Thursday, June 11, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Brown: The Birth of UPS in Seattle and a Pioneer Driver Parks the Truck





The dividing line between good society and bad society in old Seattle was Yesler Street, the road that originally led down a steep hill to Seattle’s only industry, Henry Yesler’s steam driven sawmill.  Ox teams pulled the forest that resided on that hill down to the mill, giving the street the name Skid Road.  Other logs bobbed about in the water by the mill at high tide and sunk into the mudflats when the tide was low.  Soon the flat was filled in with sawdust and other debris and became buildable, by the standards of the day.  To the south was a collection of bars, whorehouses, coal gasification plants, mudflats and immigrants.  “Down in the sawdust,” people called the area, another name inspired by the mill.  More acceptable people lived on the north side of Yesler.  

City Hall to the right, Yesler's Mansion on the north side
of Yesler Avenue
There were some exceptions to the Yesler rule.  City Hall for many years was south of Yesler, but just barely.  The city’s first Catholic Church was south of Yesler, its presence somewhat compromised by its neighbor across the street, Lou Graham’s four story brick brothel that brought a collection of better off customers, most living north of Yesler.  The early pioneers, like Yesler, built mansions and established acceptable businesses there.  The future lived north of
Lou Graham's, Third
and Washington
Yesler, people thought, a more sober, a less corrupt and less sinful future.

Jim Casey was a young man with a north-of-Yesler outlook who organized one of the most famous south-of-Yesler startups.  With some friends, he entered the crowded bicycle messenger market, starting American Messenger Company in the basement of a typical saloon and pool hall on the corner of Second Avenue and Main Street and next to a hotel whose patrons were routinely knocked on the head by robbers or their drunken friends.  The place had become a parking lot in the early seventies, the fate of many buildings in Pioneer Square then, but Jim Casey replaced it with the wonderful Waterfall Park in 1978, among the best small packages in the Seattle Park System.

The four founders of UPS.  Jim Casey is third from left
Casey had been in the workforce since he was eleven, hoping to replace the income of his father who suffered poor health but still tried to make it in the Alaska Gold Rush, where he died.  At 17, Casey had a lot of responsibility and $100 borrowed from a friend.  He also had a great sense of timing.  In 1907, when he started, the market penetration of telephones was accelerating, causing him to shift more quickly to serving the growing demand for package delivery, rather than his original concept, delivery messages written on small pieces of paper rushed to someone’s front door.  By 1913 he was back where he belonged, well to the north side of Yesler, on the east side of Fourth Avenue about where the Westlake Starbucks store is now located.  He was also competing directly with the federal government, which he would do almost his entire career at the company.

The US post office had just begun its Parcel Post service, although three years after Casey had steered his company in the package direction.  He changed the name again to reflect the new direction, Merchants Parcel Delivery, after a merger with a motorcycle delivery firm.  The deliveries to customers from boys in hand-me-down suits and caps through the Seattle Trolley Car system were now long past.  To go with his fleet of motorcycles, he added the first truck, a Ford Model T, and soon began developing the techniques that are common in delivery today – organizing package delivery along specific routes with the boxes assembled on the truck so that the driver had easy access to the right package at the right place. It would still be a few years before Casey’s brand would evolve to the familiar United Parcel Service, however it was about this time in Seattle that he found the brand's color, dark brown.

Businesses like Merchants Parcel Delivery were the indicators of a much smaller, and much richer world, at least in America.  While the globe's most prosperous country, the American outlook on the new century was still remarkably limited and primitive.  Life expectancy was just 47 years, 7% of students actually graduated from high school, 1% of adults held investments in public companies, 3% had electric lights in their homes, and less than a third of households had running water.  A vast majority, 80%, lived on farms.

Early Piggly Wiggly
Americans were used to buying their limited grocery products on credit, at a store that had a couple of different bean varieties, one supplier of bacon, and bread baked and piled near the cash register.  They bought their clothing and shoes from outfitters with a limited product selection.  Now they were paying “cash and carry” for a much fuller range of items at stores like Piggly Wiggly.  Now, as goods delivery systems took shape, even rural communities could shop from the catalogues that were popping up everywhere.  Shoes that could be bought in New York could be bought in Seattle or Cle Elum.  It was becoming clear that even though most Americans did not travel more than a few miles from their town, it was
unnecessary.  The world was coming to them. 

