Recently, I had a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who is a student of logistics overseas who seemed to be having a massive case of writer’s block. My own interest in the study of logistics is fairly well known , and I do not feel it necessary here to explain the reasons for my own deep and enduring reasons why I study and muse on the subject so often. My acquaintance commented, in a mixture of what sounded like proud and despair, that everything about logistics had already been written. Now, as someone who reads just about everything on logistics as I can find, and who writes about it, I can say for sure that not everything about logistics has already been written before, not least because it is a subject that does not seem to capture the popular imagination. Logistics is something most people take for granted unless there is not enough to go around, and then logistics becomes the cause of a great deal of conflict and suffering. In thinking of stories about logistics that would need to be told, I thought of a few interesting subjects, one of which I thought was particularly poignant. I like to call it the story of a box.
How is the story of a box poignant? Let us introduce the protagonist of our story, a metal container constructed to be part of the massive logistical work that goes on around the world. At first, as a shiny and new box, the ship travels the world’s trade routes on large tankers traveling obscure ports in China, large parts in Europe and North America, carrying the consumer goods that we love and take for granted. As the box gets dents and is no longer as shiny and new, it travels on trains and on truck trailers. It carries people, is repainted as its ownership changes hands repeatedly, and winds up ending its life as the home for homeless and forgotten refugees, alone and unlamented. Subplots to the story would involve the stories of some of the box’s friends over the course of their lives, including one who fell overboard in a storm on the Pacific Ocean, and another of which became stranded in Somalia after its cargo ship was taken captive by pirates. This story seems poignant to me, and I imagine there are plenty of other people who would find it to be both illuminating as well as more than a little bit tragic. That story is the sort of logistics story that pops into my own head.
Why is this the case? Well, I will freely admit that I am an odd person who thinks about unusual things that are often neglected and taken for granted. A tragic story of a corrugated metal box? That is precisely the sort of story I would think about with very little provocation. Such a box may have no emotional life, but because of its involvement in people and in our actions, it carries emotional weight as a result of what happens to it. The treatment of an object can, without very much effort, be seen as emblematic of the treatment of people who are often objectified. A box is a fairly obvious symbol, a container into which our own fears and longings and experiences can be placed. As human beings we are often containers of our complicated internal lives, and so it is entirely unsurprising that a container can be the hero of a tragic story of being used and taken for granted until one is forgotten altogether in some kind of dismal and neglected fate. Anyway, it’s the sort of story I think about, at any rate, even if few other people would find it the obvious subject of a nonfiction novel.
Lest people be worried, the boxes would not be the only characters in the novel. I know that in the hands of a gloomy and reflective person like myself that even a box could carry a great deal of emotional weight, but there are plenty of people involved in the story as well, from the often forgotten people who work on container ships, to truck drivers and train engineers and people who work at ports and railway station, from Somali pirates to refugees. These are people who, like the boxes they work with, are often forgotten. The general invisibility of logistics makes all who work in logistics more invisible. I don’t think of myself as particularly invisible as a person, but never in my life have I been more invisible than winding through the service corridors of Clackamas Town Center or playing ding dong ditch with the holiday packages of the good people of Happy Valley. This is not something, in other words, that I know only from reading or from my own observation but something which I know from my own quirky personal experience. As in everything else, I am a writer whose characteristically melancholy approach to life even colors the way I look at a TEU wandering its lonely way across the globe carrying goods for others even as it is itself neglected and obscure over the course of a tragic existence.
 See, for example: