Whenever being a film critic gets me down, say after watching Jason Bateman in “Bad Words,” I remind myself: At least it isn’t 2 a.m. on a sweltering August night with two more truckloads of 400-pound industrial sewing machines to be carried up to the fourth floor.
For years I was a mover. My father was a mover, and his father was a mover. The company, Keough’s Express, founded in 1916, consisted of, as my father put it, a “fleet of truck.” I spent summers moving every crazy person in the Back Bay, and winter weekends waiting for the truck to warm up, hoping it would break down and we could all go home.
But I did learn a marketable skill. And in the fallow days between getting a BA in English and going to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I applied for a job at a moving company called Marakesh Express.
On my first day I was giving directions to a truck backing up on a crowded stretch of Beacon Street in Brookline. Unbeknownst to me, no one was driving; the brake had slipped and the tailgate sliced off the roof of someone’s car. Marakesh’s owner, Lee Gailzaid, shrugged it off. He had insurance. Marakesh Express was a laid-back place.
Trucks were definitely not my strength. My first time driving one, a 16-footer we called the “Brown Truck,” I was doing fine until I shifted into third gear while cruising down Mt. Auburn Street outside Harvard Square. The gear shift came off in my hand. It was like “The Three Stooges” bit in which Moe says “Give me the wheel!” and Curly rips it off and hands it to him. Amusing in retrospect, but I remember staring at the useless lever in horror as the truck picked up speed in heavy traffic.
And then, there was that inevitable moment when you wedge a truck with a 12-foot clearance under a bridge that is 11 feet 11 inches high. If you ever find yourself in that predicament, here’s a tip: Let the air out of the tires.
Such traumas aside, I enjoyed the work. The sense of closure: fill the truck, drive someplace, empty the truck. Yet each new job offered something different. Like the guy fleeing his homicidal landlord. He had hired a police detail, and cowered as we packed his belongings, including his dirty dishes and the white mice he kept in his freezer for his snake.
We were alternative movers, and so we did alternative moves. Pianos, surprisingly, are relatively easy. It’s all a matter of leverage, tipping, dollies, and then, if something goes wrong, getting the hell out of the way. Fireproof files might be the worst, and as we learned, they are miserable when accidentally locked. Unless you can remove the drawers, these are seamless monoliths weighing over 500 pounds with nothing to grab on to. Nonetheless, on this one occasion we got it on the blade of the two wheeler, and were about to spin it, when it just grazed my foot. Took the nail right off my big toe. But there’s no crying in moving. We had to finish the job and it was back to work the next day at 7 a.m.
If the fireproof file has an equal it’s the sofa bed. It looks inviting to recline on, but lurking under the upholstery is 100 pounds of cold steel. You tie up the bed frame and hope for the best.
The worst was this fourth-floor walk-up in Beacon Hill. It was as if M.C. Escher had designed the staircases. They twisted onto themselves into tinier and tinier coils. But we got it up to the last flight before it got stuck. Then, for over half an hour, we tried every angle, but it wouldn’t budge. So we gave up, called in the riggers, and tried to lug it back downstairs. But then we couldn’t get it to move downstairs, either. We had a half-dozen men on it by the end, but it was like an unsolvable mathematical equation. I think we resorted to a hacksaw; it remains one of my life’s most galling failures.
I liked my colleagues. They were musicians, ex-criminals, lawyers, mystics, or combinations of the above. One day I did a moving job with a new guy. Two weeks later I heard he had been captured by the police in a shootout and was wanted by the FBI. His name was Jaan Laaman, and he was a member of the leftist terror group the United Freedom Front. He liked to blow stuff up. They sentenced him to 53 years. Maybe his obsessive talk about his attack dogs should have tipped me off. But he was an excellent mover.
It was the best and worst job of my life. Then I moved on. So did the rest of the world. Like other alternatives that had sprung up in the ’60s to the early ’80s — alternative cultures, lifestyles, music, journalism — some alternative movers changed with the times, others did not.
