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Paper Boy

September 16, 2012

I don’t remember exactly how the idea of becoming a paper boy came to be, though I suspect it had something to do with the Boy Scouts’ encouragement of self-initiative and productivity. I do remember hatching schemes to make money as a kid, though, mostly with a school friend named Ken Terry who lived a few blocks away.

For a while we collected bottles to return to the supermarket in order to collect the deposit (something no longer done in New Jersey). However, pulling around a wagon filled with clinking glass while digging through garbage cans turned out to be far more cumbersome and dirty than we thought (not to mention uncool), so that was abandoned after a short period. Ken came up with the idea of painting house numbers on the curb using a stencil. I wasn’t sure why anyone would want this no less pay for having it done, but he came up with a pretty good sales pitch, convincing homeowners in our neighborhood that it would be well worth the nominal fee we charged to not have delivery people or important guests miss their house. We did this until we canvassed the entire neighborhood, actually getting a considerable number of customers beyond the initial charity case of my own house (at which the green 208 took many years to fade).

Then came my big opportunity. The Record, Bergen county’s main periodical, needed carriers in my neighborhood, and I contacted them forthwith, convinced I was their man. My area supervisor, a burly but jolly gentleman named Mr. Cimiluca, came to the house to give me my orientation and set me up with my route and the equipment needed. I could not have been more thrilled; my first official job!

My route consisted of a six block area around my house. Having been issued the tools of the trade, a heavy-duty canvas carrying bag emblazoned with The Record on the side and a ring with the cards of my customers for recording payment, I eagerly awaited my first day on the job. The procedure involved picking up the newspapers after school at a centrally located spot, finding your bundle and checking to make sure you had the correct number of papers, and then bringing them to the houses on your route. Sounded pretty simple. But it was here that I learned one of the first lessons of the working world: nothing is ever as simple or as easy as it seems when you’re not the one doing it.

First surprise — the carrying of the papers. Most carriers had sturdy bikes with wire baskets which they used for delivery. I had no bike. Living on a busy street, my parents decreed they were too dangerous. Therefore, I had to lug the papers around the old-fashioned way, bag slung by my side. Being a little guy, this became a huge struggle, particularly on Wednesdays. I hadn’t paid much attention to this facet of the journalism world previously since my only concern with the newspaper was the funny pages. But the size on Wednesday swelled because that was the day for advertising. I learned very quickly the call of the paper boy as I headed for the pickup spot: “How many pages?” Monday was the best, the thin tome easy to carry and then fold into a throwable form, a fine art in itself. Wednesday became the dreaded day of massive editions that weighed a ton and couldn’t be folded, causing nightmarish chases of blowing pages on windy days. My shoulder ached for days carrying that fat midweek edition, barely recovering in time for the next one.

A solution of  sorts came from the back of our garage. I believe it was my ever-practical father who suggested I use my old wagon to cart the papers along my route. I instinctively knew this would firmly cement me in the ranks of the dorky amongst my fellow carriers (not to mention my classmates who would inevitably find out about it). However, the physical stress I underwent overcame any concerns I had about my image, so out came the wagon. The neighborhood must have come to know the unmistakable sound of those old wagon wheels squeaking down the side streets, announcing the arrival of that day’s edition.

Eventually, my rescue from this indignity came in the form of my Uncle Emerson’s offer of his now-grown son’s bike for my use. I had been deemed old enough now to negotiate the mean streets of Bergenfield, so my parents approved. It seemed too good to be true. And it was. The fly in the ointment turned out to be that the bike was a fancy-pants English racer, not at all what one would want for the task more suited to a good ol’ American Schwinn or Husky. But we adapted the bicycle as best we could, and the wagon rejoined the garden tools and spider webs in the garage.

Next, how to deal with the customers. I never realized how particular some people were about how and where their newspaper was placed. Unprepared for the acrimonious complaints from little old ladies and acerbic comments from housewives, I learned firsthand about the old expression, “the customer is always right.” At one house, I had to place the paper inside the storm door, at another in the mailbox, at another between the flower-pot and the wall. Yikes! The resulting extra time this took made me late for supper on more than a few occasions. Especially on Wednesdays.

Finally, the critical matter of the collection of money. This took place on Friday afternoons, which we looked forward to almost as much as we dreaded Wednesdays. Delivery cost thirty-seven cents a week. The paper boy made a mere pittance from the Record and depended on tips to add to the old savings account. The accepted norm seemed to be for the patron to give two quarters and say, “Keep the change.” Those houses kept us in business. Very rarely a particularly generous soul would bestow an extra dime or so upon us. Those houses renewed our faith in human kind.

But then there existed the cheapskates who insisted on the thirteen cents change for the two quarters they so unwillingly forked over. These Scrooges lived right there amongst us, we discovered, cleverly cloaked in normalcy to others in their everyday lives — but we paper boys knew. Then the matter of the folks who never seemed to be home, or, as the more jaded of us intimated, that just never answered the door. Luckily for us, after repeated weeks of nonpayment, Mr. Cimiluca came to the rescue with a visit to the recalcitrant consumer to extract the overdue fee and enforce the strong arm of The Record. He never failed to leave with a reminder in the vague disguise as a pep talk not to let that sort of thing happen if at all possible.

In order to promote an expanding readership, The Record constantly prompted us to sign up new customers. As motivation, a catalogue of cheap yet enticing incentive rewards promised all manner of entertainment and creature comfort for which the brotherhood of paper boys easily fell. I eagerly sought new customers solely for the prizes. My favorite was the kerosine-fueled  pocket-sized handwarmer I earned (which would probably be banned now because of the danger of conflagration). I believe I still have it stashed somewhere in my basement.

I now live in Essex County, which is Star Ledger territory. I don’t have a paper boy but rather an unknown faceless adult who drives by in a car and flings my morning paper, supposedly on my front walk. Normally it lands either in my flower bed or under the car, but I don’t complain. Collection is done through the impersonal method of easy-pay charging.

Perhaps I live in a Norman Rockwell past, but I think I would like to have the interaction of by-gone days with a paper boy. I could give him guidance and help him develop the kind of good work ethic that had been nurtured in me back when I was a boy (though in a kinder and gentler manner, of course). And to be sure, he would always hear me say, “Keep the change.”

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