By Chris Lane
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By Aaron Reiss
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Erica Cruz, who works the night shift at the motor lodge, says that about 95 percent of the clientele are truck drivers. The motor lodge has operated at about half occupancy since the first of the year.
"Our owner always calls me to see how we're doing, and she always complains about the diesel prices," Cruz says. "It's about shut us down."
Near the Interstate Motor Lodge is the Key Truck Stop and Restaurant. With its gravel parking lots and a cafe that allows smoking, the Key Truck Stop is a refuge for truck drivers looking for a change from the sprawling "travel centers" and "family" restaurants a few miles west.
But the Key Truck Stop is struggling. The ownership has changed several times in the last two years. A sign above the building advertises a 24-hour cafe, but the restaurant started closing at 9 p.m. several months back.
Judy, who asked that her last name not be used, has worked as a waitress at the Key Restaurant for 17 years. She makes $2.60 an hour plus tips. The restaurant once stayed packed during breakfast and dinner hours, and Judy averaged about $70 in tips a day. She could make $100 on a good morning.
Now, she says, she's lucky to make $30. That's less than the dishwasher, who makes $7 an hour. The owners sometimes tell the dishwasher to stay home, and Judy will stay late to wash dishes and mop the floors.
"I'm about making enough money to go home and put enough gas in my car to come back the next day," Judy says. "This really is the worst I've seen it."
Williams started driving in 1970. He learned from his dad, who let him ride along on grain-hauling trips from Texas to Oklahoma. He's had three of his own trucks in his career, but about a year ago, sold his last truck.
"I made more in 1985. It wasn't nothing for me to walk around with $2,000 in my back pocket," Williams says. "We pretty much go week to week now."
Williams stood at the window with his Dr Pepper and watched his company rig. At just about every truck stop, Williams had heard of truckers having fuel stolen while they slept, ate or showered. Williams spoke to one driver who shot a man in the foot after catching him at his fuel tank.
Mike Travers, a driver from Gulfport, Mississippi, says that some drivers carry an electric pump that can drain a truck of its diesel in about 30 minutes. Most diesel thieves target the big-name company trucks — like Werner and Swift — but if need be, some will steal from independents.
"I keep a loaded .44 in my cab," Travers says. "I can't afford not to. It's getting to that point."
A tanker driver, hauling 7,400 gallons of diesel, recently had his truck stolen at gunpoint in the parking lot of a gas station in southeast Houston. Tanker drivers are extremely on edge, Travers says, and he's heard some talk of a tanker strike during the second week of July.
Travers started driving a truck when he was 14, helping his father drive a dump truck around town. His dad later bought a big truck and started driving long-haul, working as an owner/operator. Travers's father was killed in a truck crash, but Travers was already driving a company truck, and decided to stay with the trade.
Travers has driven as a company driver for almost his whole career — 26 years — and his latest stint was three years with Knight Transportation. He quit working with Knight because he wants to buy his own truck. A friend in Mississippi is letting Travers drive one of his trucks for four months. If Travers can turn a profit with the truck, the man will sell.
So far, it's been tough. His plan was to haul refrigerated loads between south Texas and south Florida, but he wasn't able to scratch up enough freight to stay busy. He says he'll haul whatever pays.
Travers cut most expenses that aren't an absolute necessity at home — Internet, satellite television, pretty much all his leisure activities are gone, he says. On the road, he's cut back to eating only twice a day. A chicken-fried steak plate at the Key Restaurant was the first thing he had eaten that day.
"There's a lot of bad attitudes with the fuel prices," Travers says. "It used to be work that you enjoyed, like getting paid to travel, but you could actually make a living. Not anymore. Now it's just a job.
"If I'd known what I now do, I'd do something different. But I'm stuck. I don't have any other trade."
Williams has a driver friend, an owner/operator from Huntsville, who got behind on his truck payment, so he sold his personal truck to try and catch up. When that didn't work, the friend had to sell his house and move to a trailer across town.
"He lost a wife over that deal," Williams says.