For a few years in the mid-’80s, near the twilight of underage newspaper delivery, I was a paperboy for the very publication you’re now skimming. Although I’m about to describe a morning on which I delivered the paper with extreme shoddiness while forsaking my own democratic values, on the whole I did the job reliably and punctually. Snooze technology was well established by that time, but I almost always got out of bed shortly after the first beep and was rarely the last, if never the first, to pick up his or her bundle. I seldom got complaints.
The dispatcher’s house was maybe three blocks from mine. He sat on a lawn chair in his garage, drinking Thermos coffee and listening to the auroral talk-radio shows programmed to satisfy FCC mandates. He didn’t go so far as to learn the names of the six or seven carriers in his jurisdiction, but he was friendly enough. We carried the Saturday papers in big yellow sling bags; on Sundays we used carts, though the more show-offy boys stuck with their bags even for Sunday’s monster. I’d like to think those guys are now staring at some rather gloomy MRI images, but I’d also like to have them come over to open a double-hung window and a jar of pickles.
I hated those first waddling blocks, but I liked how the job got gradually easier each time you did it. In winter the bag lightened more or less in tandem with the sky, and it was hard not to deliver the last paper with a certain vigor and optimism. It was in this spirit that I typically went down for my morning nap.
On the Sunday morning of my disgrace, I was subbing for a fellow paperboy and thus working a double shift. After dispatching my regular duties, I returned to the garage to pick up my friend’s papers and the green-and-white dot-matrix printout of his route’s addresses. It was a blustery morning in one of the transitional seasons, a real hang-onto-your-hat kind of day, and after servicing only a few houses on my friend’s route, the printout was blown from my hand, or from my coat pocket, or from some even less secure place. I spent about 10 minutes looking for the printout in gutters, under bushes. Gone.
The thing to do would have been to return to the dispatcher’s garage, get a new printout, and finish the route humbly behind schedule.
I decided instead to wing it. I knew, roughly, which streets remained on my friend’s route. I figured I could just eyeball the houses, judging by appearances which ones most likely belonged to subscribers. I’ll list my criteria in order of shamefulness.
First, I delivered papers to any address bearing some sign of civic engagement or political affiliation: a No Nukes placard resting crookedly in a window, a yard sign for a school initiative, a Twins pennant hung in a way indicative of box-score obsession. Second, I gave papers to anyone with a well-maintained yard. Newspaper subscribers, I figured, were big on order and rectitude. Finally, I delivered to all houses that looked expensive.
This was a modest, middle-class neighborhood in south Minneapolis, so unless some millionaire-next-door types were going about their furtive, miserly business in our midst, none of the houses under examination belonged to the rich. But on that day on those blocks, the most apparently prosperous people got the paper. A subscription isn’t cheap, I reasoned, and the paper itself contained news on subjects — the stock market, classical music, the weather in places other than Minneapolis — possibly of interest to our neighborhood’s relative elite.
A bit of personal background: my mother and stepfather met as colleagues in the newsroom of a North Dakota daily. My mother had switched careers since then, but my stepfather remained in the field, and we had moved to Minneapolis so he could get a graduate degree in journalism. Especially while he was in school, we didn’t have much money. Our rented two-bedroom one-story was among the humbler residences in the neighborhood. As for our yard, I don’t want to say it looked like crap, but I don’t remember anyone devoting a lot of time to its beautification. We weren’t big sign people. To sum up, there’s absolutely no way I would have delivered a paper to our house. Had my stepfather been a stranger to me, and had he lived on my friend’s route, and had he emerged, bathrobed and groggy, from a house like ours, politely requesting his paper, I suspect I would have given him little more than the finger.
When I returned home, my parents’ pre-church perusal of the paper had been interrupted by many inflamed phone calls from the dispatcher. I’ve repressed how I explained myself to him, but I don’t imagine I gave a full account of my methods. Extra papers were rushed over, and I managed to keep my job. The next time my friend went out of town, he turned to a different sub.
I suppose I should say that on that Sunday morning I truly learned what I already knew: that the easy solution can prove to be the hard one, that superficial judgments are always wrong ethically and often wrong factually. I’m afraid I’m still learning to apply that wisdom, though over the years I’ve met penniless news junkies and underinformed mansion dwellers, and I’m no longer convinced of a correlation between yard maintenance and newspaper subscriptions.
That said, a year or so ago our weekend papers were regularly arriving late. My wife and I spent several Sunday mornings in a state of newsless pique, navigating skeins of telephonic automation, gripping our coffee mugs while staring hopefully out the window, wondering, in my case, if the answer wasn’t simply to pound in a yard sign or mow the lawn.
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