Been a bit under the weather this past week, but I want to keep this site keepin’ on, so here’s another Golden Oldie for you, from the pages of Philadelphia Weekly circa 1996-97 when I was, for a while, the World’s Oldest Paperboy (or close enough for our purposes here). Enjoy.
THE PAPERBOY PAPERS
By Jack Curtin
The thing I’ll remember most is chasing my runaway car down Germantown Avenue at 5 a.m.
Or racing down the same stretch of road in the opposite direction a few months earlier (inside the car this time), with a police car in hot pursuit.
Come to think of it, I’ll never forget the nice lady who chased me down a dark street on a cold December morning to press money into my eager hand.
Ah, the unsurpassed thrills of the newspaper business.
Journalist, you ask?
Nah. Been there, done that. This time I went respectable.
I was a paperboy.
I started delivering the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 7, 1998. The paper route was
to be a stopgap measure, a few months earning much needed extra money and clearing my mind. Well on the far side of 50, recently divorced and not exactly thriving after three decades as a freelance writer, I’d also just learned that I’d have to leave my current digs because my landlady was returning from a two-year sojourn abroad.
Given the obvious potential for deep depression, I figured getting up at 3 in the morning and doing something productive had to be better than lying awake with those dangerous “dark night of the soul” thoughts Scott Fitzgerald talked about.
Only for a couple of months, though.
Turns out I delivered my last Inquirer 453 days later, this past October 31. My
“few months” turned into a year and a half due to a combination of inertia and my easily developed addiction to the luxury of a regular cash flow. It was easier to keep on keepin’ on than to quit.
Actually, the job wasn’t all that bad. My route of about 350 subscribers in Lafayette Hill was compact enough that it could be served in 45 minutes to an hour. As long as I didn’t hit a deer (I saw an average of 20 to 25 each day) or the occasional jogger, I could zip along, swinging from one side of the street to the other to distribute my wares, radio tuned to either NPR for intellectual stimulation or WIP’s Big Daddy Graham for its opposite. I enjoyed the totally illogical feeling of superiority that came from doing honest work while the world was sleeping. Best of all, I got to see the sun rise daily and relish the implied promise of a new day as an antidote to those 3 a.m. blues.
The Inquirer promises subscribers papers by 6:30 a.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. Sundays. Most mornings, the papers are printed in two or more segments, which have to be folded together and inserted into plastic bags. That’s the worst part of the whole job, done first thing at long work tables arrayed around the warehouse, although some old pros do it on the fly, folding and inserting in their cars or vans as they speed through the dark night, steering with their knees. I picked the papers at the East Norriton distributing warehouse where, like everyone else, I received a daily update with each morning’s bundles, listing who was going on or coming off vacation, who was adding or dropping the paper and, all too frequently, who had weighed in with some real or imagined delivery complaint.
Carriers are paid 25 percent of the full price of each daily or Sunday paper
delivered. A complaint about a missing or wet paper results in a $2 charge ($4 for a Sunday) against a carrier and mitigates against incentives for perfect or near-perfect delivery that can reach as high as $200 some months. A $140 monthly stipend for collecting from customers not billed directly by the Inquirer was part of my contract as well. Billing and collecting is a frustrating and time-consuming task for carriers and is being phased out of most routes, but it did provide that regular cash flow I relished.
My monthly share of that flow usually ranged between $1,750 and $1,900, which
worked out to about $15 an hour. Not bad for a part-time job, which is what a route is for most carriers (usually for less than a year). But there are some guys who’ve been at it for 10 years or longer, and a few who make their entire living delivering papers, usually combining an Inquirer route with ones for the Wall Street Journal and/or Norristown Times Herald.
As the weeks wore on, I found different ways to make it through the night. One
trick was to make game of how the papers would be thrown. A quick wrist flip out the driver’s window? A cross-body toss across the passenger seat? The overhead fling across the roof of the car? I mastered three distinct pitches but also tossed in a clinker every now and then.
There’s nothing quite as startling as the thud of a hurled paper against a closed passenger side window, nor as likely to incite profane screams as realizing that you have inadvertently grabbed the closed rather than the open end of a bag as you watch a paper fly out the open end and distribute itself across a lawn. Even more exasperating is a bag bursting apart as it hit the ground, almost standard procedure mornings we had to use those godawful promotional bags with cereal or shampoo or whatever in a small pocket at the bottom.
Weather became an issue in my life. I discovered how surprisingly chilly it can
be at 4 a.m. in August even though daytime temperatures might hit the 90s. I rediscovered the joys of driving down unfamiliar roads in impenetrable fog, or hydroplaning across the highway on an invisible slick surface. I started avidly listening to weather reports to see if rain was in the forecast.
I am told that snow, a legendary phenomenon no longer common in these parts, really used to screw things up in the winter, but plain old rain was trouble enough. Not so much during the warmer months, barring a torrential outburst, but picture driving in a steady downpour on a bitter January morning, cold rain soaking you through the open driver’s window while you try to peer through fog and mist, all the while struggling to throw each paper carefully onto a safe spot on the lawn rather than in the driveway where it would get soaked by the flowing streams of surface water (wet papers are probably the most common complaint any carrier has to deal with).
You can battle through the weather, though. What I feared most was the car
breaking down. Given the stop-and-go nature of the driving and the loads they carry, carriers’ vehicles take a terrible pounding day in and day out, and my ’88 Honda Accord, in addition to being old and small, had a stick shift, which meant I was all too often driving in the wrong gear.