“Who’s going to patronize a little bitty two by four kind of store anymore,” a salesman sang in Music Man as the train pulled into River City, Iowa.  That wonderful song reveals the details of a growing prosperity based on how and what came to them in 1905, delivered by another delivery pioneer, Wells Fargo.

I got a box of maple sugar on my birthday.
In March I got a gray mackinaw.
And once I got some grapefruit from Tampa.
Montgomery Ward sent me a bathtub and a cross-cut saw!

I got some salmon from Seattle last September.
And I expect a new rockin' chair.
I hope I get my raisins from Fresno.
The D.A.R. have sent a cannon for the courthouse square.


I’ve been talking to a delivery driver who has just left a career she started at

UPS in 1982, her route nearly always along Third and Fourth Avenues in Belltown, or as she calls the place, being a native, ‘The Regrade.’ It’s one of the many places in Seattle where engineers decided the found environment was inadequate and so changed it. Most of the hill that disappeared here was dumped into Elliott Bay, resulting in what was then the largest man-made island in the world, Harbor Island. While focused on just two Seattle streets most of her career, two things have kept work life absolutely fresh for Diane Larson. First, what she delivers is constantly changing as the neighborhood evolves, from automobile dealerships and small office space, then to restaurants and now to high rises where lots of people live. Belltown is now Seattle’s most dense neighborhood. Delivery is harder now, but the changes keep the day fresh. The second is that Diane falls in love with her customers and they with her. She is a classic connector, someone who weaves in and out of place, stitching it all together with her charm, generosity and sharp eyes. She doesn’t miss much on her route, not a hello, not a kind or funny comment, not a detail about a package that might spell trouble for a customer. That is why the Cinerama Theater changed out its reader board a few days ago to thank her.



Largely, she represents good news – a check, a contract, a couch that went missing, a graduation gift arriving the morning of the ceremony, one of the specialized tools Gino Barone uses to hand engrave crystal in his Fourth Avenue shop. She does what we might call her community work even while meeting the relentless metrics set up by her employer. UPS expects her to make twenty stops an hour – one every three minutes, in some of the country’s most congested traffic and with a constantly changing array of packages loaded onto her truck every morning. Her customers are driving the bulk and weight of these packages by their evolving lifestyles, different tastes and their access to technology.



On the way out, she will have 500 packages in her truck. She must take care to deliver those with a guaranteed delivery time first and must keep time in mind her entire shift. UPS trucks, they are called ‘package cars’ at the company, are extensively monitored so that analysts can design routes and suggest training techniques to save time. The company says that a one-minute delay for each driver across the company costs nearly 15 million dollars. A practiced analytical eye at UPS found that turning left at an intersection was a consistent cause of time delays. So, UPS encourages its drivers not to turn left and routes are designed to minimize left turns. On the way back to Seattle’s south end, she will pick up 300 packages, weaving in and out of end-of-day traffic. She has a favorite route, but wouldn’t tell me what it is.

She has many stories she likes to tell, most of them mysterious to a citizen like Jim Casey who could not imagine the technology at Diane Larson’s command. So, let’s linger a bit.

One of her customers was an older woman living in a hotel on Fourth Avenue. She used oxygen and a wheelchair. Sometimes Diane would deliver a fruitcake or something like that on the week before a holiday. One week Diane noticed that the woman was receiving packages from the QVC on-line shopping network, a few each week then several a day – toys, furniture, gourmet peanuts. The hotel even set aside a room to store the packages. Diane inquired. Yes, there was a new person helping the woman and yes, the goods were not intended for the tenant but for the caretaker, who had done this before.

Clark Humphrey was the editor of the Belltown Messenger. He is walking down

the street with his computer bag over his shoulder. From her stool at Two Bells Tavern, her normal lunch stop if there is time to stop, Diane hears a man calling “no, no, no.” It is Mr. Humphrey. A Belltown thug is trying to snatch Humphrey’s computer and is pulling at it while a crowd watches from a comfortable distance. Diane hustles across the street and, as she is crossing, another person, yelling ‘hey’, ‘hey’ approaches the two struggling men and aligns with the thug, pulling on the bag as well. Diane approaches the three struggling men and stands on the straps of the bag. Someone finally calls the cops. Understanding a changed dynamic, the thugs decide their best option is to lope off into the savanna of Fourth Avenue as if it were all a segment of Animal Planet. Mr. Humphrey writes a “my hero” article in The Messenger.

