Monday, October 10, 2005

Extra! Extra!

Now that the festivities surrounding International Newspaper Carrier Day are winding down, last Saturday was the official day for observation but you know how these holidays tend to stretch out, I would be remiss if I didn’t share my own experience as a newspaper carrier for the venerable SJ-R.

Yes, I “pitched the broadsheet” for a time during the late 70s/early 80s. It was a golden age for paperboys. The national feeling of optimism that characterized the Reagan years was palpable as citizens stood waiting on their porches at dawn’s first light, eager to discover what good news awaited them in the morning paper.

As the bearers of good news, paperboys enjoyed an exalted status in society that far exceeded our educational background and meager wage. Not since the Wells-Fargo men rolled their wagons into frontier towns a century earlier had delivery agents been so integral to the makeup of our social fabric. (It is believed that it was during this age of the newspaper carrier that mail carriers, jealous of the attention being lavished on their more celebrated daily deliverers, first began to act out in fits of homicidal rage and the term “going postal” entered our national lexicon.)

Even the word paperboy harkens back to a simpler time, when newspapers were wrapped tight and projected onto front stoops by young men pedaling banana-seated bicycles, the papers packed tightly into a canvas bag strapped to the handlebars. Today, the average carriers' age seems to skew a little older. The money that was once used for baseball cards or a bottle of sarsaparilla is now being used to supplement family incomes, perhaps even to provide allowances for lazy teens who lack the gumption to pursue gainful employment

As for my own experience, it started in the sixth grade when I began spelling a friend when his family would go on vacation. By the time I reached the seventh grade, he would move on to a larger, more profitable route and he bequeathed unto me the modest yet challenging route that encompassed 22nd and 23rd streets from Sangamon to Griffith. For seven years I worked those blocks with a dedication that bordered on mania.

My decision to enter the ranks of newspaper carriers was met with trepidation by my parents who had heard the horror stories from other parents who were forced into action each morning when young Johnny would oversleep and disgruntled customers would begin to call. But save for those rare occasions when the combination of inclement weather and a supplement-heavy edition made riding or walking the route prohibitive, I carried out my appointments self-sufficiently. It wasn’t long into my career when I didn’t even need the services of an alarm clock to arise at the proper hour.

It was the ability to consistently answer the early morning call that separated us paperboys from our contemporaries who chose pampered pursuits such as store clerk or burger flipper to earn a little spending money. While the rest of the town laid snuggly in their beds, we were setting the day into motion by greasing the wheels of civic life through the delivery of the local daily, the lifeblood of the community.

As vital a task as it was, in time a paperboy would learn to execute his route in a state of suspended consciousness. On Saturdays, when I could return to bed after making my rounds, it wasn’t uncommon to awaken in a panic an hour later because I couldn’t immediately recall doing it.

There was a camaraderie among paperboys that was common in groups of tradesmen from that era. A few of my fellow carriers and I would occasionally gather on the corner after completing our morning rounds and swap stories of confronting vicious dogs and espying comely housewives as they attempted to stealthily retrieve their paper while still in their nighties. Old man Fishburn, our district manager, would drive up to say hello while suspiciously eying our bags to see that all of our papers had been delivered and that we weren’t loafing on company time.

Make no mistake; there were bad paperboys during this time as well. Some kept milk delivery hours, dropping the newspaper and leaving it to yellow after the customer had already left for the day. Others held customers in contempt for complaining to the district manager about late delivery and would seek revenge. Metal storm doors were still very popular back then and striking the bottom quarter panel with a rocket propelled newspaper would result in a thunderous sound that would cause the house’s occupants to rise terrified in their beds.

I did my best to avoid hitting doors in this manner, believing that the sound would still be resonating in the customer’s ears come Christmas time and thus quelling the spirit of tipping the paperboy. Although I tend to side with the anti-tipping crowd, a little something extra for the newspaper carrier is just good form. I slipped my last carrier a double sawbuck after he announced he was hanging up his bag to pursue other avenues. A bright future surely awaits him.

On occasion, when I’m back visiting the old neighborhood, I’ll drive by my route for old time's sake. I still remember which houses took the paper. I remember the ones that wanted the paper delivered to the side door so it would be protected from the elements by their carport. There probably aren’t as many of them today that take home delivery. Paperboys are being replaced by Webmasters as more and more readership moves online. But I hope that the demand for the daily broadsheet remains so that my boys get the chance to join the paperboy fraternity. Esprit de corps may even move me to join them on those days when the weather turns hostile and the paper is leaden with circulars.


Anonymous said...

Great story! No better job to teach responsibility, commitment and customer service. It's part of the fabric of America!

Don't worry, your boys will have their opportunity.

Marie said...

That really is a great story. My brother had 9th and 10th Street from Ash to Stanford from about 1969 to 1974. I was his substitute on those rare mornings when he "called in sick." I always marveled at how he never complained, because it was the hardest job I ever did.