When it comes to knowing the people in the neighborhood, Lisa Palermo could give Mr. Rogers a run for his money.
Since she started winding her signature brown United Parcel Service truck through the tree-lined streets south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Palermo has forged surprisingly tight bonds with many of her customers. Her co-workers call this route “the lonely hill” because it’s mostly residential, but Palermo appreciates the mix of people she encounters. At one time she worked on Wall Street and was headed for the stock exchange floor. Now, after six years on her first delivery job, she still likes working outside and being on her own.
Her work day begins at around at the UPS hub in Canarsie. After a quick 8:30 meeting with supervisors, the drivers pour out into a garage thick with exhaust fumes. The trucks, called package cars, are parked in long rows, mere inches apart, their side mirrors folded for clearance.
Palermo runs a tight ship. She started as a preloader eight years ago, so she’s particular about how the packing is done. Palermo immediately sets about charting her day, yanking her reading glasses off and on while scanning labels, resorting boxes and muttering under her breath. “One hundred thirty today,” she whispers.
“OK.” Most days she delivers at least 120 packages, although her highest count was 291 during the holiday season.
She muscles a large box into the truck and peels off her vest, overheated. Then she adjusts the four side mirrors, tucks a bag of cough drops and a bottle of Tums below the dash, and eases out of the garage.
“See that guard? Every time he sees me, he goes like this,” she says crossing herself – once to demonstrate, then again in earnest. “Every day I pray to God to get me to and from my destination safely.”
A crisp fall breeze blows through the open passenger door. “We freeze in the winter and sweat in the summer,” she says, wrestling with a fickle heat switch on the dashboard. “We’re never happy.” But when her co-workers complain, she likes to remind them: “UPS didn’t come knocking on our door; we came to them.”
Once Palermo starts her deliveries, the stories flow as fast as the parcels leave the truck. “I can drop off this one with the father, he’s always home,” she says. “One daughter lives in that house there, and the other lives around the corner. … I know that one’s not home. She’s a nurse.” Palermo knows all sorts of details about her customers, the comings and goings that help her do her job and then some.
At one house, she gets a hug and kiss from a man with a big smile and an even bigger belly. “Cheesecake season’s coming,” she calls out on her way back to the truck. He likes to order cheesecakes at Christmastime, she explains. “I tell him I won’t deliver them unless he gives me a slice. So he calls me when it’s thawed, and I drop by with a plate.”
When she learned that a financially strapped couple on her route was struggling to prepare for their first child, Palermo picked up almost-new baby furniture she found on the street, washed it and gave it to them.
She’s learned which window to knock on when the bell doesn’t work; she keeps track of which neighbors can safely receive a delivery; she makes long climbs with big boxes to fourth-floor walk-ups. But all that is not enough. During lunch and on her days off, Palermo does favors for her favorite customers – everything from plucking weeds to dropping off prescriptions, and even shopping for Thanksgiving dinner.
She says she doesn’t expect anything in return, but on the Friday before she leaves for a weeklong Florida vacation, one of her customers hands her two free guest passes to any Disney theme park.
Delivery Truck Drivers
Qualifications: For trucks that carry 26,000 pounds, a commercial driver’s license, and most employers require a clean driving record.
Demand: Some 1.1 million people worked as delivery service truck drivers in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2010, that will grow by about 215,000 jobs.
Salary: Median hourly U.S. earnings in 2000 was $10.74. Top drivers earn $19.25 or more an hour.
Women drivers: While women make up 46.5 percent of the total workforce, only 4.7 percent of truck drivers are women.