When I was 12 years old, I got a paper route delivering the Milwaukee Journal to our neighborhood. My parents must have thought it might build character and teach responsibility. I wanted the route anyway, as my best friend Alex had one already, allowing him to buy more baseball cards than I could. Dad and Mom both encouraged me that employment would be fun, and told me stories of the jobs they had as youngsters, most of which started out with “When I was your age, I had three jobs that blah… blah.”
My dad accompanied me to the newspaper station for our area, and I signed up. My route would include two blocks of Downer and two blocks of Stowell Ave.
The way the system worked was that I would be charged by the week for how many papers I ordered. I would then collect the money from the residents, and any money that was left over after paying for the papers was profit. Essentially, we kids were private contractors.
We carriers received a huge yellow bag constructed of canvas designed to be worn over the shoulder. The Journal consisted of a daily addition, a midweek addition with advertising supplement, and a Sunday edition.
The guy in charge of the local routes worked out of a shack next to a convenience store. He was a fat and disheveled guy in his 30s with greasy balding hair who probably saw his future differently than it now was. He compensated for his pathetic life by acting like the malevolent head of the carrier gang. He assigned the routes and determined the amount of papers you would receive and pay for, so getting on his bad side often meant that you would find yourself trying in vain to sell your extras by standing on the corner yelling “Paper” to passing motorists. Many of the carriers hung out at the shack, trading insults and baseball cards. They were the bigger and older carriers, and none of us little kids were allowed to hang out with them. Summoned to meet with the ‘boss’, one would have to make his way slowly past the snickering carrier gang who added their snide comments as you meekly awaited his audience. When I first was assigned the route, the ‘boss’ told me that I would be taking over from a girl named Beth. She would show me the collection cards and take me on the route with her on her last day as an orientation. “You will really like her” he said, “She is a real cutie.” I called her and we arranged a meeting. When she set eyes on me she cried “Eww, it’s you!”, and walked off leaving the collection cards on the grass. That was the extent of my orientation. She knew me from school, and since she was a popular girl, and I was a popular target, she had reacted as child-society demanded.
I was supposed to be able to have a job I could do after school, earn money to be put away for savings, and learn responsibility. Instead, I and increasingly my parents became enslaved by it.
The daily additions were easy enough. One simply placed as many as one could carry at one time into the big yellow bag, and staggered off to fight the defective screen doors, viscous dogs, bullies, lonely elderly residents with dementia, and other hazards of the job. When I ran out of papers, I went home for more until the whole route was complete. I repeated this for seven days a week, 365 days a year. There were no vacations as a paper carrier. You might get a friend to cover for you in an emergency, but then you faced the consequences if your friend was less than attentive and forgot to deliver to half the houses, instead choosing to read comic books.
I soon found out that the oft-portrayed icon of the young child on a red balloon tire bike, with a bag full of papers, dutifully delivering the daily news was a myth. Trying to ride my bike with the cumbersome yellow bag was nearly impossible. I would have to lean the bike over 45 degrees in order to balance the load. Pedaling at this angle proved futile. One solution I came up with was to hang the bag off the front handlebars of the bike. This worked as long as you didn’t have to steer or stop. Having to stop the bike at every house and get off to deliver the paper wasted time as well.
Now some carriers had mastered the art of folding the paper in a certain manner in order to toss it onto a porch while continuing to ride by on the bike. My experiments with this ended up with papers in bushes, a broken window, and spending hours chasing blowing pages down the street when they sort of exploded as they were halfway to their destination. I finally was able to master this folding with practice, but it was only practical one or two days a week, as the other days the papers were too thick to fold.
Of course, my dumb bike was not exactly up to par either. A neighbor had given us a black Huffy 3 speed from the 1940s with two of the three gears stripped. It must have weighed over 50 pounds, and had survived a collision with a car. In a feat of inspiration bordering on the lunatic, I spray-painted it day-glo orange, trying to make it look like the expensive road bikes at the local bicycle store. It ended up looking like a cheap science fiction movie prop.
I finally abandoned the bike idea and instead used a rusted toy wagon with no handle, which I pulled with a length of old rope I had attached. I don’t remember where the dilapidated wagon was obtained from, but it must have made me look like the Oliver Twist of newsboys.
After a short period, the wagon must have finally fallen apart, and I moved on to the use of an abandoned shopping cart. Now this was the way to go! I could carry most or all of the papers in one shot. The problem with the shopping cart is that it had one of those funny wheels that one can only find on shopping carts: a sort of free-spirit wheel that always wanted to go its own way. I would make progress down the street, only to suddenly lurch into a tree or a curb.
All these trials could be tolerated and overcome if it wasn’t for the dreaded Sunday edition. Instead of being an evening paper like it was on weekdays and Saturday, the Journal on Sunday was a morning paper. I rose every Sunday to the alarm at 4:30 am, and complete darkness. With bleary eyes, I dragged myself down the stairs and to the curb, where unbelievably large and heavy piles of bundled papers had been deposited. In the pre-dawn silence I half carried, rolled, and shoved the bundles up to our house.
