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Age 14—fired from my paperboy job . . .

01 Aug

For several months I served my community as a teenage paperboy, delivering the daily publications of the Commercial Dispatch, a small daily newspaper in a small town—Columbus, Mississippi. For those who may not be familiar with the requirements of the job, I must note that one does not become a paperboy overnight. There is a period of intensive training, a period during which one is given the lofty title of Assistant Paperboy. Following the mandatory interview with the paper’s Circulation Manager (the owner’s son), an interview in which I was deemed acceptable for training, I was assigned to a regular paperboy, one who was voluntarily leaving his employment for greener pastures as a carhop at a local eatery—that’s a subject for a future posting—I worked as a carhop at two different locations in the same city—I was fired from one location and voluntarily left the other.

For several weeks, at the princely salary of $1.50 per week, I accompanied the Paperboy on daily paper pickups and deliveries, learning the route and the necessary bookkeeping and public relations aspects of the job. The papers were delivered in the evenings on Monday through Friday and early in the morning on Sundays—the paper was not published on Saturdays.

During the training period I met my boss, the real paperboy, after school on Monday through Friday in the basement of the building, an underground area accessible by vehicles for pickups and deliveries and by our bikes. There we counted out our papers and placed them in a canvas bag similar to the saddlebags used by horsemen. The bags, printed with the newspaper’s name, had a hole in the center so it could be worn by the delivery person with its paper-filled pouches front and rear, or carried across the handlebars of a bike and the bike’s crossbar, or across the luggage rack above the bike’s rear wheel. The bag was worn when the paperboy had no bike and walked his route, or when the bike was out of commission. It also was worn by the lucky ones that had an business-district route with all-commercial customers—these were the plums, the most desirable routes available, gems sought after by any paperboy with even the slightest desire to succeed in the newspaper delivery field.

We never rolled the papers—I suppose the idea of rolling papers and securing the rolled paper with a rubber band had not been thought of at the time—or it may have been simply because the profit margin enjoyed by newspaper delivery boys did not allow the acquisition and use of such accessories. We delivered the papers flat, and I became rather proficient at sailing the paper across lawns for a considerable distance. In the beginning, of course, I manged to land the paper in or under bushes, in mud puddles and in ditches, everywhere except on walkways or driveways, or on the porch, the ideal final location for the toss. In such failed deliveries the decision had to be made whether to stop and correct the unsatisfactory delivery, or to accept it and hope that the customer would not complain—not an easy decision to be made, especially if the hour was late and supper was waiting at home.

Hey, don’t laugh—it’s no small task for one to control a moving bike with one hand, a bike loaded with 125 newspapers in a canvas bag lying across the handlebars with one side resting on the front fender and the other on the crossbar, surveying the terrain for an acceptable target while keeping alert for potholes, dogs, other moving vehicles, pedestrians, rocks, mud puddles and other possible impediments to forward motion, then selecting a paper with the other hand, positioning it correctly for throwing and, at the precise correct instant, releasing it toward its target. I must admit that an accurate throw under such conditions gave any paperboy, regardless of his tenure, a pleasurable feeling, albeit fleeting.

I followed my boss—the real paperboy—on my bike as he made the deliveries, making mental notes of street signs, house numbers, locations, dogs, potholes, traffic, etc. Dennis—I’ll call him Dennis because that was his name—rode a state-of-the-art bike, one powered by a small battery taped to the bike’s crossbar, with power going to a small motor mounted on the bike’s front fender. With the flick of a switch, the rubber-covered shaft of the motor pressed against the front tire’s sidewall and gave a power-assist to the bike’s motion. Before the motor could be used the bike first had to be moving—inertia had to be overcome by pedaling, then the motor took over. The system worked great on level paved surfaces such as streets and sidewalks, but was a bust on unpaved surfaces and had to be supported by some old-fashioned pedaling by the rider.