One more Crime Stopper item. She is delivering many COD packages from the east coast to a down and out storefront complex on Fourth. The men in the place, Nigerians, pay only with money orders purchased the same day, all for less than $10,000. They complain to Diane about the cost, the service and the fact that Diane is a woman. She confers with the Fed Ex drivers who have the same suspicion as Diane. They think that their customers are operating a knock off goods warehouse – purses, shoes, other stuff. She made the proper connections and, though there were frustrations, a company alerted police to this theft and the police raided the joint. Some of the men were deported and $200,000 in cash was found in a locker. The folks at Nike, a knock off victim, were very happy with their Seattle UPS driver.

There are many dogs along her route and Diane takes good care of them. On

the weekends, she mixes up batches of smoked lamb or pork liver dog treats and delivers them on Monday. She puts them in a plastic cup like you’d buy with mixed fruit in it. A friend of hers designs labels for the treats that feature individual dogs who are beneficiaries of the treats. The label says:

“Diane’s Dog Crak”


“Ingredients: Liver and Love”

She’s recently branched out. The bees she bought and takes care of provide her with honey and a new brand, “Golden Girls Honey and Hives,” which she also delivers to her customers.

Diane grew up in Ballard. Like Jim Casey, her Dad died in Alaska. She had a fisherman father, a crabber, who was on board a fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska that disappeared in a storm. She was ten. She went to college at Seattle University where she was a good athlete with nowhere to play. Title Nine of the US Education Act passed just as Diane was entering college. It contained these words:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.


She went to the Seattle University Athletic Department and urged, in her quiet, stepping-on-the-straps kind of way, that Seattle University needed a woman’s basketball team.  She was listed as a 5’6” guard on first on Seattle University’s club team and then was on the first Division I team in 1977.

Packages delivered by Diane over the years reflect the changes in the neighborhood and the basic alterations of the on-line economy.  In the 1980s, Belltown was becoming a restaurant neighborhood and Diane’s truck was full of the items needed to build and operate a large group of emerging restaurants. 
The packages tended to be much smaller than they are today.  Diane brought Tom Douglas and his wife Jackie Cross their first deliveries when they opened the first Dahlia Lounge at 1904 Fourth Avenue and followed them to today’s Fourth and Virginia location. When they added the Dahlia Bakery and Lola, the Palace Kitchen and all the others, she delivered to those places as well.  Diane also has “like staff” status at Assaggio on Fourth, which opened in 1993, owned by Mauro Golmarvi.

The expansion of the on-line economy and Belltown’s role in the city’s growth have conspired to make the packages Diane delivers much bigger and heavier.  Belltown is going through robust residential and office growth today, and most of those items associated with setting up house frequently come on Diane’s truck.  Much of the furniture, dishes, television sets, beds, sofas, tables bought on-line find their way to Diane’s familiar route. The old 50 pound rule is long gone, and deliveries much larger are routine, wrestled out of the truck and to a door at a high rise address by this small woman.

After college, Diane left for Europe, having a great time in Paris and the French countryside.  When she returned, in 1982, she became one of the first women hired by UPS, one of three in Washington state at the time, and was assigned the Third and Fourth Avenue route.  As drivers gain seniority and can choose their own routes, many like more rural/suburban routes because there are longer drive times between deliveries and a quieter work life with less traffic.  But she long ago decided to keep her congested and chaotic urban route down the center of Belltown, delivering the baby stuff and toys to the new, younger families growing on her route.  

When she started along Fourth Avenue, vinyl records were so yesterday, but now she delivers to the world headquarters of Sub Pop Records, a record label that began about the time she did and had some of the great names of the grunge era. At Sub Pop, vinyl is back in vogue, good news for listeners and Sub Pop, but bad news for Diane. Diane reports that a carton of records is heavier than a box of rocks.

Fourth is a great street that you sometimes drive through a bit too quickly.  If, like Diane, you are paid to stop, you get to see some amazing things.  At Yellow Leaf Cupcakes, they once named an ice cream flavor after her.  She’s watched the rise of Pop Cap games, the popular producer of the non-violent Bejeweled franchise since 2001.  She frequently delivers or picks up at Holy Cannoli, a lovely little specialized bakery at the north end of Third Avenue.  It's an important street for Diane because it’s the street where she makes the turn for home, picking up packages and getting positioned on her magical, secret route that avoids all Seattle traffic and leads directly to the next good life.


1 comment:

  1. I always look forward to going out. A good tip would be to look out for those places with interesting concepts. This place is pretty amazing. I came up here with a friend. The convention center was spacious and food was great.

    ReplyDelete