Friday, February 3, 2012

All the Young Dudes Carry the News

My brother and I about 1973
I still get a little anxious as the 5th of every month approaches. That's the day I had to make sure my bill was paid to the Seattle Times. As a paperboy, I was not a direct employee but some kind of "independent contractor" who had to collect the subscriptions from my customers and turn over my cost of the papers to the newspaper. Putting aside my first experience in dealing with "the Man," it was a good to learn a little responsibility and clear enough cash to buy some candy bars, comic books, airplane models, and record albums. My wants and needs were simple.

I got my job just walking down the street. But I was in the right place at the right time with my greeting card samples from one of those sales kits I got out of the back of Boys Life magazine. I learned that I wasn't that great of a salesman, but I was at least trying. A car pulled up and a guy in a sports coat and tie hollered at me, "Hey, kid! How old are you?" In those more innocent suburban days I went up to the car and told him I was eleven.

"When do you turn twelve?" I told him it was in just a couple of weeks and he responded, "How would you like to be a paperboy?" It was a dream come true! I think he even had me hop in the car and we drove down to my house and we signed some papers including a line for my mom to sign. I think it was that same day I went out to follow the all-wise, older boy (of 13) who was giving up the route. I watched and listened carefully to learn the houses, the quirks of some of the subscribers, and where the dogs were.

My route was just two blocks from my house. I had about 40 customers. There was a double pouch bag with the paper's logo to wear like a poncho. I would park my bike at each house and walk up to lay the paper on the doorstep. Later, we learned it was easier to wrap the papers in rubber bands as we went and toss them onto the porches. They supplied the box of rubber bands too, charged, of course, against that bill I had to pay by the 5th of the next month.

This was the Seattle Times and oddly in the days before people figured you could wrap the paper in little plastic bags. Maybe plastic wasn't so cheap in those days. But anyway, there were a lot of wet days. My mom had a standard line when anyone called to complain that their paper was wet, "Well, you should see the paperboy!" Thanks, Mom.

And my dad was a good support too. The Seattle Times is a serious and thick, major urban paper. In those days it was an afternoon edition. I could handle it on my Schwinn five-speed just fine--except for Sundays. The horror of those dark mornings was that you had to get to the paper shack by 4 a.m. to make sure you got your right number of papers when the truck dropped them off. And you had to stuff the inserts into the freshly printed section. They would leave your stack out for you, but you never wanted to be the last to arrive or you were guaranteed to be shorted.

So there I was, not quite twelve years old, out in the dark riding a mile through the woods past Thoreau Elementary, crossing Juanita Drive to get my papers. The Sunday edition was so huge my paper bags (the canvas poncho pouches) bulged so that I had a hard time pedaling and balancing the bike. I barely made it back. Late and scared and absolutely distraught, I went and woke up my dad. He graciously drove me around and did so every Sunday morning for the next four and a half years.

There was a regular routine on Sunday that was really kind of fun. Later, as pictured above, my little brother got his own route. We would work them both together with dad driving the car. We learned we could pick up the papers at 4 a.m., then go back to bed until 6:30 or so and with the car we got both routes done with plenty of time to go home, change, grab some breakfast, and head off to Priesthood meeting (way, pre-consolidated meeting schedule days).

I really appreciated the very few people who tipped me when I went out to collect in those evenings at the end of each month. I despised those people who said to come back because the wife had the checkbook or whatever, or on rare cases, they just moved without paying. And some took advantage, sensing I did not have a forceful bill-collector personality.

When I was older and there was a new paper shack closer to home, I gained more responsibility and got an extra little stipend in charge of counting out the papers for each of the boys. There were absolutely no girl paperboys in those days, apparently in literal fulfillment of the gender-based name--and probably a good thing as there was some gross crudity and even more illegal activities involving herbal substances in little plastic bags that I avoided.

But I generally loved being a paperboy. I loved riding my bike even with those heavy paper bags. And while I had the responsibility to get the papers out within a reasonable time, I could work it my own way. As long as my map was up to date, I could find one of my friends to sub when I went to Scout camp or some family activity. And I was a good enough salesman to increase my subscribership enough to win an 8-track tape player (true story) and have my picture taken downtown at the newspaper office.

It may have been my loyalty to the Seattle Times over that other paper, the morning Seattle Post-Intelligencer (or P.I.) which was just a little too liberal for my parents taste, but that 's when I started reading and becoming a news junkie. Once I had an established home of my own, I was always a home-delivery subscriber and always tipped, even when paperboys became older people driving around in mini-vans.

Just recently, when I was talking my wife into a Netflix subscription (just before their marketing fiasco with the pricing) she asked where else we could economize to compensate. I thought it was time to give up the newspapers as I could get all the content I needed on-line--even the Seattle Times!

But I still miss the comics page.


  1. You'd have loved my mother. Sometime before I was 10 (based on the house we were in), she gave me my first lesson in household finance. She explained that Dad had brought home his paycheck the day before, so now she had to pay the bills. The first check she always wrote, she said, was for tithing. The next thing -- the very next thing! -- was to take some cash and put it in an envelope in a drawer in the end table, where it would wait for the paper boy to make his rounds. "You never make the paper boy come a second time," was her rule. And then came the other incidental household expenses ... mortgage, power bill, whatever.

    1. And I bet your mom's paper was always dry too.

  2. (Anon/M) Clever title!

    1. Thanks, but I stole it from David Bowie as performed by Mott the Hoople. I had the perfect picture and the title, so I had to write the piece.

  3. (Anon/M) I knew exactly whom you stole it from and that's why I liked it.

    1. Establishing once and for all that you are infinitely more "with-it" than I had erroneously assumed.

      Thank you, dear Anon/M.


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