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Syracuse, New York. Home to roughly 900,000 human lives as of 2019. Home. That is, in my case, the starting line. I don't intend to stay, as few people do when they get older and realize how much more there is just over the horizon. "Salt City," they used to call it, for its historical significance as a salt mining town amidst the industrial revolution, with the Erie Canal and railway networks lain here weaving the modern State of New York together.
Also noteworthy is the presence of Syracuse University, (their basketball team overshadows their scholarly contributions to society...) and Destiny USA, the second largest shopping mall in the United States. It's considered the economic and educational hub of Central New York, with the aforementioned mall and university being its largest, and probably eventually, sole investments in both categories.
Don't let the Americana and gentrification fool you though, the remainder of the town is in urban ruin, or isolated suburbs a few miles each outside of the city. Its 13th poorest city in the nation, and also home to Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in America, which the town was built around. If this were a casual discussion about my hometown, that's where the story would end, really. Nothing but shit trivia. Peculiar how a city, especially of this size, could be so depressingly lame, yet so fascinating.
But that's where my business associate/roommate and I come in. We've come to discover that this city's true heart (and weirdness) is owed to its citizens. As an introduction to the first piece of many, as well as the first in a series, here is some further context: To fund our escape from this rancid town, he and I have taken to rideshare delivery work, GrubHub, DoorDash, and InstaCart. The former two being freelance restaurant delivery, and the latter being grocery shopping/delivery, all handled over their respective smartphone apps.
The work has taken us all across town in the last six months, and through it, I've come to see just how broken it really is, and the people and things we've seen have inspired these stories. For the purposes of privacy, security, and entertainment, I will disclaim, these stories (like all good ones) find their origin in real events, but have been somewhat exaggerated. Don't let this sow doubts about how I've described this town already, though. Fiction is intended to make the truth digestible.
And now, to the meat of this salty beast. The dynamic is typically this: My associate is the driver and manages the apps containing all our orders, while I navigate on the GPS and fetch and deliver the orders. (The exception is InstaCart where we split up the shopping and delivery.) Now early on in this venture, we were solely doing GrubHub. We picked up the other two to boost our profits around the New Year after the semester ended for SU, and we lost 70% of our business with GH, a real drought that kicked our ass until recently, but this is where we got taken to some rather odd sections of town most frequently. One evening during the drought we pulled up to an apartment complex on the South Side of town, and the app gave us the apartment number after we parked. "Building D, Apartment 6."
Nothing too off-putting about the place initially, (then, that's how they usually go...) disregarding the building length and dilapidated ones surrounding it. "Spaghetti Warehouse" was what she got. A local Italian place, with a couple of franchises oddly out of Ohio and Texas, but the "fanciest" it gets for the impoverished around here. Small haul, seven bucks for the food itself, a tip, plus good mileage, seeing as it was a bit out of the way. Rounded out to about $12. Not bad, for the end of the night. Now on these apps are phone lines which put us in touch with the customer when we've arrived with their order, or if there's a problem. They didn't pick up when we called, but hey, we knew we had the right area, so it was time to do a little exploring.
I stepped out of the CR-V, and walked towards the building. Sign on the side of the building read "D 1-8." Two doors, one on the right side, near the parking lot, with the left one being at the very end. Awkward placement. Naturally, I walk into the right door first, thinking I'd find the door rather quick. I walked down the few steps to the basement level, and the first thing I saw was a door with a walker before it, and children's drawings (mostly of crosses) taped up on the door. I shuddered, unnerved, but not quite frightened, or threatened. Utility closet on the right. I looked to the right door. #2. I darted up to the second, and only other floor to see #1 on the door directly ahead. No number on the other one.
I headed back outside and rushed through the bitter cold to the opposite entrance. I wanted to confirm that the door with the drawings on it was or wasn't the apartment. These apartment complexes have labyrinthian layouts that seriously drag on our delivery time, but then, you never wanna disturb some poor old woman, and then have to explain why you're knocking on their door so late in the evening. I walked in and down and saw rooms #5 and #7, and knew immediately I missed it. I sighed, and begrudgingly, I ran back out towards the first door. I could see my partner getting annoyed. I went down the stairs and saw the door again. I walked towards it and lifted up one of the drawings to see #4.
Now, I'm a rather big guy, so I knocked real gently, so as not to be overt, and waited. I could hear a TV and machine of some kind from the other side, so I knocked louder the second time around. Volume on the TV dropped.
I could hear somebody fumbling around and a shift in the pitch in the machinery, before hearing strained and raspy, "Come in!"
Here's the problem with that: Besides being a rather uncomfortable request, given the small glimpse I've got into this person's life already, it's actually a violation of GrubHub's policy to enter the domicile of any customer. It's mostly protection for the drivers, because of all the strange, and potentially dangerous people out there. (These stories being particular examples.) My associate and I often joke that a peculiar drop off space is, or was "some Pizza Bomber shit."
Reluctantly, I opened the door and stepped inside. "Hi, there. GrubHub?" I'll usually announce what I'm there for in case its the wrong place. The only lights on in the whole apartment were the one light in the living room, and the television. My43, 'Cuse's local station for classic TV reruns, was playing, and there sitting before the TV, is an old woman, not nearly as old as I had imagined, but beyond overweight, sitting in the chair with a breathing mask on.
"Just leave it on the kitchen table," she said.
I looked towards the darkness in the room and saw the kitchen directly behind her. Odd, considering she seemed unable to move by herself without some difficulty, and her walker was outside.
I did as she asked, taking the box from the bag and leaving it atop the wooden dining room table.
"Did you have some trouble getting in?" she asked. "I heard it was pretty bad out there today."
"No," I simply replied.
If I'm in a good mood, I'll actively converse with the diners for a little bit, and with folks at the restaurant. Feels good to get to know people, oddballs or not, a big part of why I like the job. Don't get me wrong, there was nothing about the woman I personally found unnerving, or took displeasure with, there was no reason for me too, it's just that nothing made sense the more I thought about the situation.
There was only enough food for one person, and this woman seemed like she'd need a rascal as opposed to a walker, not to mention those creepy drawings. She didn't seem old enough to be a Grandmother, and I thought she might not be too tech savvy, given she was watching I Love Lucy on a 32-inch screen. But much later on, I saw a late night commercial for GrubHub and figured that was all she needed, besides a smartphone and bank card, of course. And as I turned around and got ready to leave I noticed something I didn't notice walking in. Photos of her family, lots of them in black and white, strung above a goddamn piano.
How the hell did they get a piano down here?! And what for? Is she allowed to play it, or would that disturb the neighbors? Questions I didn't completely form as I was walking past it. The job was done, it was time to leave. I'm already breaking protocol, so I wasn't going to stay in there long enough to process it, even after what preceded my entry. I told her to have a good night, and she didn't reply. I guess she didn't like my attitude. I walked outside and got in the car. By some poor, bizarre luck, I've found the last deliveries are usually the most tedious, or creepy, and this was certainly both.
Now, remember what I said about how I liked getting to know people? Well, with this job, you really only get to do that for a few seconds, if not minutes. So you get a glimpse, but really don't know, and thereby can't say much about them. But I got the feeling that this woman was isolated. This building was confusing and broken down, but it seemed like she had no other choice but to be there. So many photos hung above that antique piano, so many snapshots from her past, her family. Not nearly old enough to be abandoned in a facility, yet here she sat in the dark, with just Lucy and Ricky on the screen to keep her company. But like I said, you get a glimpse, but you don't really know.
—Yours Vocally, William Grendel.