This last fall I was commiserating with a new acquaintance about the changes over the years of the newspaper business. Both of us had been introduced to the industry as has about a few million other men and women our age, by having a paper route. Even my barber is one of “us.”
What we talked about at first was the size of the paper, in particular, the Sunday edition. Bigger than you could hold in your hand. In those days the Sunday paper carried pounds of circulars. Shoppers used those like we spend time rummaging through our phones for ads. But, someone had to get that newspaper to your front door and that was me. In modern lingo, we were the last mile of the news delivery chain.
I was a skinny runt back then who thought a paper route would make me wealthy. Mostly it made me tired. Seven days a week. Always just after school and at the crack of dawn on Sundays. It was enough to make a kid say “Uncle” and go work for wages. (I didn’t like working for wages, either.)
The Monday and Tuesday editions were thin enough you folded them into squares and my canvas bag could carry the whole load. My bike suffered more wear and tear than I did. It was British-built, three-speed, skinny tires, tin fenders, and a real killer if it decided to skip a gear at the wrong time. But the squares were easy on the arm. Even a little English could guide the paper through a pair of cedar trees and curl just right to land next to the door instead of in front of the door.
My route had a variety of porches. A few were wide as the house and pretty easy to pancake a paper someplace on the porch. But many were “Levitt” homes with a six-foot wide porch at the front door. Those were a bit harder to hit. I remember one back porch that I could sort of hand off the paper as I glided by being more cognizant of the narrow sidewalk and the large dog.
The Wednesday-Saturday editions were rolled into logs and rubber banded. Those you heaved like a baton and hoped they landed on an end and tipped over just far enough to be on the porch. The Sunday edition, like I said, was about like chucking a piece of 4x4. It seemed like many times I had to cruise up the sidewalk and let her fly and make a U-turn in the width of the sidewalk or crash. It made for some skillful bike riding.
I didn’t deliver to our house. The kid that did was the bane of my mother’s aggravation. We had a huge barn of a place with about 30 feet of porch that anybody could hit from the street. But arc and aim were important since the paper had to drop below the gutter and sail above the porch rail, land flat smack on the porch, and skid to a stop. We had a great big picture window, maybe 6 feet square, and mom was always loudly fussing that the paperboy was going to heave something through it. I think it took a few shots but was never broken. More often, the Sunday edition hit the railing and bounced back into the forsythia which wasn’t all that good but at least didn’t land in the snow or rain-soaked grass. He never retrieved it for us.
We had two papers in our town and one of the editors of the competition was on my route. But the editor-in-chief for my paper was on this other guy’s route and only two doors away around the corner from our house.
What I did get out of my short career as a paperboy was to realize what it took to make money. The routes were set up so that each carrier had only enough customers to justify whole bundles of papers. Essentially, I paid for the bundle and didn’t need to add individual papers nor did I have some extravagant waste. I collected each week and paid the paper for the product and pocketed the difference. I had to take this bag of change and bills to the bank where my cousin would convert it all to bills, then around the corner to pay the tab, then back around the corner again to the S&L our neighbor managed, to stash my life’s savings. It was a good start.
I also realized that this was not nearly the life for me and soon set about finding other ways to get rich.