There is little that has stuck with me in life, as much as being a childhood paper boy.
I am a former paperboy from a paper route family. I have six brothers. We all had newspaper routes, sometimes two at the same time, mornings before school and evenings after school, all of us coming and going in opposite directions, paper bags slung over our shoulders. Our house was like central station.
It is not the kind of thing most families would take on unless you were nuts. My parents were certain there were life lessons to be had, at any rate, in a big family we had to earn our own spending money. I can remember the day my mother was almost apoplectic in anger because someone had maliciously spread gossip that we were an army of child labour contributing our earnings to the family budget.
Viewing the family from the outside, most people could not conclude that we would voluntarily busy ourselves this way except from financial duress. I have my own theories about why we all had routes. I think my mom thought to tire us out so as to keep us out of trouble. There was no question where we all were after school. It was her batch solution to deal with an army of boys.
It certainly could not have been to preserve the peace. Picture this. 5 AM, the time when most people are still happily asleep in bed, the alarm would go off. Winter or summer, rain or shine. Family life sprung into action. Everyone out of bed, and my mother usually making something fast and effective like oatmeal. Another standard was old buns she had baked on Sunday, sliced up and batch-toasted under the broiler in the oven. We were in a hurry. Inevitably, the toast would be burned in process due to inattention, scraped of the black parts, and spread with peanut butter. Then we would bundle up against whatever weather prevailed.
It wasn’t just the weather. You were in the ever present danger of dogs. In a semi-rural area, everyone it seems, had dogs, and the dogs ran free. They were territorial and they would attack you, some big and fierce. The owners insisted that their dogs were “friendly” and as a kid you had no rights even when you were bitten. People would laugh it off.
And there were some notable dogs... big dogs who did not like you at all. One German Shepherd would play cat and mouse with me. It would hide in a different spot every single day. You would creep up and look cautiously under the car, on the sides of the house by the bushes... and then suddenly.... I recall the most baffling incident was one day when the dog descended on me from overhead. It was hiding on the car patio up above. I cannot for the life of me figure out how a dog could get on a roof unless the kids were in on the hijinks. It did not increase my love of dogs.
Getting the paper delivered nowadays generally translates into a stranger with a car, who anonymously shows up in the dark and plants the paper at your door. The bill comes automatically on your credit card. It was not always like this.
The onus for payment in my time was on the paperboy. It meant that you had to be diligent in your collections every Thursday, door knocking. There were some people who were notorious deadbeats. When they paid, you clipped a little proof of payment with a hole puncher, and tore it off your sheet. If you had a bunch of weeks backed up, it meant the customer had not paid. To be stiffed could be catastrophic to your bottom line, as paper boys did not make a lot. I remember I made four and a half dollars a week from my after school route. Sometimes that was scuttled by adults who self-righteously insisted that they MUST have paid. They remembered. A kid’s word would never stand against that of an insistent adult.
There were some odd benefits however. One was that you would get incredibly strong. We were a somewhat bookish and quiet family, and it was inconceivable to some that we might be athletic. This was sometimes put to the test. I do not recall every losing a fist fight at school. I can also remember my older brother once trying out for the track team. Everyone laughed at him... until he ran. He easily bested everyone else on the team, leaving them in the dust. No wonder. He had legs like tree trunks for slogging around a forty pound bag of newspapers every single day. No gym membership necessary.
The other things that have stuck, have been odd and might be hard to otherwise explain. I love burnt toast and peanut butter to this day. I still rise at 5 am no matter the season. I like all kinds of weather and I do not suffer from the cold. I have a righteous surety that I have always earned every single dime that has come my way in life. I like to walk in the rain, and I like having some solitary time every single day.
It was also educational. I excelled at school in current events. People called me scoop Toop because I was always up on the news, after all, I read the headlines every single day. Things that happened during that time period impressed me greatly. The assassination of Martin Luther King, the summer of love with naked sit-ins, the Six-Day War in Israel, Watergate, Woodstock. I have an avid relationship with reading to this day, and like to stay on top of what goes on in the world, and why.
Most weird observation from delivering newspapers... every single person’s home smelled distinctly different and I could tell you blindfolded, whose house I was in if you were to put me to the test.
One more thing. Please do not judge me, but this has affected my relationship with dogs to this very day. My daughter’s dog and I have tacitly agreed to eyeball each other from a distance. It could not be any other way. They can smell it on you.
After all, I am a former paper boy.