sequestered end of the core of the hub, an eight-foot chain-link fence, opaqued by blue plastic strips, surrounds an area reserved for United States Customs. If you get up close and peer through a break in the plastic, you see X-ray machines. You see packages with characters on them. You see inspectors wearing badges and firearms. You do not see dogs, but they can smell you. As packages stream through the sort, Customs can query out anything it wants to. Tracking the tracking, it studies the software with software.”
Most of the essays make mention of 9/11 and the tightened security it has brought to all kinds of commercial transport. Certainly things have tightened up substantially at the UPS hub.
“A terrorist who decides to send himself somewhere by UPS Air might have difficulty getting off the ground, let alone through the hub,” writes McPhee. “Among the many moats and screens set up by the company in recent years is this one: ‘Dear UPS Air Cargo Customers: Individual packages that weigh 150 lbs. or more, and which are large enough to contain a human being, must be tendered stretch or shrink-wrapped and/or banded to be considered for carriage.’ In other words, Harry Houdini could send himself Next Day Air. Others need not apply.”
While Houdini had an unequaled gift for getting out of the most difficult spots, McPhee has a gift for talking his way into very ordinary places — and revealing them to be extraordinary.