Friday, April 10, 2009

My Life as a Paper Carrier

When I was 11, I wanted to be a paper carrier. I knew the paper carrier who delivered our local newspaper, the Council Bluffs Nonpareil, and he made it seem like an easy way to make money, something always valued in our house. There were also two other newspapers in town, the Omaha World Herald and the Des Moines Register. Both of them required carriers to be 12 year’s old. The headquarters for the Des Moines Register was right next to the bike repair shop and the model airplane model shop. I would occasionally frequent both. One day I went into the Register office and asked if they needed carriers for my neighborhood. They did. I think they assumed I was over 12 because I was tall because age. They did not ask.

The very young manager stopped at our house for my parents to sign the consent form and it was only then did he learn of my true age, but an agreement was made that I could be a carrier because I was only 3-4 of months away from 12.

Someone trained me during a couple of runs, I was given a route book and I was a carrier for the Des Moines Register. My daily route consisted of only 12 to 15 customers spread out over several miles and up several very steep streets. The town was not called Council Bluffs without reason. If the hills were ski slopes, they would be labeled “black diamond” runs. The route required a bicycle and even with a bike the route would take an hour of moving quickly. The biggest thing about the Des Moines Register was that papers were delivered in the morning.

Each morning I would rise at 6 AM, dress, hop on my bike, and pedal slightly down hill for 8 blocks and pick up my papers. I would then pedal back up the street delivering a few papers along the way. In the late 1940’s, bicycles had no derailleur so there was only one gear and braking was done by reversing the pedals to engage the braking system. When I would reach one of the steeper hills, I would peddle as far as I could then hop off and push my bike up the rest of the way. The steepness of the hill made riding down exhilarating. Slight braking was used to maintain control. If things went as planned all the papers were delivered before 7:30 with leaving time to eat breakfast and prepare for school.

It was truly a lonely job. But most of the time, I enjoyed the loneliness. That early in the morning, no one was around. I learned a lot about how people lived just my being able to examine their houses, yards, and cars with a freedom of knowing no one was watching me. One of the joys was experiencing a sun rise when clear weather allowed. I always saw some magic in a sun rise, the way the shadows changed rapidly and in particular, the aroma of warmth. Rain gear was occasionally needed making everything more difficult but the real problem was in the winter.

In the winter dealing with the cold and snow on the ground sometimes were major obstacles. Many a time, it wasn’t fun. I’d wake up in pitch darkness and dread facing the cold. When there was snow on the ground, I had to walk the route which meant I had to get up at 5:30 to get everything done.

On Sunday, I had about 50 papers to deliver and the Register had the weightiest Sunday paper in either Iowa of Nebraska. Each paper weighed over a pound. In bicycle weather, I had room for half the papers in my bicycle basket and half in a bag I slung over my back. Keeping me and the bicycle upright was not always possible and sometimes one of the loads would shift and I would have to let the bike fall and try to stay up right. I tired to protect the papers from getting dirty but not at the sacrifice of falling with my bike.

When winter’s snow was on the ground, I would put two layers of socks on my feet and heavy overshoes over my shoes. With the added weight the cold seemed to amplify itself with each crunch, crunch, crunch in the frigid snow. Walking was done with determination and purpose to keep warm and to fight the cold away. Sometimes it was just too fucking cold for man or beast let alone me. At least all the mean dogs were inside, not out patrolling their territory. It was a time to feel sorry for myself. Typically, my mother would attend to me more than usual on those days, and would fix some hot chocolate and bring it to me as I sat perched on the radiator.

On Sundays when I couldn’t use a bicycle, I had to start my route carrying about 75 pounds on my back. I weighed about 135 pounds then. I believe that this burden led to permanent damage to my back because my bones were not strong enough to support this weight at a time when I was growing rapidly.
Friday nights and Saturday mornings were set aside for going house to house collecting for the paper. If a customer took both the daily and Sunday papers the cost was 45 cents or 5 cents for each daily paper and 15 cents for the Sunday issue. The outside of my route book consisted of two 4 x 8 inch hard black plastic pieces for the front and back held together by two large metal loose leaf paper rings. Inside was a card for each customer that had perforated payment coupons dated for each week. When a customer paid, I tore off the little coupon and gave it to them as proof of payment. The printing on Sunday only customer’s cards was red and it was black for all week customers. I would make about two dollars a week. Considering that a loaf of bread cost 10 cents then, being able to have a couple of dollars to spend any way I wanted taught me how to manage money at an early age.

As you might guess, The Register was more of a newspaper for the entire state of Iowa with added local news for Des Moines. People that wanted more news that the local paper offered usually added the larger Omaha World Herald as their second paper. For those reasons there was low Des Moines Register daily readership in Council Bluffs. To try to increase circulation, they had all kinds of promotions with awards given out when you got 3 new customers. We were taught some sales techniques and attitudes to adopt. But I felt really awkward, knocking door to door and being rejected before I could give my spiel again and again. Some people would be nice enough to let me finish before they thanked me and closed the door. I don’t remember the details of one promotion, but I was given a chance to buy a new bicycle for $37 paying a little from my earnings each week. Since I already had a bicycle, I ordered a girl’s bike for my sister and gave it to her.

