The Times follows FedEx delivery man on one of his busiest days

John Mulvey loads up his hand truck for Circuit Ave. deliveries on one of his busiest days of the year. — photo by Barry Stringfellow

Early on a frigid Monday morning this week, John Mulvey, owner and operator of the FedEx Ground operation on the Island, lifts boxes of all sizes from a 100-foot conveyor belt and scans the bar code with a light beam that shoots out of the fingertip of his computerized glove.

“The technology changes every month; it’s amazing,” he said, loading his truck at a brisk pace. “People will get emails five minutes after I put their package on the truck. I’ll be delivering stuff until 10 tonight. I’ll show up somewhere at five and they’ll be like, ‘Where you been?,’ like theirs is the only package I’ve got.”

“Ben deForest is having a baby,” he said picking up a box labeled “Pregnancy Pillow.” “This is for his wife.”

He scans another box. “This guy is having a knee replacement.”

Mr. Mulvey doesn’t use a GPS or a map. He doesn’t write down where he packs the parcels on his truck. He does it by memory. “You do this long enough, you get to know everybody,” he said, scanning another package. “This is for Heather McCarthy. It’s got a P.O. box but I can drop it off with her husband at the Xtra Mart, save her the trip. She had a baby, too.”

FedEx Ground, unlike FedEx Express and UPS, is comprised of independent contractors. “We get paid by what we deliver and what we pick up. We’re not hourly,” he said. “There’s bonuses for things like making all your deliveries on time for the month, so it’s all about hustle. If you want to work, you can make some money. But if you don’t want to work, this ain’t the place for you.”

Internet sales are growing at about 15 percent a year, and will total about $260 billion in 2013, according to research firm Emarketer. A quarter of these purchases will be made between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which puts a premium on reliable boots-on-the-ground people like Mr. Mulvey who deliver the e-presents.

Mr. Mulvey will make 265 stops this day, not counting the 130 packages he’ll pick up. “Not too bad. Tomorrow will be a lot heavier,” he said. From Thanksgiving through Christmas, Mr. Mulvey works from 7 am to 10 pm, including Saturdays. This week before Christmas is his biggest single week of the season.

Getting a package to its destination on the Vineyard comes with unique challenges. Local knowledge is key — knowing the people and how they’re connected, knowing the roads that have little or no signage, navigating the axle-bending ruts and the street numbers that defy all logic. “On the Cape, guys have a GPS,” he said. “They plug in all the addresses and it’ll even show you the best route. That won’t work here. There’s no logic to the street numbers. People picked a favorite number and put it on their house. Lambert’s Cove is a disaster. But Chappy is the worst — nothing’s marked,” he said closing the back door of his truck. “The roads are so narrow and rutted, you can’t get down some of them. And you have to wait for the boat, which can be a while. That’s also where you get a lot of Vineyard pinstriping,” he said, pointing the long scratches from trees and scrub that slice through the green and blue FedEx on the side of his truck.

Other challenges to delivering on the Vineyard include the ongoing cyber-mystery that labels Oak Bluffs packages with the Vineyard Haven zip code, the post office/street address dichotomy, and packages that still come marked “General Delivery” or that just read “435 Vineyard Haven.” Still, Mr. Mulvey has to deliver every one to qualify for a monthly bonus, which he often does.

“I love this time of year, a lot of stops, not much traffic,” he said making his way on Barnes Road, his breakfast bagel sitting, still wrapped, on the dusty dashboard of his truck that’s logged over 227K Vineyard miles. “Summer traffic here is a disaster.” The volume in summer requires him to work from 5:30 am to 11 pm, six days a week. “In summer, this truck would be really packed,” he said, chucking a thumb at what looks to be a very full cargo hold. “It can get up to 130 degrees back there. You also have to plan around the boat schedule. You don’t want to be delivering 50 boxes to the Black Dog when the boat comes in. And drivers get crazy here in the summer. People fly by you, screech on the brakes and make a turn…they’re always from New York.”

Originally from Seekonk, Mr. Mulvey was working in Providence, when, as the layoffs grew at work and his family grew at home, he made a career change. “I used to sit at a desk. I saw the writing on the wall and I called my brother-in-law and said, ‘I need a job.’ I started driving a milk truck. I loved it, right away.”

Mr. Mulvey moved to the Island in 1997 and drove for Mulvey Vineyard Dairy, which is how he got to know the elegant randomness of Island addresses. He started driving for FedEx in 2005. He hasn’t taken a vacation since. “I love my job. I see people every day. I’m out on my own,” he said, motioning to the windswept Vineyard Haven harbor from Beach Road.

The steady rise in Internet commerce has meant a steady rise in business for Mr. Mulvey, who’s grown to five trucks and is considering adding a sixth truck next year.

“The roundabout made a huge difference this summer,” he said. “Before, we’d be sitting in traffic backed up past the electric company. This summer, I breezed right through. It was beautiful. It’s too bad about the connector road,” he said, referring to the recent Tisbury town meeting vote that killed the project, which he’d watched on MVTV. Mr. Mulvey said he frequently watches local government on MVTV. “I used to love to watch the O.B. selectmen’s meetings,” he said. “All the fights and the arguments. That was must-see TV.”

He pulls into the loading zone in the middle of Circuit Avenue, his biggest stop of the day. “When people park here in the summer, it makes your life a lot more difficult,” he said. “You either have to circle, or park down by the bank and hump 50 boxes to Soft as a Grape.”

Mr. Mulvey, a hockey defenseman and a guard on his high school football team, lifts large boxes with ease. He packs the hand truck with enough cargo to fill a pick-up, and wheels it along Circuit Ave. at a pace just shy of a jog, maneuvering the towering payload with an ease. “I like going solo,” he said. “When I had summer help, guys would be spent by six o-clock. We still got four, five hours to go.”

At every stop on Circuit Ave., Mr. Mulvey parts with, “Have a great day.”

While the traffic is mercifully spare during the holiday rush, the season comes with its own complications. “Snow is the worst,” he said. “People assume these trucks are good in snow. Believe me, they’re not. You forget how many hills there are on this Island. Dark is more of a problem. If you don’t know your way around when it’s dark, forget about it.”

Dogs are another professional hazard. “It’s the little dogs, poodles, chihuahuas, that are really nasty,” he said. Once, Mr. Mulvey fell 16 feet, after a wooden staircase collapsed when he was making a delivery to Mosher Photo. “By the end of the day, I was pretty out of it, so I went to the hospital, I had a concussion, and few other things. Couldn’t have been too bad, everybody got the right packages,” he said, with a laugh.

FedEx express delivers packages that weigh up to 175 pounds, which presents Mr. Mulvey with a wide range of challenges. “I delivered a live Christmas tree yesterday,” he said. “The hardest deliveries are the trampolines from Wal-Mart.” His most unusual delivery was the ashes of the recently deceased.

“One time I pulled into the hospital a guy in scrubs was waiting for me. They were already operating on the guy,” he said.

Mr. Mulvey had made 64 stops by the time he delivered a package to the Times at 12:30 pm, Monday. “Only 200 more to go,” he said, as he briskly headed out the door. “Have a great day.”