On the Road Again -June 2017
Finn Murphy and the life of a long-haul trucker
by: John Stanton
Some nights after work, after stepping out of his tractor-trailer rig, and working with his crew to unload 20,000 pounds of what amounted to the possessions that describe our lives, Finn Murphy would crack open a beer, light a cigarette and talk into a tape recorder. This was the 1980s. Looking back, he is not quite sure why he kept talking about his day and his thoughts into that tape recorder.
A couple of years ago he sent the tapes off to a transcribing service in Boston.
“Two days later I get a phone call,” he said, over the phone from his home in Colorado. “And they said, ‘We have a problem. All the transcribers want your audiotapes. They are much more interesting than the work we usually do. I hope you’re going to write a book’.”
At first he thought, “The normal work they do is probably for the Watertown planning board, so of course this was different.”
But he began wading through the hundreds of pages when the transcribers were finished with their work. He began toying with the idea that somewhere in those transcripts there might actually be a book.
“As I was reading through it and adding and subtracting stuff, I started to realize there were a couple of themes in it that might be kind of interesting,” he said.
“One of them is the outsider thing. Another one is how the accumulation and getting rid of possessions doesn’t seem to bring equanimity to anybody. Another is how rootless and restless Americans are.”
The result is “The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road.” If you are expecting cowboy hats, tobacco chaws and Willie Nelson on the stereo, you will be in for a surprise. This is a story told from an outsider’s point of view. It is also a story about the worth and satisfaction of working-class jobs.
“I do not, for a moment, think I’m a symbol of some bygone ideal of Wild West American freedom, or any half-mythic, half-menacing nugget of folk nonsense,” Murphy writes in the book’s introduction.
In fact, this is the story of a man who took on physically demanding blue-collar work not because he had no other choice, or because it made him feel tough, but because it made him happy. There is the lure of being your own boss. There is that almost Zen-like state that the repetitive manual labor of packing a truck can put you in. And the money is very good.
“I’ve lived a good part of my life in an odd netherworld,” Murphy writes. “Working people are suspicious of my diction and demeanor, and
white-collar people wonder what a guy like me, who looks and sounds like them, is doing driving a truck and moving furniture for a living.”
Raised in Greenwich, Conn, in a large Irish Catholic family whose expectations for their children included a prestigious college education followed by a white-collar career, Murphy writes that, “None of it stuck.”
Maybe, but “Long Haul” is a story told by a man who both knows how to properly downshift in one of those big trucks you see out on the interstate, how to navigate that truck along mountain roads, and who also has definite opinions on the subtext of “Moby-Dick.”
Islanders, in fact, will remember Murphy as a Nantucket selectman and the proprietor of a store that sold expensive cashmere sweaters. He drove a truck in the 1980s, stopped driving for the 20 years he lived on Nantucket with his wife Pam, and now drives part-time.
Asked if the very mention of cashmere would get him punched in the face at your average truck stop, Murphy laughed and said long-haul truckers would probably not know what he was talking about.
Murphy will be back on Nantucket for the sixth annual Nantucket Book Festival. He talked to Nantucket Today about life on the road.
Nantucket Today: Talk about the reality of your job versus the image of a long-haul trucker we all have.
Finn Murphy: “I’m an outsider for several different reasons. The first is I’m a bed-bugger (a trucker’s nickname for furniture movers) and not a freight-hauler. Being a bed-bugger is being a coof (an old Nantucket word for an off-islander). Is it lonely? I didn’t hang around the truck-stop coffee counters or even truck stops. One of the reasons is we have to load or unload every day and then drive.
Long-haul truckers travel east-west, terminal to terminal. I get to go to places where somebody’s moving. Sometimes that is at the end of some box canyon where you just want to park the truck and not leave the place. Some of the drivers for the company I work for now (Joyce Van Lines, out of Connecticut) do a fair amount of work on Nantucket. Can you imagine, if you grew up in Arkansas and have to put the tractor-trailer on the ferry and bring it to Nantucket to move Jack
Welch’s nephew? That’d be pretty cool.
I’m also an outsider because I don’t really believe in the cowboy myth kind of thing. I’m a reasonably-educated Yankee. All these guys are
from the deep South and Midwest.”
NT: Moving day is not always pleasant for your customers. The book makes it clear that you might be meeting people at a very stressful moment.
MURPHY: “We’re upsetting the nest for sure. It depends on who you’re moving and what their circumstances are. People sometimes take things out on the movers. You have a whole range of how we’re treated. Sometimes we’re not treated well because this is a very low-status, workingclass job, so people want to rub that in your face. Or maybe their previous experience with a mover has been negative.
It’s a sort of subtext of this book that grabbing onto a whole lot of possessions doesn’t really bring peace to people. Hire a manager just to take care of their homes? All this stuff doesn’t make people happy.
I’ve been working with the crew I work with now for about nine years. These guys are day laborers, the bottom of the economic pyramid. So we go to Aspen to move some guy’s $20 million house, and he’s one of those guys you see on Nantucket in the summertime and he doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for my guys or me. You have this collision between the very, very wealthy and the very, very poor, and I’m sort of an observer. From what I see, when it comes to all-around happiness the poor people seem way better off.”
NT: You lived on Nantucket from 1990-2008. Was it hard to come off the road?
MURPHY: “If you think about life on Nantucket versus a life as a long-haul driver you can’t get two more opposite things. A big trip was to go from Sconset to Madaket. But I never felt confined on Nantucket. My wife and I owned a business that kept us really busy. Pam ran Theatre Workshop and I got into the local political scene. So our lives were very rich and varied. For a town of its size Nantucket has more interesting people per square foot than anywhere else I have ever gone.
I always felt that manual work can be choice-worthy work. After coming off not doing that for 20 years on Nantucket I was happy to get back to it. You hit that sweet spot that a lot of people know about and a lot don’t know about because they’ve never done that kind of work.”
NT: Is it cliché to ask if when you are on the road you understand how big a country this is?
MURPHY: “You start to appreciate how small it is. You can get to the other end in five days. And it gets smaller all the time with cell phones and GPS. But I do get to see some awfully cool places. I get way off the highways and see some really cool places most people don’t get to see.
If I’m leaving Boston for Seattle, when I turn on the engine I know I’ve got five or six days, and it’s kind of liberating. In the 1980s there were no cell phones and nobody could get a hold of you. A lot of drivers are escaping from bill collectors, child support, expectations or from their own demons. And I was one of them when I went back in 2008. I was uprooted and Nantucket had come to really be my home. When I moved out west I was completely unmoored. So I went back on the road to escape that feeling.”
NT: Is it a surprise how well the book is doing so far?
MURPHY: “I was shocked about this. W.W. Norton (his publisher) said this is one of their two major books for this summer. They gave me a senior editor who helped turn my rambling scribbles into a real book.
They are sending me on a 13-city book tour starting June 6. Denver, Boston, New York, D.C., San Francisco, they’ve got me going everywhere. I’m going to fly. But I am also wrapping the truck with the book cover and in July taking a truck road trip around the country to small bookstores.
I could either spend the summer trying to sell the book or spend the summer humping furniture. The book sounded better. It’s a Cinderella story. I have a brother and a sister who are professional writers and they’re starting to hate me.”
NT: And “Moby-Dick”? You said it’s on your night table. Do you feel a connection to heading over the horizon on a whaling voyage and heading off in your truck?
MURPHY: “There’s plenty in there and one of the things he talked about isn’t just the whaling voyage but he talked about the work, messy and disgusting while they were cutting and trying out the blubber. That part of it, the literature of explaining manual work, is where my love of it comes from. The work and the voyage.”///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.