Sunday, May 2, 2010

Even a paper tiger has his resources

The newspaper is there long before I wake up. I presume it comes flying out from the passenger-side window of one of many cars that pass by in early morning. I have never met the driver. I suspect it might come from an unmanned drone, one possible reason today’s newspapers are going broke.

Folks who grew up in upper Westchester would likely tell me that newspaper delivery has always been for adults of driving age. But that’s not the way I grew up. No, the wilds of upper Queens spawned throngs of paperboys as young as 11 armed with canvas shoulder bags, bikes or shopping carts. We had three basic goals. One, of course, was making 20 bucks or more a week. Another was nobly serving customers—as long as they behaved and paid their bills with a fat tip. The last? Turning our parents’ hair gray, of course. This wasn’t something I would ever have thought of at age 13, when I first started delivering the Long Island Press. But looking back on it now, and with a son and daughter of my own, I realize it had to be high on the list.

Weekdays could not have worried them much; I did my route after school and still got the homework done. On Saturdays, I’d pick up my papers at 10-ish and was done by lunchtime. But there were two times of the week that had to be a concern. The first was my weekly collection on Thursday night. At one point I had two routes: one my manager gave to me and another I started on a block other paperboys were scared to deliver to. (Yes, it was my neighborhood.) And by the time I finished collecting, I had a hundred dollars or more in bills and coins bulging rather noticeably from one jeans pocket.

Thieves were one potential threat on collection night. Dogs were another, since most times I’ve been bitten were during collections as a teenager. But oh, those were the tangible fears. After the first five kids, I guess neither parent had sufficient breath to ask Number 6, as my dad affectionately called me, to please, please not go out at 2 a.m. to deliver newspapers. They might not have known that most paperboys did their Sunday deliveries at 6 or 7, when at least a few people would be out, and it never occurred to me to tell them. It was my adventure for the week, after all, and I relished the notion that no matter how early my customers got up, they’d find the paper outside their door.

Presuming I made it to their door alive. Take the bald guy in the trenchcoat who kept talking to me as I awaited the truck, which was late. Long before he asked the question he’d been leading up to, I’d pegged him as a pervert for being out alone at 2:30 on a Sunday morning—and for chit-chatting so long to a 13-year-old. I had the advantage: I waited in the street, not in the windowless office, and kept myself between him and the police station, a half-block away. Months later, I learned he lived next door to one of my customers. He’s probably now in Congress.

Then there was the bozo who decided to follow me in his car as I carried the papers toward my route. He’d drive up a few feet past me—and smile diabolically as I passed him. This went on several times till I ran out of patience. His car could go only in the direction of the road; I could go, more or less, where I wanted. So I cut over to a one-way street where he couldn’t follow except in reverse—which would have looked pretty silly for someone intending to look diabolical. By the time he circled back, he’d lost me for good.

Still, I learned lots of good stuff, too, as a paperboy. Sure, there was all that boring stuff about entrepreneurship and growing a business. I’m talking about the cool things. I figured out how many newspapers my parents’ fold-up shopping carts were not designed to hold; I went through two or three. I showed exemplary manners to building superintendents to wheedle out keys to their apartment buildings, so that I didn’t have to buzz my customers on the lobby intercom at 3 a.m. on Sundays, and to pick the lock of one building where the super had said no. I learned how to stalk customers who tried to pretend they weren’t home when I rang the bell to collect. And, through empirical study, I ascertained how many bell rings the average human being can bear before giving up and, sobbing hysterically, opening the door to hand me a rubber check for any amount I desired.

Come to think of it, the world was somehow safer then—even for foolhardy 13-year-olds. I guess I have to prefer the unmanned drones. Ones that can pull fold-up shopping carts, pick locks and fire the occasional heat-seeking missile.


  1. That was great, Eddie. Remember the short story you did some years ago, along the same lines, entitled,"The Deliverer"? I thought that was really neat. I imagine it could be extremely aggravating and frustrating, not to mention onerous, in having to collect your well earned fees, at inconvenient times, when presumptuous subscribers try to pretend there's no one at home. Those people are probably in Congress too!

  2. Thank you! I think I changed that title to "Little Payments," not that I got it published. It was cathartic, at least. Most customer were great people who appreciated good service, but still there were those.... Funny how much $4 or $5 meant to a kid in the '70s.

  3. Ed, You say the world was somehow safer. But to me, you suggest several instances of predator-like behaviour from the 'trenchcoat' and the 'bozo'. Your good sense and some luck may have kept it from turning real bad...

  4. Haha, thanks, Rich. If the world was indeed "safer" back then, at least from my perspective, it was because the predators seemed more obvious--if only from the time of night they lurked. Thank you very much for reading!