Marakesh Express did not. Now 65, Lee Gailzaid lives on his 30-foot sailboat docked in Charlestown. That’s been his home since 2004, when his office burned down. By then he no longer did much actual moving; he mostly sold packing supplies. After the fire, already a survivor of two cancer operations, Gailzaid called it quits, except for some summer storage for students. Despite his troubles, he seems content in his new quarters. With his white beard he looks like an old salt, mellower but as animated as he was when I worked with him in the early ’80s.
“Those were the golden years,” he recalls. Back then during the summer rush he’d send out five crews a day.
It had been a long, strange trip up to that point. In 1970, Gailzaid had graduated from Boston University brimming with optimism but with no plans. To make money he delivered groceries, doing an occasional moving job. He liked the independence and the chance to meet people, so he focused on moving and hired friends and others who shared his eclectic interests. One night — this was 44 years ago — while listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash — he had an epiphany: He would call his company “Marakesh Express,” and he marketed it as “Boston’s Only Alternative Movers.”
“In those days,” he says, “‘alternative’ was the hot brand.” Customers found Marakesh to be hip, cheap, and reliable. The clientele included well-known politicians, sports figures, and members of the media.
But then these customers settled down in tony suburbs. And Gailzaid’s corps of reliable workers wasn’t getting any younger. By the late ’90s, the new labor force had deteriorated; some were druggies or alcoholics for whom moving was the last rung in the employment ladder.
“But my biggest failing was public relations,” Gailzaid says. After a while, movers who looked like Woodstock survivors had lost their appeal. “The new model was shiny trucks with logos and guys in uniforms,” he laments.
He’s referring, of course, to Gentle Giant, whose founder, Larry O’Toole, has been a grateful pal ever since Gailzaid offered to help him and his then inexperienced crew move a piano up a flight of stairs. “Lee took pity on us,” O’Toole says. “He lent us his piano board and showed us what to do.”
Like Gailzaid, O’Toole never planned to be a mover. Graduating from Northeastern in 1973 with a degree in engineering, O’Toole worked in that profession until he tired of the corporate world. He started doing odd jobs, including furniture deliveries. Then in 1980 a friend who couldn’t help but notice the brawny 6-foot-6 frame of this former Northeastern crew member decreed, “You are the Gentle Giant.” The friend took out an ad for O’Toole in the Boston Phoenix announcing the birth of “Gentle Giant Movers.”
The next day, though his company consisted of just himself and a borrowed van, O’Toole got his first customer. More jobs came in. He brought in friends to help, fellow crew team members and other athletes. In 1985, he bought his first truck with a $25,000 loan from his mother. Three decades later Gentle Giant has offices in 10 cities, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, and employs up to 400 workers.
O’Toole’s secret? He credits his skilled and motivated crews. He recognized the uneven quality of other companies’ personnel early on when he had to rescue people from moving nightmares. “They were so grateful,” he recalled. “Like we had just saved their child.”
So he set high standards for his workers. Today, to qualify candidates must climb up and down all 37 flights of stairs in Harvard Stadium. If they survive that, they undergo a rigorous training period. They are the Navy SEALs of furniture moving.
So is the age of alternative movers over? Not exactly, O’Toole says. Thanks to the Internet, many “alternative companies” have sprung up. But buyers beware. “They hire someone to set up an impressive website,” he says. “Then when they show up they’re a bunch of losers. So you have horror stories about customers getting locked in the truck or having their furniture dumped on the lawn.”
The solution? Word-of-mouth. And don’t be cheap. Good companies are good to their employees. Some movers at Gentle Giant make up to $100,000 a year.
Hmm. I still remember how to move a piano and pack a truck. But 37 flights of stairs? “Well I’m 63 and I can still beat 21-year-olds,” O’Toole says.
Sounds tempting. At least I wouldn’t have to review Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups 3.” Now that’s heavy lifting.
Correction: Because of an editing error, Lee Gailzaid was misidentified in a photograph in an earlier version of this article.