Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Newspaper Boy

Evening newspapers ready to be folded

The Newspaper Boy
memoir by
Greg Larson

I wound the straps of the bag around the handlebars of my bike and adjusted the two bulging canvas pouches which were filled with Garden City Telegram newspapers.  In a flash, I flipped up the kickstand and rolled down the driveway and into the street.  I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to ride my bike and throw newspapers.  I liked being out in the world, on my own for an hour or two each day, free from parents, teachers, and siblings.  It was just me, the bike and the neighborhood.
            As a boy of thirteen, I looked forward to my daily adventure.  I was too old to play with toys and too young to worry about life beyond school.  The route was my personal space, an important job that I learned to do well.  Every afternoon, I was on a mission.  Each of the 110 households expected the paper to be on the driveway or porch before supper time, and I was up to the task. 
            When I came home from junior high school each day, the bundle of papers was always waiting for me at the curb.  I didn’t have the option to ignore them or skip a day on a whim.  I’d carry the stack of papers bound by thick cotton string down to the basement.  While the radio or hi-fi pumped out the tunes, I’d position the stack in front of me and place about twenty rubber bands on my ring finger.  The folding began as I jiggled to rock and roll music.  I was getting paid to listen to the Beach Boys or Simon and Garfunkel!  I couldn’t believe it.
            It was a perfect time to daydream or play mind games during the folding process.  Sometimes I’d think about the future.  Where would I be ten years from now . . . twenty years, thirty years?  I’d also read the front page of the paper, a line or two, fold, then read another line or two, fold.  LBJ or Viet Nam were usually somewhere above the fold.
            Mom had an ongoing battle with me in her efforts to stamp out the black ink that covered everything in my path from the basement to the kitchen and garage. The walls, doorknobs and light switches were some of the places that received the black film.  I was the target of wrath in her attempts to eradicate the evil, black scourge.
About once a week, she would yell from the top of the stairs, “Greg, just look at the black marks all over the house.  Do you realize the mess you make with that ink all over your hands?  You need to wash your hands before you touch anything!”  Then she would add, “If you don’t clean up the smudges, then guess who has to do it?  You know where to find the sponge, and the Spic and Span.”
            With the folding done, I’d haul the bags to the top of the stairs, but there was one crucial stop before going out into the garage . . . the cookie jar.  At least a half-dozen cookies quickly found their way into my newspaper bag.   More valuable than gold doubloons, I’d eat them as a reward at the quarter points on the route.
My route was as close as I could get to a Norman Rockwell existence in the high plains of Kansas.  After riding three blocks south, I followed the highway on a frontage road and stopped at Mr. Walton’s barber shop for my first delivery.  He wanted the paper delivered inside, since customers were waiting to read it.  There were a handful of businesses which also had subscriptions: the Elks club, a hamburger stand, and the Norge Laundromat.
            I was always anxious to get across the highway and into the older residential section of town, mainly because of the cool shade of the giant elm trees, which seemed like endangered species in the desert-like climate.  They were my cover, my umbrella in the late afternoon sun. 
The houses and the names of the families on the route were burned into my subconscious memory.  It was a choreographed journey, with every body movement used to create an efficient delivery system.  The timing of each throw was essential to prevent the wasted energy required to get off the bike and re-throw a paper.  The pedal strokes, the arm leverage on the throw, and the balancing of the swinging bags were all timed to work in harmony.
Parts of the job weren’t so cozy.  Weather was always changing in Western Kansas, and the wind never ceased.  The summer heat felt like a blast furnace, and the winter winds made me think of Antarctica.  The brutally cold days taught me to wear the right clothing, as well as truly appreciate the comforts of home.  During the worst storms, or when the streets were slick with snow and ice, I would walk the route, with mom following me in the car.
Collection time was one of the burdens I had to bear.  Each month for two or three evenings after supper, I began the slog from house to house, with the Garden National Bank pouch, a hole punch, and a ring of subscription cards.
Looking back at the collection process, I can see now that it was a quick way to get exposed to society and learn about the variety of people that live in any given neighborhood.  The worst subscribers pretended they didn’t hear me at the door, or they would ask me to wait until next month.  I didn’t even want to step inside those houses, due to the odor and all the stuff strewn about.  The best subscribers invited me into their living room to sit down.  They chatted with me and asked me about my school and family while they wrote out their check for $1.55 for the month’s subscription.  Sometimes they would pay me another month or two in advance.  I punched their subscription card, along with my duplicate card on the large ring.
My heart began to race whenever I walked up to collect at the Rossi’s house.  Georgette Rossi was one of the most beautiful girls in my school.  Just the sound of her name caused my heart to pound.  Georgette, with curly, jet-black hair, always answered the doorbell, and invited me inside.  Her mom would be in the kitchen, cooking Italian food. I always held out hope that they would ask me to sit down and eat with them, but it never happened.
The county judge who lived on my route had two daughters who were cheerleaders at the high school.  They were always excited when I came to collect, but I wasn’t.  “Mom, Dad, it’s the paper boy to collect!” they’d yell. Then they looked me over like I was a little puppy and say, “Isn’t he such a cute little paperboy?”  It made me feel like Opie or Beaver Cleaver.
Other memorable subscribers were two of my teachers.  I always made sure their papers were right by the door at every delivery.  I thought it might help their thinking process when report cards came due.
And there was Mrs. Gudenhausen, a widow who lived in a tidy bungalow with picturesque flower beds.  She always gave me a five dollar tip at Christmas time.  Every year when spring arrived, she hired the same painter to paint the outside of her house from top to bottom.  He was usually there for two or three months.  I always wondered what kind of relationship she had with the painter, but it really didn’t matter to me.  She was a generous lady, and I just enjoyed the big tip each Christmas.
I always picked a friendly customer to finish collecting for the evening, and then I asked permission to use their phone to call home.  Mom or Dad would come quickly to take me home.  Mom didn’t want me walking alone with a bag full of money hanging from my hand, even in a small town.  She’d draw the curtains in the house, afraid that someone would see me counting the money.  The majority of it went to the newspaper company.  If I had a good month, I’d clear thirty-five to forty dollars for myself . . . slightly better than a dollar a day for my work.  Thirty dollars a month went to a savings account, and the rest I used for pizza and coke money, and some for church. 
Mom kept telling me that I should save the money for college, but I had different motives.  I wanted to buy a car when I turned sixteen.
By the time I started high school, after-school activities began to interfere with my daily routine.  I had to find a substitute to throw the papers.  Usually, it was my younger brother.  He knew the route so well, that he decided to take my place, and the circulation manager at the Telegram agreed.  It was a perfect succession plan, and the subscribers were thrilled to have another Larson paperboy.
I had saved over $900 during the three years of my route, and the job had made me a better person.  It had taken me from childhood to manhood.  Like the papers, I was flung out into the world.  I learned to interact with strangers and manage a business.
I wish every boy could have a paper route.