the chorister's c




25 July 1999

I heard an old soulful song from the 70's on the radio the other day, and I was taken back to my days in high school when I had a paper route. My mother found me the job; as she didn't have the wherewithal to keep me in spending money, this was a way to keep myself in LP's.

For four years, I delivered Dayton, Ohio's morning paper, the Journal Herald. Dayton had two major dailies in those days, only somewhat independent, sharing downtown facilities. In the city and near suburbs, home delivery was by kids (predominantly teenaged boys) on foot, not adults in cars.

We picked up each morning's load at the home of an adult counselor/agent, who handled the money and accounting. My counselor misread my name the first time he saw it, and hence mispronounced it badly. I let it go, and then it became embarrassingly impossible to correct him.

Canvas carrying bags were available from the newspaper, at cost. You could get a shoulder bag, but these were useless for all but the smallest routes: they just didn't hold much, maybe only thirty papers, and they looked a little dorky. There were pannier-style saddle bags for your bike, but they presented a different problem. A fully-loaded bike, especially one of the banana-seated sting rays that we rode then, wouldn't stay on its kickstand. So what you did was this: take a pair of saddle bags and cut a hole lengthwise down the saddle part. Load the bags with papers, then kneel down and slip your head through the hole, with one half of the load on your chest and the other half on your back. Then stand up slowly and stagger down the block in the dark. Once you've started your route and reduced your load by about half, you can do normal things like bending at the waist.

My route covered four blocks of Hadley Avenue in suburban Oakwood. In that part of the burb, the streets are laid out in a grid something like Manhattan's, with broad north-south streets set far apart and the houses on the close-set east-west streets, like Hadley. I had 40 or 50 customers, maybe three-fourths of the homes. They were mainly bungalows and two-story colonials, with a few four-unit apartment buildings.

Every house had specific delivery instructions: the paper was to go under the mat, inside the storm door, in the milk box, and so on. (In those days, home milk delivery had just about disappeared, but milk boxes were still useful for papers and packages that were not permitted in U.S. Mail boxes.) So I walked my route, up one side of the street and down the other, delivering all the papers broadsheet flat. Pitching a rolled-up paper vaguely in the vicinity of the porch was frowned upon, though I knew how to fold a paper into a rollable package when it was called for. Today's papers rolled in plastic bags were unheard of.

This is not to say that we didn't take all the shortcuts we could. If a customer didn't tell me to stay off the lawn, it was an access path for me. I covered my friend Larry's route for him a few times; he had devised the briefest of paths, and it relied on dropping six feet from a stairway landing into a back yard. And this was with a full load of over-the-head saddlebags. Oof!

Customers could insist on special instructions because once a week I showed up to collect sixty cents for six days of delivered papers. Or at least I was supposed to. As a businessman, I was pretty shabby. I would skip collecting for a week, and some customers would be hard to find at home, so I was often presenting a whole month's bill at a time, a shocking three dollars. If I missed a customer often and his tab ran up higher, I usually rounded it off to three bucks. (Maybe a quarter of my customers paid the newspaper directly. This was generally a good thing, but it was hard to get Christmas tips out of these customers.)

Likewise, my efforts at expanding my route by door-to-door canvassing were weak. About every six months, the newspaper would run promotions that put us on the street, knocking on doors and wheedling for subscriptions. I would tag along with entrepreneur Larry, who would rack up new sales by the fistful. Meanwhile, I would ring bells at about five houses, mumble my sales pitch, then give up and slip off home.

Most of my customers were middle-aged or older, so far as I could tell looking through time's tunnel of adolescence. Ken Honeyman was a local TV and radio personality on WHIO, and a customer. Well, I was impressed. And there was a beautiful petite blonde woman with a fetching overbite. Her nickname was Dutch. In my high-schooler's mind, she was my letters-to-Penthouse, summer-of-'42 fantasy. Of course nothing happened, and of course she was married, but she had a look that said that she knew she'd been driving paper boys and pizza guys crazy for years.

Why deliver papers in the morning? I was up at 4:30 six days a week, and the Midwestern winters were much frostier at that hour. We tried all sorts of gear to keep warm -- thermal coveralls, ski masks. There was a palm-sized gizmo that burned Sterno inside a metal shell, which slipped into a fabric baggie. You held this inside your mittens, and it kept your hands warm. Most of the time.

So why did I stick with it? Now that I reflect, I think the period of stillness and quiet each day as I walked my route had a subconscious benefit. Finding an hour just to space out, to do something simple and repetitive, is priceless to a sixteen-year-old, more so than he realizes or lets on.

Once I finished my route, I would walk home while there was still no car traffic on the streets. It was usually just after dawn, starting to get light, about 6. I would walk down the middle of Shafor Boulevard, through the two intersections by the elementary school; the traffic signals flashed yellow and red.

In season, nighthawks would be in the air. Nighthawks are related to whip-poor-wills, and they feed on the flying insects that begin to stir in the grey half-light hours: the birds would call peent...peent...peent, then I would hear a whirr of wings as they swooped down in my direction. It was a sound of strangeness and mystery. At the time, I had no idea what these creatures were; 25 years later and now I can give a name to them.

I'd get home and snack on Coke and Chips Ahoy before my mom woke up.

And sometimes I would take a radio with me on the route and listen to WONE-AM. In the daylight, I was partial to progressive rock, and I had a healthy appetite for proto-metal and straight-ahead rock and roll. But the songs that I remember from the predawn hours are mournful, sentimental, yearning minor-key songs of broken love -- and here I was a socially-challenged adolescent who'd never experienced love in the first place.

I recall Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." "Summer Breeze" from Seals and Crofts. George Harrison sang "My Sweet Lord" before he had to settle a copyright suit and he wrote "This Song." Anything from the Moody Blues. There was a song called "Brandy" by a band I've forgotten, and another one called (as far as I can remember) "We Gotta Get You a Woman." [My friend Mark reminds me that this one was by Todd Rundgren.]

I bought a clock radio with my first profits, and I still have this artefact from a time when audio components were cased in walnut.

Senior year, I shared the family car. (Don't tell my mom this next part.) Some weekend nights I'd stay up all night with my geeky friends and play cards or Risk. (We could make a Monopoly game last all night because one of us would introduce a new house rule halfway through, and then we could argue about it for an hour.) And then 4:00 would roll around, and since my load of papers was ready to pick up, I would drive to my counselor's house and use the car as a big bicycle. (The car was an Austin America, a failed, underpowered forerunner of the Honda Civic.) I would drive to the top of the street, walk the block with its papers; then back at the car, I would release the hand brake, open the door and give a little push with my foot, and roll downhill to the next block in the morning silence.

And then I went off to college, and when I came back for my first summer, my mom found me a different job. (I was still crummy at being a go-getter.) But that's another story.

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©1999 David L. Gorsline.
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