I must digress for a moment:

While in training, late in the evening on a cold winter day, the Paperboy and his AA (Able Assistant) delivered a paper to a service station and remained to warm up a bit before continuing on our route. The station manager offered us a cigarette—Dennis accepted one, but told the manager that I was “too young to smoke.” That put-down changed my life—I defiantly took the cigarette, and thus made the first step towards acquiring the nicotine habit, a habit that was finally conquered some 22 years later.

My employment as a newspaper carrier, a vocation that could have propelled me into the upper echelons of newspaper publishing, lasted only a few short months. Early on a beautiful sunny Sunday I stopped at a customer’s house, one located in a rural area with nothing but graveled roads. Any graveled road is a paperboy’s nemesis, especially one on a bike carrying a heavy load of a Sunday issue stuffed with advertising material. I knocked on the subscriber’s door several times, each time harder than the previous knock, and finally the following dialogue ensued:

Man’s shout: “Who the (F-word) is it?”

My answer: “The paperboy.”

Man’s shout: “What the (F-word) do you want?

My answer: “I want to collect for the paper.”

Man’s shout: “I already paid for the (the gerund of F-word) paper.”

My answer: “No, I don’t have a record of your payment.”

His final shout telling me to go away included a name for me which alluded forcefully to my diminutive size and the marital status of my mother at the time of my birth. He shouted “F-word you, you little bastard, go away,” so my response was that of any red-blooded American paperboy unaccustomed to such denigrating language, especially language casting aspersions on one’s mother.

I said “Okay, then do without the damn paper.”

I heard more curses and the sound of feet hitting the floor so I took flight. I hopped on my bike, flew across the road and hid behind a small outbuilding. I waited there for what seemed an eternity, heart pounding violently and scared shiftless (as we used to say under such stressful times). Finally I peeked around the corner. There was no one in sight so I left the scene of the crime, finished my deliveries and went home.

The following day, Monday, was predictable—I knew well how the day would end. I reported to pick up my papers and was met by the Circulation Manager, a worthy that happened to be the son of the owner. The incident of the previous day was not mentioned. He sternly ordered me to turn in my canvas carrier-bags. This I did with alacrity, collecting my two-dollar deposit and then slinking pitifully away from the area with my head down and steps dragging.

But that was all for effect. I hated that damn job. That stuff they say about mail carriers, something on the order of “neither heat nor rain nor snow can delay us, blah, blah, blah” never applied to the crappy job of newspaper delivery boy. Looking back on it the only bright spot in my brief career was one evening around Christmastime when the circulation manager put several of us in the back seat of his new Cadillac convertible and with the top down drove us around to deliver our papers—and this was during a heavy snowfall—I must admit that was fun, but one can’t hang around for something similar to happen—it would probably never have happened again—at least not with me being one of the fortunate boys selected.

Oh, just one more thing—I checked my meticulously kept records and found that the customer whose complaint had cost me my job had in fact—yep, you guessed it—he had already paid me.

Oh, well, you win some and you lose some.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Postscript: I was working on a new post today concerning my hometown (Columbus, Mississippi) and I encountered a familiar name, that of the Circulation Manager, the son that repossessed my paperbag and arbitrarily retired me from my paper route at the early age of 13 years. The name was the same, but he is now the owner of the Commercial Dispatch. The only difference in his name and that of the one that fired me was the Roman numeral tacked onto the name. Since the current owner claims the number III, the one that fired me was II, and his father, the owner at the time I was fired must have been the first in that particular lineage——hey, there’s nothing like keeping it in the family.

Evidently the customer told his one-sided story and the circulation manager made no effort to get my side of the incident. Had I been advised to apologize I would have readily agreed. Money was tight in my family at the time, and the pittance I received as a paper boy helped a bit. An apology would probably not have made any difference, because in commercial transactions the customer is always right—that’s the profit angle at work. In this present day and age if an adult male used that sort of language to a minor, he could be arrested for contributing to the delinquency of the minor, and would at the very least face some embarrassment.

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