Happily, although I did spend a lot of money on maintenance, I only had one really significant automobile problem. That was the night a police car chased me down Germantown Avenue.
My Honda’s electrical system started to fail just as I was about to turn off the
main drag at Chestnut Hill College. That section of the route is purely residential, a series of cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets where breaking down would be a true disaster, especially since my car phone would be useless once the car shut down. So I turned off everything but the lights and did a U-turn to head for a shopping complex and service station about two miles back up the road.
The headlights failed almost immediately and I was running blind. Within a
quarter mile a police car was on my tail, lights flashing and an increasingly angry voice broadcasting strong suggestions that I pull over. Once I stopped, though, the car wasn’t going to move again without a tow truck. Hunching down and assuring myself that it was unlikely my pursuer would shoot, I pressed on. Luck, and an understanding cop, turned out to be on my side.
But where was a cop when I really needed him, the night my errant Honda took
off down the highway?
That morning, I’d been alerted by the sound of tires on gravel after I’d gotten out of the car to put a paper into a mailbox (it was regularly stolen if I left it in the drive). I turned to see my car, motor still running, moving off into the darkness. Some dummy had forgotten to use his emergency brake. I set off in pursuit, thankful that there were no cars coming toward us.
My plan was to reach in the open window and pull the brake on. But this was
a Saturday morning, which meant that the car was crammed top to bottom with both Saturday papers and the bulky bundle of advertising and feature sections that Sunday subscribers get a day early. The Honda’s erratic meandering had disturbed my unstable piles and newspapers had tumbled from the passenger side and backseat to completely bury the driver’s seat and the brake handle.
Seeing this as I came alongside, I also realized the Honda was now moving
diagonally across the road directly into a steeply descending driveway. Once it hit that point, it would surely end up halfway through the front door of the house at the bottom. The folks there weren’t subscribers and probably wouldn’t take well to that. So I grabbed the steering wheel and turned it desperately to the right until we were again heading down the road.
My next solution was to try and get inside and take control. I pulled the door
halfway open and threw my body against it. Bad move. The door pushed back, knocked me onto my knees. Now I was being dragged down the pike, unable to let go of the door lest I be tossed under the rear wheels. I somehow scrambled and stumbled back to my feet, lurching along as the door slammed closed.
Unable to maintain the pace, I finally aimed the car toward an uphill driveway on
the far side of the pike and let go. Standing in the middle of the road, bathed in the headlights of two vehicles which had followed along behind observing this comedy of errors, I felt about as good as a guy with bleeding knees, pounding heart and not much oxygen left in his system could. Then I saw that was going to miss the driveway and instead roll to go onto a grassy hillside to its left on a diagonal trajectory. That meant that it might still slow down and drift back to the road, but its momentum could also carry it far enough up the incline to where the angle and shifting weight of the papers would cause it to topple over.
The car bounced twice in a roadside rut and started up the hillside. Slower.
Slower. Finally it stopped, teetered momentarily as if it were going to go over, then settled and rolled backwards. As if I’d planned it that way all along, it came to a dead stop right in front of me as I reached the foot of the driveway. A horn beeped. One of the drivers who’d been following along behind pulled up in his pickup truck. “Here, you may need this,” he said, flipping me the paper I’d dropped in the middle of the road when the whole fiasco began. Nice guy. Very helpful. I’m almost sorry I flipped him the finger as he drove off, laughing.
As with any job, my customers proved a mixed bag. Given the hours I worked,
I never saw or met most of them, but I surely got to “know” a few, such as those households in which someone was standing at the front window, stopwatch in hand (at least figuratively), waiting to call and report that the paper was late at exactly 6:31 a.m.
I was definitely impressed with the effort of the couple who posted a large hand-lettered sign on the lawn imploring me not to toss their paper into their flowerbeds. And I even felt bad (sorta) about not seeing and therefore whacking in the chest with a nicely thrown Inquirer the poor soul standing in the dark by his mailbox in robe and slippers sipping coffee and waiting for me.
Then there was the woman who chased my car to hand me a Christmas card and
$20. Her, I liked. That happened last year when, while they varied from carrier to carrier, reports of customer largesse during the holidays had me optimistic. I figured that if just half of my subscribers dropped a not unreasonable $10 on me for the holidays, I’d have the equivalent of a thirteenth month’s income. That illusion was painfully shattered when my oh-so-clever holiday card garnered a mere $300. Bah, humbug.
But I didn’t quit because the tips were lousy. Nor did I quit because delivering papers, while not exactly hard labor, is no powder puff job either. It might not seem so on first glance, but there’s a significant physical effort involved. Consider: the average Sunday Inquirer weighs in at close to five pounds. I’d handle each copy a minimum of three times: once when I bagged it, once when I loaded it into the car, once when I threw it into somebody’s driveway. Maybe 100 of those papers went into my trunk first and were handled a fourth time when I moved them up to where I could serve them. Conservatively, that’s two and a half tons of weight being tossed about every weekend, never mind the rest of the week.
I quit because the job is so damned unrelenting. Seven days a week, no exceptions. Christmas? New Year’s? Carriers will be out there, same as always. That’s a killer. Any second job is hard enough; one that makes it virtually impossible to get more than six hours sleep a night without giving up all pretensions of a normal life is significantly worse; one from which there is no relief, not a single day off, eventually became, for me, unsustainable.
I sure do miss those sunrises, though.