What We Learned From Our Nightmare Move to Houston

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I should have sensed trouble when Hector didn't call me back.

It was June 2. My girlfriend and I had been in Houston nine days, but most of our belongings were on a moving truck, somewhere between Burlington, Vermont, and Texas, that had not yet arrived.

Hector, the foreman from Atlantic Union Van Lines, had promised he and the driver would arrive at our empty Heights bungalow between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. that Thursday — but the afternoon came and went.

I called Hector at half past four. He said they were delayed because of heavy rains, that there'd been a mix-up and they wouldn't make it, and that they were sorry. I was frustrated, especially because my girlfriend had delayed her first day of work to help move in — and asked him why he didn't tell me that eight hours earlier. Hector said they were busy. He apologized again and promised they would arrive in Houston the following afternoon. He told me he'd call again that evening to confirm the drop-off window. He didn't.

That night was a trying one. We'd been sleeping on an air mattress for more than a week, but it sprung a leak and deflated. I was able to patch the hole with tape, but it could only sleep one person without leaking again, so I shared the dog bed with the hound, who snores. In the morning — June 3 — I was resolved not to get hoodwinked again. I called Hector bright and early, my back stiff as a board and my T-shirt covered in dog hair.

"I'm very sorry, sir," he began as my heart sank. "But we will not make it today. We are just driving through Houston."

"I'M IN HOUSTON!" I shouted.

"Oh," he replied. "I thought you were in Dallas."

I thought my head would explode. I had texted Hector our address. I had given him our order number. He had told me he had all our paperwork. Hector took the phone away from his face and I heard two men shouting over the din of a diesel engine. When he came back on the line, I demanded to know where they were at that moment. On I-45, he said. I told him that was ten minutes from our house.

"We will be there soon," he said, and hung up.

I refused to believe him until I saw the 53-foot tractor trailer navigating the narrow streets of the Heights. It screeched to a stop in front of our house and two men hopped out. The shorter, younger one introduced himself as Hector. The older man, the driver, said his name was Bilal. I thought they'd be happy to finally arrive, but the pair looked glum. There was a problem, Bilal explained as he opened the rear doors to the trailer. Our shipment was one of many on the truck, and Hector had mixed up the orders — our belongings were packed all the way at the front of the trailer, behind the cab. The trailer was completely full, and about 2,700 cubic feet of other families' stuff stood between the two movers and my girlfriend and me finally getting a full night's sleep.

Bilal shrugged. "We will make the other stops and come back next week."

"Why? You're already here! Literally, in our driveway!" I protested. He explained it would be too much work to unload everything just to get to our stuff. I reminded him they'd be blowing us off twice and that my girlfriend was delaying her new job. Finally, he relented, on two conditions: that I help them with the moving and that we hire a fourth man for the job. Bilal asked if I knew some "big guy" who could help, but I noted we'd just moved to Houston and didn't know anyone. He then asked if there was a Home Depot nearby where we could find a day laborer. There was one a few blocks away, just inside the Loop, but I told Bilal I had no idea how to go about finding a laborer.

He insisted on hiring another man and seemed content to just bail. So I found myself driving Bilal in our Saab to Home Depot. On the way he made small talk about Houston traffic while I silently seethed. We walked into the store, which was relatively empty. I had no idea how the hell to go about hiring a laborer, but Bilal walked up to a muscular man waiting to get a key copied and asked him if he wanted to make some cash. The man said no, but said his friend William might. He gave William a call, the guy said sure and I gave him directions to our house. I couldn't believe it, but we had our fourth man.

William met us shortly after Bilal and I returned to the house, and the four of us began unloading other people's stuff onto our lawn. I thought there were just a few orders before ours, but had badly underestimated. We tried to keep the orders separate — they were each color-coded with stickers — but soon ran out of rugs to place the items on and were soon laying couches on the lawn.

As I sweated through my shirt while I walked a 20-pace path back and forth, I had a lot of time to think about why I was doing a job we had paid other people $3,900 to do. And I wondered how large these other families' houses must be if they're going to fit all their mattresses, bookshelves, exercise bikes, love seats, bowling balls, televisions, croquet sets, fine china and children's tricycles. Above all, I just wanted to get done.

Bilal twice went, unannounced, to the store — once for snacks and later for drinks. Hector took smoke breaks or made busywork of re-reading the order forms he had so badly mismanaged. William worked on his own mostly, never complained once and probably moved more items than the rest of us combined. 

It took close to three hours to reach our belongings, the trek from the trailer doors to the packed mass growing longer every trip. But finally I, like Edmund Hillary seeing the summit of Everest for the first time, spotted the handlebars of my girlfriend's bicycle. We made it.

Moving our belongings into the house took about 20 minutes. Hector avoided Bilal's gaze each time the men passed each other. My girlfriend and I felt a sense of relief, as everything appeared accounted for and was now inside.

The movers' job was only half over, as they now had to load all the other shipments back into the truck. But for now, the 3,400-cubic-foot trailer was empty and we looked like we'd opened a flea market right on 23rd Street. Neighbors gawked and cars slowed as they passed. The sky darkened, as it does most June afternoons in Houston, and I wondered how Bilal and Hector would explain to some poor family how their armoire got soaked between New England and Dallas. The pair looked warily at the clouds every few minutes and worked with a hustle I hadn't seen all morning.

But they finished, and Bilal paid William with cash from his pocket. I told Bilal before we started moving boxes that I wanted a discount for the hassle, but he said only his bosses in New Jersey could arrange that, and only afterwards. So as Bilal threw the last packing cushions back into the truck, I reluctantly paid him the $1,400 remaining balance. 

Over the next few days, I prepared our formal complaint to the moving company, explaining in great detail the hassle we were put through. Atlantic Union Van Lines outsources its complaint handling duty to a different firm, based in Florida, which insists that all correspondence must be conducted via the U.S. Postal Service. (Gee, it's like they want to make it as hard as possible...).

I requested a refund of one quarter of the total bill, about $960, for the ordeal. The company confirmed receipt of our complaint and said it would respond within 60 days. A couple of weeks ago they mailed us their offer: $64. The notice stated we can appeal.

Meanwhile, I'm getting to be pretty good friends with the Post Office clerks on La Branch.

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