The Last of the Paper Boys

It was on such a day as today (decidedly cool, gray, and possibly a little blustery if my memory serves) in the month of October at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon that I took a call from a headhunter. I was in Fifth Grade and had just recently returned home from school to begin the weekend. The voice on the other end of the line was that of Sue Blades, a manager at The Grand Rapids Press. Was I interested in taking on a paper route, she asked? Gosh, I think I was. Good: she would be over that evening to meet with my parents and me. What was it that I sensed in her voice as we talked on the phone? Trepidation, I think (normally, paper routes were not handed over to 11-year-olds). But I remember feeling honored. Though it would take me more than twenty years, I now discern that I was probably at the end of her list of potential candidates (the job started tomorrow, after all). You never forget your first love. And you never forget your first job. This, then, is an ode to a first job but, truth be told, it feels more like a ballad: a ballad to a rite of passage that has all but disappeared–that of the paperboy.

Sitting down with Ms. Blades around our dining room table, she was a master at using anecdotes to inspire a vision of the consummate Paper Peddler. There was the one involving my elder cousin Chris who live several blocks away and who had been operating a successful paper route. At Christmastime, he had received a $50 tip from one of his customers (translate that into roughly $100 U.S. dollars in today’s currency). Though my uncle and aunt had him go back to the generous customer to return the cash, he was prevailed upon to accept the gratuity. In another anecdote, there was the paper carrier who (astonishingly) serviced his customers the day his own father passed, declining Ms. Blades offer to take over the route for the day. What effect did these stories have on a 5th Grade boy? Well, let me ask you: what effect did Henry V’s speech to his “band of brothers” on the fields of Agincourt stir in them? And for those who need a refresher:

Henry V (1989, Renaissance Films)

Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech

Thus it was that on Halloween (or perhaps the day before Halloween) of my 11th year that I–and my younger brother Andy, by proxy–were entrusted with our first job. Allow me, if you will, to offer some reflections on just what this job meant, lessons that have never been forgotten.

Lesson One: Responsibility. The daily commitment involved in paper delivery meant casting off the school uniform first thing when you got home and donning clothes that you didn’t mind getting smudged up a bit by black ink. It meant that Nintendo, trips to friends’ houses (and having friends over) had to be worked around the hours of 3 & 4, everyday, Monday – Friday. And then, it meant that the only time one ever slept in was on a school break because the weekends meant an early start to the day (6:30 – 6:25 a.m.). Any out of town trip required finding someone to cover the route. But it taught me to appreciate the early mornings, even as college would teach me to appreciate the wee small hours of the morning. It shows you that the world doesn’t revolve around you–that there are others that need to be accommodated before yourself and your whims–as wonderful as the whims of childhood are. This actually has the effect of expanding the world in which one lives which creates a sense of wonder, which creates a sense of joy. Responsibility was further inculcated by the fact that we now had bills to pay to our supplier (The Grand Rapids Press). This meant collecting money–door-to door–on a monthly basis. Can you imagine an 11-year-old bill collector? As will be recounted later, this became the best part of the job for the relationships that developed out of these monthly visits.

Lesson Two: Competition Can Be Healthy. Monday – Friday, my brother and I split up the paper route: I took the outer reaches of our territory and he took the inner. After school (or on Saturday morning), it was always a race to the corner of Aberdeen and Union where the papers were dropped off by the delivery truck, a race to fold the papers in half (there were two methods to this–one involved a rubber band and one didn’t), and a race to deliver the news to our customers’ door step (or in the “mail hooks”, or the milk box, the back porch, or inside the screen door). Andy usually beat me (in my defense, my customers’ houses were somewhat more spread out–and don’t forget my territory was farther away). Because of this sibling rivalry, our customers got their papers well before the five o’clock deadline–in most cases, by 3:30.  On Saturdays, it was by 7:00 or 7:30 a.m., prior to the 8:00 a.m. deadline.

The paper route also gave us time with our parents and created a context which allowed them to pass lessons on to the next generation. While we were on our own–Andy and me–Monday – Saturday, the Sunday paper was a whole different ballgame. So large was it that it came in two parts: the bundles of papers constituting the Flair section were delivered to our home late Saturday night or just after midnight on Sunday. The bundles comprising the Main section were delivered around 6:40 a.m. Sunday morning at our regular drop spot. My parents would drive the family station wagon down to the corner of Aberdeen and Union and bring the Main section back to our garage to be stuffed and folded with the Flair section (we used “industrial strength” green rubber bands for the task). Via assembly line, the papers–probably weighing 1.5 to 2 pounds–were loaded onto the back of the station wagon with the tailgate down. The vehicle would slowly make its way up and down the streets of our route as we ran to and from the car with armfuls of papers like stacks of firewood for delivery. This system created a healthy bond for us as a family unit: it taught us to work together.

Our Sunday morning ritual also afforded my parents an opportunity to hand on to their children–who never really were encouraged to work in the Family business (Duba’s Restaurant)–the principles and values which guided their work, of which two are paramount. First, business is, at its heart, about serving others. To illustrate how this lesson was conveyed, our parents came with Andy and me the first time we made our rounds to “collect” money from our customers. I’ll never forget the question my parents had us ask each one of our customers: “Where would you like us to leave the paper?”  For some, it was inside the front door, shielded from the elements. For others, the defunct milk box built into the side of their house. For others, the back porch. But the best response was, “We’ve never been asked that before.” That’s it: business is serving others. If you can do this, and do this well, work bestows a nobility. And we felt like princes. Second, and inextricably bound to the first, business is about relationship. And this aspect of business was truly the greatest joy of the paper route: the people that we met, the relationships and friendships that were formed, and how those relationships would, by and by, shape the trajectory of our lives…

I think now of the Roaches (for whom I also began mowing their lawn), the Rantas (who would offer me cold cans of Coca Cola on steamy summer days), and the Rappaports (the grandfatherly and grandmotherly Jewish couple who, outside their kitchen door and inside the breezeway of their home, had placed a small Torah). There was the “energetic lady” (whose real name I can’t remember but that is what she was called by us), Mr. Koperski (my favorite grade school teacher), and Mr. Short (who invited me in one Saturday morning for a chat at his kitchen table). Then there was Mr. and Mrs. Szatko, then in their eighties, who had promised my brother and me a shot of Brandy on cold winters mornings (did you forget your promise?) And finally: Miss Decker, who had never married (but who was once engaged). If October and November are months to remember the dead, I certainly remember her: regular visits to her home for tea and conversation about books (mystery novels, mostly) and writing. I remember her molasses cookies. Living on nothing but Social Security, her $5 and $10 tips at Christmas should have been returned in the same manner as my cousin’s $50 tip of lore, but of course, her gesture echos in eternity as I think now of my Catholic school education whereby she comes to mind as I recall the story of the poor widow who gave a mere farthing, but whose gift was counted as infinitely greater than the lavish gifts of the rich. She was a nurse in England during World War II and her stories of the bombing raids in England and her love for books, especially mystery novels–Agatha Christie and P.D. James–undoubtedly stirred something in me,  leading me to spend a semester living and studying in London, England, during my junior year of college.

Though our first job was, on the surface, a simple one: toting black and white print in our Press bags and carrying with us the smell of ink on paper, it can truly be said, with Henry V,  that “our hearts [were] in the trim,” and the lessons learned during those years have–without doubt–been carrying us ever since.

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