Confessions of an Old Paperboy

By - May 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Andrew Hollis

I found myself unable to sleep one night last week, which resulted in my wandering aimlessly around the house in the ghostly predawn hours. I finally settled in on the couch to watch an old black and white on the tube when I heard a muffled but distinct “thud” just outside my front door. Upon investigation, it turned out to be the early morning delivery of the Sunday Journal.

I stood, barefooted on the frosty porch, strangely transfixed. There it was – clinically wrapped in blue plastic, catapulted all the way from a shiny white truck driven by a tired-looking man in his late thirties. At this moment, childhood memories of my life and times as a paperboy for the Milwaukee Journal came flooding back to me.

Ah, the good old days!

First off, for those that may have forgotten or were simply unaware, in the not too distant past, gangly boys aged 12-16, once delivered the daily paper right inside your door. For many a middle-aged man like me, this was their first “real” job, an entrepreneurial rite of passage and a ticket to get out of the house (and onto the streets) that your mother couldn’t argue with.

The newspaper designated routes and established regional managers to ensure papers were delivered to homes on these routes from “stations” scattered across the city, better know to us paperboys as “shacks.” The shack for my route was on 25th and Morgan – a short bicycle ride from my home in the Southlawn Housing Project.

Seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year, me and hundreds of other paperboys across Milwaukee would spill out of our shacks and into the pre-dawn morning like raccoons, making our way across empty streets and playgrounds and into quiet neighborhoods to deliver our routes. Back then, routes were handed down from generation to generation like family heirlooms and good ones were hard to come by. A perfect route (a paperboy’s Xanadu) was a big route with only apartments. You couldn’t do better. Next best were those closest to your shack or routes that took you through neighborhoods where your friends hung out. There were some routes where it felt you had to walk to Illinois to drop off your first paper. I was somewhat lucky – I had a route with half apartments, but still a hike from the shack.

Life at the shack.

A paperboy lives in two worlds: the shack, and out on his own – on his route. The manager who ran our shack held our unfailing respect, primarily because he was the biggest ox of the neighborhood. The shack was akin to a nuclear fallout station: a 15 x 30 foot steel box with a pitched roof and riveted doors at each end. The inside was lined with military surplus type steel tables, the kind you would find in the County Morgue, standing on a chewed up wooden plank floor. Overhead hung a large fan heater roughly the size and shape of a Boeing 757 jet engine, which could dry up the fluids of any carbon-based life form that came within 100 feet of it. The shack had two temperatures in the winter, Serengeti Plains Hot and North Pole Cold – depending on whether someone was opening the door or not.

The steel tables however were clinically ice cold year round and used by the paperboys for “subbing” and “jogging”. These are two lost art forms requiring laser-like concentration and the ability to withstand hundreds of simultaneously inflicted paper cuts. This was not a trade for hemophiliacs. Subbing was the practice of inserting last minute sections, advertisements and coupons into the regular paper before delivery. Jogging was the method of lifting and bouncing the papers uniformly to get them all nice and neat so you could fit them into your bag.

The longer your arms were, the more subbed papers you could jog and bag, so the more primitive kids could do the best work. Once subbed, jogged and bagged, the papers would be hefted onto your back and, with head down, you would teeter out through the door in the general direction of your route. After a few months or so of this kind of lifting, you developed the shoulder of a yak and it was no big deal. But on Sundays “carrying” up to your route was quite a feat. Many a good boy would go down a few blocks after leaving the shack. This is, I speculate, where the phrase “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” actually originated.

There were some boys who attempted to defy the laws of physics by loading their bags across the banana seats of their Stingray bikes. The veterans knew how to roll up the straps, allowing the bag to ride higher so they could use their hips as additional support. The weakest (and smartest) of the herd, however, opted for stealing shopping carts from the local supermarket and using them to get their papers up to their routes. They would hide them in the bushes around the shack and discard them at the end of their routes. I was such a paperboy, and this was one of many boyhood crimes I committed in the name of delivery.

Forgive him, he knew not what he did- really.

As I stood in the cold on the porch that morning, I realized that I must make amends for this and other youthful indiscretions committed in the name of journalism and free enterprise. As a paperboy, I all too often found myself delivering on the dark side of the street and to clear my conscience, I need to confess my sins to the city I served and ask its forgiveness.

So forgive me, Milwaukee, for I have sinned.

I begin by asking forgiveness from my shack manager who may be still wondering what happened to his “personal” pair of wire cutters, for I secretly appropriated them on December 12, 1974 after he threw them at my head for disciplinary reasons (unknown to me). I found them later in the snow just outside the door to the shack but denied it and still have them to this day. I keep them in the event that I ever find myself inexplicably bound by wire or perhaps incarcerated, as they cut through any man made metal object like butter. While there may have been additional acts of petty larceny, insurrection or subversion committed against my shack manager, I must confess that this is the only one for which I feel any remorse for.

Next, I ask for absolution from the customers on my route. To all the hardworking, honest folks who I woke in the early morning hours by yelling route addresses military style to my brother from across the street – I apologize. I also should have been more considerate when I flipped your paper inside your door. An athletic child, I often used too much wrist action, and the papers would land upside down and inside out. I can’t imagine what a mess that was to collect when you opened up your door, especially in the winter. Forgive my thoughtlessness.

The art of money management – paperboy style.

