Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Chicken Man

A typical shift is 12 hours, but it's not unusual to drive 14, 16, 18 hours or more, especially if you only do it a couple times a week. This may sound pretty rough, but there's practically no limit to what you can do given enough coffee and Red Bull (a beverage I discovered out of necessity but would hardly recommend) .

Generally speaking, I have no problem driving for long periods. In fact, there's something about driving a cab--the rhythm of the city, lots of activity, people coming and going. In fact, I find it relaxing. No problem.

But once I cash in at around 3 a.m. and head home on the Southeast Expressway, that's when the hallucinations kick in. Every light pole, every shadow, every piece of wastepaper blowing across the road suddenly becomes a deer jumping in front of my car, a truck about to sideswipe me or some other obstacle that I need to swerve around. My vision gets gauzy along the along the periphery. The first few times I drove for long periods, the experiences driving home were so harrowing that by the time I arrived I was soaked in sweat and couldn't get to sleep.

Over time I've trained myself to ignore the leaping animals, the corpses and the darting sprites. I learned to drive in a gauzy violet fog. The biggest challenge was trying to determine which trucks about to sideswipe me were real, and which ones were the figment of my imagination. So far, so good.

Reality, however, has a way of messing with you in a way your imagination cannot touch. Take the other night.

It started snowing by early evening. Just a few flakes at first, drifting lazily across the windshield. The forecasts had predicted this, saying it would pick up quickly by midnight, and fall at a rate of three inches an hour. The television news had announced all this a kind of hyperventilated excitement one might expect for a nuclear holocaust or the rapture. "Buy batteries and stock up on potable water," the buxom weather girl said cheerily.

By midnight, it was coming down hard. The windshield wipers could not keep up with the pace of accumulation, and every two or three stoplights I had to get out of the cab to scrape clean the wiper blades by hand. The plows had yet to emerge in force, so the streets were a mess--slushy and rutted. The work was dwindling, so I decided to quit early.

I cashed out at 1:30 a.m., and soon after was on the Southeast Expressway, carefully making my way home. Four lanes of highway had disappeared under three inches of fresh snow. Finding a lane was pure guesswork. In addition to the clumps of frozen muck, puddles and patches of ice, were the usual assortment of morons: drivers crawling along at five miles per hour in the left lane with their emergency flashers on, buttholes in Cadillac Escalades going 80 mph, and passive-aggressive weenies lining up alongside each other to create a rolling roadblock, all moving at one-quarter speed.

By the time I caught up to a phalanx of snowplows blocking the width of the freeway, my frustration and exhaustion had built up to the point that I ceased caring for my own life. I just wanted to get home. I saw an opening, and squeezed between two of the plows. I could practically hear the plow driver cursing at me, but I was free. Ahead of me was a seemingly endless stretch of pristine highway--four lanes of snow-covered Interstate to myself. With the lane markers obliterated it looked like a giant, white runway. I could spin out and gently ricochet down the road like bumper bowling.

I was happy.

Then, far ahead, I saw trouble. Flashing lights. Police action, I thought. Heads up.

The visibility was pretty bad, so I couldn't tell exactly what was going on. The flashing lights, however, weren't cops. They were too irregular, not stroboscopic, and mixed in with different colors--yellows, whites and reds--not the standard blue and red. They were also moving, not stopped as if at an accident. As I drew closer, I realized it was an advertisement of some sort.

It was an electronic sign attached to a truck, the kind in which the message scrolls across like the old news ticker in Times Square. But there was something else about this truck. The box itself was illuminated. In fact, the walls of the box weren't solid, but clear. It was a glass cube on wheels. Inside the cube was a room. It was a reading room with a deck chair, a table and a lamp. Fluorescent lights along the edge of the ceiling illuminated the room. And there was a man. At first, the man appeared in silhouette. He was squeegeeing the windows in long, vertical sweeps. the whole thing looked like a diorama from a natural history museum, a really weird museum. What the hell was this?

It had to be an advertisement. But for what? And why? And why at night on a desolate highway in the middle of a raging snowstorm?

The flashing lights announced the time: 2:28 a.m., the ad scrolled across: REMEMBER THE CHICKEN MAN. THE CHICKEN MAN IS COMING. The man inside the box put away the squeegee. He sat in the deck chair and opened up a laptop, like he was checking his email or updating his Face Book page. He seemed oblivious to the weather and peril surrounding him. I trailed the truck for a time, staring in disbelief at the spectacle.

This was nuts, and continuing to follow this truck in the dead of night in the middle of a blizzard was equally nuts. I needed to get home, so I pulled out to pass the truck, moving carefully. The man inside, an older guy pushing 50, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, ignored me. He was just doing his thing. As I rolled past the cab, I saw stenciled on the door "The Chicken Man--Boston" and a phone number (which I subsequently forgot).

By the time I got home, the episode seemed so unbelievable, so surreal that I had to find out what it was. I searched on the internet for "The Chicken Man" and Boston. All I got back were references to Frank Perdue, Bruce Springsteen's song "Atlantic City" and former Red Sox slugger Wade Boggs (whose locker room nickname was the "chicken man.") I told my wife about it the next morning. She didn't believe me. "You were hallucinating again, weren't you?" she said, advising me to quit driving such long hours.

"But I didn't imagine it!" I insisted.

"Uh huh."

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I asked the other drivers if they had seen the truck. One driver said he hadn't seen the Chicken Man, but he did see an IKEA truck with glass box containing a living room set with two people lounging around. Another driver remembered a truck advertising some travel agent hauling around a beach scene with some bikini-clad young girls inside. A subsequent web search revealed that trucks hauling constructed scenes are part of a vanguard in "mobile advertising" and named firms such as GoMobile Advertising in the Pacific Northwest and Minnesota Mobile Billboards tout such 3-D displays among those specializing in the service.

Finally, another driver told me, yes, he too had seen the Chicken Man. He remembered the room and saw the guy squeegeeing the windows. But he didn't give it much thought. After all, this was Boston, a lot of crazy things happen.

But I wasn't crazy. And I still want to know, who the hell is the Chicken Man?