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Keep On Truckin'

Paul Peery fumbled through a book of reservations at his Star Hill Automotive and U-Haul Rentals dealership. He turned the pages sluggishly, the measured movements of an unhurried man. In front him, a pack of 15 people leaned on the walls, breathing heavily in the hot, one-room shack. They grunted, rolled their eyes and checked the minute hand on their watches. No one could tell the air conditioning was on full-blast.

Peery, sweating through his navy blue T-shirt, found the record of a reservation in question, penciled in on the margin of the booklet. The phone rang twice before he moved to answer it, and then changed his mind. The machine would get it.

Despite a swelling line of exhausted, frustrated customers, Peery seemed inexplicably calm. He handed the next mover in line keys to a 10-foot truck, listed off some rules and patiently waited for the credit card to go through.

Fourth-year College student Trisha Barr stood next in line and looked ready to pounce. She had waited 45 minutes to pick up a truck she had reserved a week earlier. When she got to the counter, Peery informed her that there were no more 10-foot trucks -- the kind she had reserved. One should be back in a couple hours, Peery sighed, or he could try calling one of the other dealers in Charlottesville's vicinity.

The two settled for a trailer with about the same storage size. No apologies, no refunds or discounts. Just a couple casual suggestions and the problem was solved. Peery served another customer. Barr would be able to move.

"He was lucky I had a hitch on my Jeep," Barr said, defeated. She felt that if she had made a reservation, a truck should be ready and waiting for her when she arrived to pick it up.

At Star Hill Automotive and U-Haul Rentals, which handles the most traffic of any other U-Haul dealership in Virginia, "people are always fussin' and cussin'," Peery smirked.

Peery insists that when he initially takes truck reservations, he only fills orders for as many trucks as he expects to have on his West Main Street lot that day. But Peery can't plan for breakdowns. Or movers who return the trucks to a different location than they had planned. Or people who end up keeping the truck for a week because their apartment wasn't ready to move into. Or inexperienced drivers who get the trucks stuck under low overpasses.

"That just throws a monkey wrench in there," Peery laughed.

So no matter how much Peery plans, often there can be a mismatch between the number of reservations and the number of trucks physically sitting on the lot. With three other U-Haul dealers in the area, Peery typically can swap out some equipment within a few hours -- if the customer is willing to wait.

"A guarantee doesn't guarantee a time or a pick-up location," he explained. "U-Haul just guarantees that they have a truck to rent you."

The limited guarantee exists to protect U-Haul from those unforeseen complications and disasters inherent in the business. And complicated booking.

Not only does Peery take reservations directly for his dealership, but movers also can call the national reservation line and receive a guaranteed truck or trailer for a specific date. Movers also can set up reservations online. Neither system accounts for how many trucks are known to be on his specific lot; U-Haul will find a way to transport equipment to the desired pick-up location.

"All the small colleges in Virginia all let out within a two-week period," Peery said. "There are just more kids going out than we have equipment for."

With all these complicating factors influencing the pick-up of the equipment, why does Peery get blamed and end up with the marred reputation?

"Cause we're the ones standing here looking you in the eye," he said.

By now, Peery has seen it all, and so he doesn't panic anymore. He's not defensive. He's doesn't get stressed. He's patient with infuriated customers. And at times, maybe too patient. With a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he talks more like he's having a conversation over a couple of beers than orchestrating the movement of over 100 pieces of equipment a day.

"Look, I can't make trucks, I can only rent them," he said.

As a dealer, Peery is responsible for truck rentals, not truck maintenance. He tries to have enough equipment available on location to meet the demand, and he tries to keep all that equipment in working order.

Upkeep of the trucks and trailers is done every 5,000 miles by U-Haul the corporation, not the individual dealers. While Peery could fix an overheated vehicle in his sleep, the comprehensive testing and diagnostics are done at the regional headquarters in Richmond "on the fives."

Every piece of U-Haul equipment also must undergo a Department of Transportation inspection once a year, a test that is much more critical and inclusive than the standard Virginia state inspection. For vehicles that receive so much abuse and overuse, the multiple levels of maintenance should keep them in working order.

"You try to keep them somewhat clean, but it's almost impossible this time of year," Peery said of his role in the upkeep of the equipment. "Just sweep it out and let it roll."

Peery places part of the responsibility of maintaining a working vehicle on the customer. If they have to fill up on gas, they should check the fluids as well, he said. If people are making cross-country treks with vehicles weighing over a ton, they need to be conscious of its performance and stay in tune with how it's holding up. Here in Charlottesville, though, many rentals are checked out only for local moves.

"We try to ask customers, 'How'd the truck do?' but people don't answer because they're afraid they'll be charged if something is broken," Peery said. "We're only asking to keep the equipment in good working order. It's much easier to fix while it's sitting and not on the side of the road."

Star Hill Automotive and U-Haul Rentals struggles with broken equipment and exhausted customers year-round, but the back-to-school rush brings a new problem: oversupply. With over 14,000 U-Haul dealerships across the United States, students can rent a truck anywhere and drop it off in Charlottesville.

"Right now we're dealing with an overload of one-way drop-offs," Peery said. "I'm spending half my day just moving equipment. It's a neverending battle."

A cardboard sign with a message etched in black marker warns of fines and penalties for unapproved drop-offs.

"If you think they get angry when you don't have a piece of their equipment, they're worse when they come to drop it off and we have no more room on the lot," said Cindy, Peery's wife and right hand in running the operation. "They're tired, frustrated and hot and just want to get rid of it, and we have to turn them away."

Peery has an endless chasm of stories from his years in the business. The man who flipped his truck three times and didn't even dent it. The woman who gunned the gas to make it under a low bridge and stripped the entire top of the truck off.

Moving is a hassle. Paul Peery knows that. But instead of letting the anxiousness of the movers get to him, he plods along, carrying out his physically laborious tasks. His blackened palms and soiled fingernails tell the story of a man who often doesn't make it home until midnight, and sure enough, "as soon as you open the door in the morning, someone is standing there waiting to rent."

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