Being a paperboy included “collecting”, or going house to house on Thursdays to attempt to get paid. While it often made you feel like a 12 year old Repo Man, it did teach you the art of money management, through the use of a complicated financial records system consisting of hundreds of 4’x 8′ cards on two metal rings with half the holes ripped out. The system was easily exploited by “double collecting”, a technique for getting paid twice for your week’s deliveries – once from each spouse – on different days. It’s with heavy heart that I confess that I have indeed double collected “a time or two” from unsuspecting, trusting clientele. Like an Enron CFO, after having collected 75 cents from the little woman on a Thursday afternoon, one could innocently knock on the door the next night and extort payment from her husband (or vice versa) with a high probability of success. In the event that you were caught, you only had to scratch your head and leaf through your index cards, looking confused and 12 years old. I ask that you forgive me and every other confused 12-year-old boy who stood on your doorstep over the years, scratching his head while nervously leafing through his 4×8 cards. Money corrupts.

Also, I am ashamed to admit that while I did not do it myself, in my heart I know I was guilty of the temptation of collecting off of other boy’s routes. In those days, people sometimes used to put their payments in envelopes taped inside their milk boxes. Easy money if you were in the know and I was. I secretly dreamed of making one big collection and retiring somewhere in Mexico, sending my mother monthly stipends. There were stories of other boys who did it. Some were caught. Some were not. Some vendettas between boys remain outstanding today. While the Paperboy Code of Conduct prohibits me from discussing this further, I will say; Mike Herzer, if you’re out there, all is not forgiven.

I’ve committed other indiscretions against my fellow paperboys though such as reneging on promises to “double” – a Cardinal sin in the trade. Doubling was when two boys teamed up combining their efforts to deliver to their routes, (theoretically) finishing twice as fast. This was usually done in the winter when the icy Wisconsin snows challenged our missions. I was a bit of a persuader in my youth and talked many a buddy into doubling with me. Needless to say, we’d do my route first, then after finishing it around sunrise and taking a break for 5 or 6 hot chocolates at Marc’s Big Boy, I’d beg off making an excuse that my altar boy duties required I serve the first mass that morning. Forgive me, my past brothers in arms. I failed you when you need me most.

I would like to apologize and seek clemency on behalf of all of my brethren that used to make up for shortages or sell papers on the holidays by raiding the Journal and/or Sentinel paper boxes on city street corners. For the investment of a sole quarter, an entrepreneurial spirit could “purchase” an additional 25 papers or so for commercial distribution. The “man,” however, soon got wise to this supply methodology and inserted notices inside the papers in these boxes demanding the reporting of their receipt – a cruel lesson in supply and demand economics for the offending boy. I am asking for you to absolve them, Milwaukee. They were only pawns in a bigger game.

The Èclair Incident of 1974.

At this time, I would like to also ask for complete exoneration for my participation in the “Èclair Incident of 1974.” The paperboys from our shack would often make a stop at a local major grocery chain store that for legal reasons I cannot name, (but who’s initials are A&P) that had their bakery delivered early, but not taken inside until later. Paperboys on the dark side would abuse the Force and help themselves to this bakery bonanza. I used to bring fresh bakery home on Sunday mornings and tell my mother that I bought it. Forgive me mom. Even after they started chaining up these stainless steel boxes, we still managed to get our skinny arms through to grab whatever baked treats happened to be in front. On the morning in question, a lively debate erupted among us on the projectile merits of the domestic chocolate éclair. I don’t have to draw you a picture. Suffice it to say, to this very day I do not eat éclairs and will always remember the distinctive sound they make when they hit the side of a young boy’s head. In the creamy chocolate aftermath, the local authorities were brought in (as they always are), but blame was never assigned. Mea culpa. Mea maxi culpa.

Finally, no confession would be complete without a heart-felt apology to my paperboy partner/sidewinder (and brother), for always sending him to the houses where I knew there were crazed dogs that would stop and restart his heart as he delivered the paper. Forgive me mein brudder. I thought it was funny at the time. How was I to know it would result in your frail nervous condition and prevent you from ever keeping a domestic pet? Thanks for always being there. Thanks for doing my route for me when I was sick. Thanks for appropriating the transport (shopping carts) as required to get us up to the route. Thanks for running interference with the ox when I was in jeopardy. Thanks for all the times you covered for me to mom. Thanks for taking a criminal wage for superhuman work in subhuman conditions. I’d deliver with you again anytime.

Long ago, but no so far away.

It seems like such a long time ago. But even now when I have to get up in those pre-dawn hours to drive to the airport, make an early tee time, or go fishing, I am reminded of the days of my paperboy past. I am filled with the memories of independence, dampness, camaraderie, darkness, confidence, mysteriousness, deadness, adventure, the briskness of the dew-filled air and the quiet of the night, all wrapped together as I made my trek to the shack.

Finally, I must confess to myself that there is no feeling like that of being a 12 year old boy heading back home to his house with an empty yellow bag over his shoulder in the stillness of a snowy winter morning. My conscience is clear now, and so too is the knowledge that my memories of being a paperboy are some of the best of my life.

One thought on “Confessions of an Old Paperboy”

  1. jack armstrong says:

    I found your story about MJ newspaper boys very interesting because I also was a MJ paperboy…but earlier. I started with a regular route in ’53, then a route with 13 apartments and over 100 papers, AND MY PAPERS WERE DROPPED FOR ME, finally getting a “promotion” to a corner (27th & State), then another “promotion” to the biggest corner in our shack (about 200 papers)…27th & Wells and finally another promotion to “assistant shack Captain (not sure if it was called captain)

    Can you imagine today’s kids doing this?


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