A Night at the Triple T

Despite business struggles, TTT still features interesting characters on a regular basis.

Jane Debbrecht steps off the sleek black Volvo tractor that she's piloting to Houston, pulling a load of produce.

Meanwhile, two guys named Josh pump more than 100 gallons of diesel into the rig's tank. They climb to wash windows and check the tires with a lead pipe.

Esther Sherrill is entering data for fuel transactions, renting motel rooms and coordinating visits to the heavily promoted massage therapist. Esther met her husband here when he was driving trucks out of Louisiana.

Nearby, Orlando and Mike contemplate a 15-minute, half-hour or hour-long "therapeutic massage" as they sit in recliners watching Fox News on overhead monitors.

Two dozen truckers share space with savvy locals in Omar's Hi-Way Chef Restaurant, but all is quiet in Sallie Sue's Gift Shop.

Allen Eberly is finishing a cell call while his Kenworth is fueled. He tries to remain upbeat; he's pulling his first box trailer in months. He'd rather be pulling a larger, and therefore more lucrative, load of heavy equipment.

Jerome is searching for a payday that will end his long hauls. But he'll have to go elsewhere for entry into the night's $85 million Powerball. (The lottery left the Triple T when the state demanded an inordinate number of handicap parking spaces.)

And down the hall, Mari--as in Maribeth--is doing what she does so well, making truckers feel good with a steamy shave, crisp haircut and mildly ribald tales.

It's twilight at TTT, aka the Triple T, the Tucson Truck Terminal. The landmark--located on the extreme southeastern edge of Tucson off Interstate 10--is both a first and last stop, an outpost that is getting pulled, because of growth, into a more metropolitan part of Tucson. There is a quiet route to the Triple T, via South Craycroft Road past tidy, working-class Littletown, and just beyond Dream Street.

Frank Jakubik, a onetime systems engineer for IBM, is in an encore performance directing the TTT orchestra.

Jakubik's wife's stepfather, Ira Thomas Morris, reeled him into the business he created with his larger-than-life entrepreneur style in 1978. Jakubik got out of the business for a couple of years but was called back after Morris, whose first business in Tucson was the Miracle Mile-area Curve Inn Motel, died in August 2001.

Soft-spoken and gracious, Jakubik is the only person around wearing a tie. He smiles when asked about what he likes most about the Triple T.

"It's the variety. You can be talking with the professionals--the attorney or accountant--one minute and the transients the next."

Triple T was on life support when Jakubik rode in from Texas for the save. He still splits time between Tucson and Carrollton, near Dallas.

He has a tall task. Competition from chains--the Flying Js of the interstate highways with their sun-lamped pizza and cheap fuel--has eroded Triple T earnings.

"The chains sell fuel at our cost," Jakubik says.

It wasn't always this way. When Morris was looking to expand his reach of the now 40-year-old business from an earlier Benson Highway location, Exxon helped with assembled parcels off Interstate 10. The oil giant then provided products at costs low enough to enable Morris to make necessary payments.

A hundred trucks are lined up tonight in the back of Triple T, their drivers sidelined by fatigue or increasingly intrusive federal rules. The idling of all the vehicles produces a roar.

Up front, Josh Bacoccini and his work partner, also named Josh, are sitting in the "dog house," a shelter near the fuel island. (Theirs isn't the only shared-name phenomenon at the Triple-T; on some shifts, there are three Peters.) The lack of action is broken when Jane Debbrecht steers the black Volvo to the close pump. Josh2 is all over it. They fuel and climb ladders to wash the windows, mirrors and lights before moving on to check the tires.

Bacoccini is a Sunnyside High graduate who is engaging when discussing the details of his job. He gives props to the boss, Jakubik, and notes his respect for a man who could have stay retired in Texas. Bacoccini works with old friends, and his father is a longtime kitchen manager in probably the most famous part of the Triple T, Omar's Hi-Way Chef Restaurant. He is not tempted to get on the road; he needs to stay close to a young son and enjoys his weekends at home.

Meanwhile, inside Debbrecht's truck, her husband is stirring and Rainey, the black and white Boston terrier, is bouncing around for a better view. Coco, a 6-year-old chow, is insouciant and stays in the sleeper.

She and her husband have two days to deliver in Houston the produce they picked up in Phoenix. They aren't pushed--five hours driving and five hours off for this team.

"Oh yeah, I like it. Got my kids all raised and had nothing to do, so I went to driving truck," Debbrecht says while awaiting a fuel receipt.

The Triple T is special, she says, because of its service. But Pima County government has not been good to Triple T. When the Board of Supervisors followed the City Council to ban smoking in restaurants, Omar's Hi-Way Chef business plummeted.

Debbrecht is one of those now absent.

"We want to get off the truck, sit down get something to eat, smoke and relax," she says. "No more. At least not here. And that's too bad. They got real good food here."

Josh2 is now hustling to fuel and check Allen Eberly's 4-year-old Kenworth, with its classic paint job shined earlier by some enterprising homeless men who made $50.

Young, friendly and articulate, Eberly is fretting about gaining weight--he's proud he had a salad for lunch--and the slow-to-rebound economy. He laments hauling a van box trailer for less than half--90 cents a mile--of what he gets for taking heavy machinery, presses or high-tech assembly products from Michigan.

The drain, he is saying, stems from the shift by the Big Three automakers to Mexico plants.

Eberly lives in historic Ligonier, Ind., but sees the results of the job exports in Michigan, where workers no longer can keep the boat, SUV or cottage. Eberly also is vexed by federal rules that will further restrict truckers' driving hours.

"Some days, I can't drive 10 hours. Some days, I can drive 12. Drivers know what they can do, how they feel," Eberly says.

Those problems are furthered by cops who are suspicious "enough to make a guy cynical." Eberly half laughs when telling the story about how he made so much from one load taken to Laredo, Texas, that he returned without a return load. The state police insisted he was up to no good since he was driving "bobcat" home.

Back inside, it's impossible to miss Mari at Beuford's Beauty & Barber--if only because of this siren's wave. She waves to everyone passing by. At the least, they'd best wave back.

Mari has been at the Triple T for nearly two years. Before, she had a rafting company in Santa Fe and dress design business in Thousand Oaks. She is here to make truckers, for whom she exudes great empathy, feel good with hot shaves that have become a specialty.

"I'm known in Portland," she says.

Her clients are under a hot towel for a half-hour. She dims the lights for their return from what she says is "ecstasy."

She's earned fans and protectors.

"I had one guy in the chair who was apparently enjoying the shave too much. Another driver saw this and called a few minutes later from his truck. He said, 'Mari, you gotta watch out. That dude is playing with himself.' I looked down and the cape was moving in, well, that motion."

With her seen-it-all-before courage, Mari lifted the cape.

"He was twiddling his thumbs," she said.