The manager had a very good looking wife who helped her husband run the operation. One time I announced that I wanted to quit. She talked me out of it using her feminine charms. She had big blue eyes, light brown hair that fell onto her slim shoulders, milk white skin, and lips that looked oh so wet and soft. My hormones were starting to scream at me then and there was no way I could resist the way she looked at me as she touched my arm.

After a year and a half, I had the opportunity to deliver the Council Bluffs Nonpareil and I made sure she was not around when turned in my notice to quit.

This was definitely a step up for me. Almost everyone subscripted to the local paper and it was published in the afternoon. No more early morning routine which meant I could stay up later in the evening. The route consisted of 6 city blocks on both sides of the street and I had about 50 customers for every day of the week. I also made 4-5 dollars a week. Actually, I had less work and made more money.

I got really fast at folding papers for throwing and once all of them were folded I would ride down the sidewalk firing a paper at a porch at almost every house. I had one steep hill, Lainson Street, very close to our house. It was too steep to ride up, so each day I ended deliveries by walking up throwing papers as I went. At the top of the hill where the street ended was a big house that was quite a bit higher off the street. It was a monstrous throw to the porch, but I tried it almost every time knowing that I would have to climb all the steps and retrieve the paper if I missed. It was so satisfying when I was successful that I never stopped trying. This must be the same mechanism that addicts some gamblers.

I tried to make friends with all dogs on the route. Some could not be be-friended and I learned how to avoid them. I was bitten twice. I broke a door window once when my throw was a little too strong. Once I threw a paper on the roof. I learned about dead beat customers and learned that the best thing would have been to stop delivery until they paid in order to reduce my losses. Once in a while I would catch a delinquent and have 2-3 dollars more in my pocket as a result.

I had one of those coin holders that I wore on my belt so I could dispense change quickly without digging in my pockets and trying to find the correct amount in the midst of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars. Yes, I said half dollars. They would so handy to have. These were the same coin holders that street car conductors wore which helped me establish myself as a serious business person. Well, at least in my mind.
Saturday afternoon was the time to bring your collections to the office and pay your bill. What was left over was your profit.

I kept by paper route until I got through 7th grade. I don’t really remember why I quit but I know part of the reason was that I got burnt out and other means to earning money were available.

Carrying papers was not easy, but working hard was greatly rewarded in our family and it was a means to finance what ever I wanted to buy for myself. When I look back on the experience, it occurs to me that I went to work every day, rain or shine, heat or cold with no vacation because we never took a vacation. And I do wish I grew up with a straight back.

Today, papers are delivered by adults using cars. I am sure that it was necessary to increase the cost of papers in order to pay adults enough for them to want the job. It kind of saddens me to see that boys or girls 12-16 years old don’t have an opportunity to deliver papers anymore. But in today’s world I doubt that any of them would want to.


dguzman said...

Great post! So many neat things--I loved that the change maker made you feel more business-like. I would've been the same way.

I too noticed the switch from kids to adult deliverers, and I agree that it's kinda sad. But I think you're right--kids today don't usually get jobs like this anymore, and the routes are so much longer now that they use cars instead of bikes.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Spooney delivered newspapers on his bike as well when he was a kid. I think he did try to keep using his bike through the winter, and as a result skid on ice and flew off his bike a few times.

Dad E said...

dguzman-With newspaper circulation diminishing, the future of home delivery may be another victim.

Vikki--So one of the things to make a judgment about was whether to walk or try to ride. If you chose wrong, delivery was more difficult than normal.

Spooney said...

I had a route from the time that I was 12 until about 15. I would still use my bike in the winter, but remember having a couple nasty spills on the ice - delivering papers in the winter was not fun.
I remember on certain days of the week the paper would be really big because of flyers & junk. I hated those days - I would have to make 2 trips because I couldn't carry all of the papers at once.
BTW, nice post, it brought back a lot of memories.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I had a route for a little while as well when we lived on 5th street in Marion. Even back then, I was not a morning person and I hated asking for money, so I quit. Great story Dad e.

Anonymous said...

kolawole, this is an information on my task - routes management for a newapaper quite happy with the lines delivered,they speak volume in assisting me to route out the territories and the challenges as a carrier. Great story.

johnnyz said...

I also delivered the newspaper in Council Bluffs. I was 11 when I started carrying the Nonpareil. I had my route for exactly 4 years to the day. I am now 65 and live in New Mexico. Your article hit home for me when you wrote of the cold weather. CB cold is bone chilling. I learned alot from that paper route. I would not trade those days for anything. With my share of that 45cents I was able to buy a bike. I do not know how given today's prices. I really enjoyed yor article.

Dad E said...

JZ-Thanks for your comment. I think the experience we gained is very difficult to translate into modern living. When I was in 3rd grade, we studied pioneer history and I tried to image what it was like living then. Today's 3rd graders reading this would probably have to used their imagination also.

johnnyz said...

It has been almost 3 years now since my last post. I think of this article often, it was so much of what formed my life and who I am today. The paper carriers will soon be a thing of the past as the imternet gobbles up the news seeking public. To many we were known only as the paperboy. Years from now, some young child will ask his mother "What is a paperboy ?"