The Sunday paper was unique in that not only was it ten times the size of a daily paper, but it also had to be assembled by the carrier. First, I had to cut the bailing wire that bound the stacks of papers together. Unlike my fellow carriers, I didn’t have my own wire cutters, but had to borrow Dad’s, promising each time that I would put it back properly in its slot on the peg-board above his workbench. The bailing wire had a habit of being twisted too tight, thus ruining the first and last paper in the bundle. I then had to sort the sections one by one into complete papers while sneaking a read of the comic strips, all under the dim 40-watt bulb in the overhead hall light. (We wouldn’t want to waste electricity, right Dad?)
Once assembled, the papers would be piled ten at a time into my big yellow bag, and I would stagger off into the darkness, leaning and lurching with the weight. Once rid of my load, I would return home to get another ten papers etc., until the route was complete. I think I had over eighty houses, so that more than eight trips would be needed. As soon as I got halfway through the first block my body reacted to the shock of being awake by letting me know I had to go to the toilet. When this happened, I hid the papers in the bushes, and ran bow-legged for home.
It was bad enough in normal conditions for a 12-year-old boy to carry 70 pounds of papers eight times through the neighborhood, but when the weather acted up, it could really get tricky. One of the worst things about rain or snow was that as the papers inevitably became moist or wet, they gained weight until you felt like you were delivering bowling balls.
Several Sundays saw the neighborhood covered in newly fallen snow a foot or two deep. At this point, the shopping cart and bag were abandoned in favor of my sled. Mom and I duly dragged the sled through the snow, piled full of papers and covered by garbage bags against the weather. It was early in the morning, so the walkways were not yet shoveled, making every house an Alaskan expedition. It also was hard to move when you were wearing three or four layers of clothing, two coats, and covered in snow.
Some of the residents, accustomed to reading their paper at a certain hour were intolerant of delays. They would stand in fuzzy slippers and a robe, holding steaming cups of coffee just inside their cozy doorways, and watch me trudge through waist deep snowdrifts trying to make it to their door.
On one of these arctic adventures, my mom was pulling the sled when it toppled over. She slipped in trying to catch it and lay on the street calling out in pain. What a way for Mom to spend her day off.
I did get Dad out of bed to help me once, but he complained so much, and made me so miserable that it was easier to do without his help.
Nobody at the Journal had warned us that the whole family would have to get involved. They also could have warned us that the filthy little rag-a-muffins selling papers in the movies were filthy because they were covered in newsprint! Not a day passed when I didn’t come home from the route badly in need of a bath. They also could have mentioned that continued use of the heavy news-bag would cause curvature of the spine. For years during and after my paper route I habitually walked with a conspicuous tilt, and always had to be stopped during school scoliosis tests and gawked at by the nurses. All this for less than twenty dollars profit per week.
One of the most interesting things about my paper route were the residents themselves. Our neighborhood was full of eccentrics.
There was the old woman with memory problems that lived in a huge home filled with antiques. She was forever misplacing her checkbook, and always wanted to offer me booze when it was cold. She needed help to fill out the check, and I was often there for an hour or more, helping her locate the checkbook or her purse (was it in the freezer or the closet?), and trying to politely refuse endless offers of brandy. (I was twelve at the time.)
There was the control freak that insisted on balancing his accounts and his checkbook in front of me while I waited to be paid, the lawyer who waited outside in his bath robe for the paper in winter while drinking a beer, a kind old woman with a little dog named ‘Jasu’, a psychiatrist who always tried to tell me what to do, and several people who always answered the door acting as if they were expecting the cops. Several residents I never saw at all. Their papers mysteriously disappeared from the doorstep of their homes as if by magic.
Most everybody was friendly until collection time.
I wonder who came up with the idea of sending twelve-year-old kids to people’s doors to collect on debts. Isn’t this a thing best left to big guys in leather jackets named ‘Lefty’? I certainly was not what one could expect in the enforcer category. After all, I was only twelve, and weighed less than 75 pounds. I certainly was not the best businessman, and was intimidated by some of the residents as well as being lazy, so often the amounts owed included several weeks or even months of delivery. At collection time, few of the residents actually had money in the house, or their spouse had their checkbook. Perhaps I could come back later or on Saturday? I wasted an incredible amount of time trying to find residents who were actually at home and had money to pay the bill.
I received lectures from the residents to collect more often, and to that effect went out at night to knock on doors to see if I could catch people at home.
It’s funny how the tune changes sometimes. The same people who lectured me on collecting more frequently happened to live in houses that suffered mysterious electrical lighting failures as soon as I rang the door buzzer.
I had an effective way of dealing with these customers. When it came time to deliver the Sunday paper, I would open the outer screen door, and trap the paper at head height between the doors by quickly shutting the outer door. When the customer opened the inner door, he was greeted with a shower of pages onto his feet.
Of course some customers never paid, and were duly reported to the Journal for collections. I never did get my books balanced perfectly, and left the route still being owed money.
I saved just about everything I made on the route not because I was thrifty, but because my parents had enforced it. I obtained a savings account at the University Credit Union when I was about ten, and most all of the money I made selling greeting cards or on the paper rout went into it. I paid for half of the cost of my trumpet, and the entire cost of a later competition target rifle. I may have missed the thrill of squandering my earnings on candy and comic books, but I did learn to save. I also learned a lot about life, the people that inhabit it, and all the trials and tribulations of earning a buck the hard way.