Editor’s note: “Paperboy” is a selection from Jerry Fabyanic’s forthcoming memoir, “Uphill into the Wind: Seizing the Day and Finding Meaning in the Ordinary.” The work will be in essay and short story format, the topics of which drawn from Jerry’s life experiences.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” So goes the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service. The line is taken from the Greek historian, Herodotus, who wrote those words in The Persian Wars in reference to the Persians’ system of mail delivery. Regardless, kudos to mail deliverers from the ancient Persians and our Pony Express to today’s workers. But postal workers take a backseat to paperboys and papergirls, the gone-with-the-ages McJob that was the entryway into the workforce for a few boys and fewer girls long before the golden arches were conceived. It’s a relic of Americana’s days of yore.
Delivering newspapers seven days a week in rain, snow or sunshine was more than a way to earn a few coins for a boy to buy candy, pop and popsicles. It was an interactive, on-the-job primer for learning and developing practical life skills. Being a paperboy was not much different from apprenticeships boys like the young Benjamin Franklin underwent.
I was a paperboy twice, the first time at the age of nine. By the fourth grade, I was learning aspects of quality service and adopting values I hold to this day. Responsibility and punctuality were among them. When in the classroom, I tried to instill those values into my students. I would tell them, “Your job is to be on time and do your work as best you can.” To this day, I stress whenever I might be late for an engagement. I’d rather show up thirty minutes early than be five minutes late.
At first, I was an assistant — apprentice — of sorts to my older brother, Rich. He delivered papers to about two-thirds, the more spread out portion, of the route. My responsibility was to deliver the papers to neighbors closer to home. Still, it was quite a chore for a skinny boy. The off-white canvas paper sack with a flame-orange shoulder strap nearly scraped the ground when I hoisted it onto my shoulder. And it caused other problems. During the summer months, I wore shorts, and the sack would rub irritatingly against my shin. And in the winter, it presented a different challenge if it snowed. To problem solve, I’d pull the strap over my head to my left shoulder so it would hang on my right. But on days when the edition was bulkier, even the left-shoulder solution didn’t resolve the issue. Then, I simply hoisted and toted the sack until the load lightened.
One of the first things I intuitively learned was the importance of getting to know your clientele. As a nine-year-old, I did not have an understanding of such a lofty business practice. But I quickly discovered which were more lighthearted and friendly types and which were grumpy or fussy. That was critical because my total income, given that I earned only a penny and a half for each daily paper and five cents for the Sunday paper, was heavily dependent on tips.
With coaching from Rich, I developed good business practices. Like being punctual, keeping the newspaper dry, and putting it in a safe location like inside a storm door or a milk box. (Remember those?) The former one — opening the storm door and tossing the newspaper inside — got me into scrapes with several furry, four-pawed creatures. The worst one was with Doh-Doh.
Doh-Doh was my friend Pete’s family pet. He, not Pete, was a rat terrier. And he was mean. He’s the only dog I was bitten by. It happened right after I pulled the storm door open as I had many times before. The little demon was lying in wait. He sprang. Four years later when I had the paper route to myself, the scenario repeated itself. Except that time, I got mild revenge. We both had aged, but he in dog years and I boy years. I had gotten bigger and stronger and he was declining. One afternoon, he was lying listlessly by the door when I pulled it open. He raised his head in half-hearted recognition, and the anger I had felt resurfaced. I stared at him for a second then tossed the paper nearly on top of him. I suppose I should feel guilty for or regret doing it. But I don’t.
I experienced a few tense situations with bigger dogs including a German shepherd, collie and Doberman pinscher. But while they got raucous, I never felt threatened by them. After a while, the German shepherd and collie got used to me. They’d grouse, but mainly to remind me who was in charge. Not so much with the Doberman pinscher. I would tread lightly when I entered his yard. He never was loose, so that wasn’t a problem. But he would sometimes be lying languidly inside the porch gate. When he saw me, he would rise up on all fours and, with his head overhanging the gate and slobber running from his jowls, let me know in no uncertain terms he wasn’t happy I intruded into his yard. When that happened, the newspaper didn’t get onto the porch.
Being a paperboy opened a new world for me in terms of not only getting to know people but also about people. For the most part, my customers were wonderful and kind. But that commonality ended when it came to their quirks and personalities. Some like Mrs. Frye, whose yard was fenced to keep her dogs contained, were engaging. She had a paperbox at the gate into which I would slide her newspaper. On collection day, I would stand at the gate and call, “Mrs. Frye!” She would soon tootle out, often in her slippers, and hand me the week’s payment along with a tip. I can still picture her in her bright flowery-print house dresses and red hair pulled back in a bun. She was a chatterer. I loved it, and it taught me another skill: how to talk confidently with an adult.
Mr. Mori was one of my favorites. Each summer he grew enormous tomato plants in his backyard garden. When the tomatoes were ripening, I would stuff a salt shaker in my pocket because he was routinely working in the garden when I showed up. And when he saw me coming, he’d pick a big juicy one just for me. After delivering to a dozen houses after Mr. Mori’s, I would stop at the neighborhood grocery store run by Mr. “Happy” Yeager and snag a bottle of Pepsi to wash down the salt. After dropping a nickel into the pop machine’s money slot, I would fish one out and pop the top off with the opener attached to the cooler. To this day, there’s still nothing like a salted juicy tomato chased by an ice-cold Pepsi, albeit zero sugar now.
Mrs. Hartsfeld was one of my sweetest customers. One snowy Friday when I was collecting, she was surprised to see me with no boots and wearing ratty cotton gloves. I explained to her the boots I inherited from my older brothers had holes in the heels so were not very effective for keeping snow out and it was pointless to buy another pair because I would outgrow them within a year. But the primary truth, which I didn’t tell her, was that we couldn’t afford them. So I just tripled-layered my socks, which helped keep my feet fairly warm and dry until I got through my route. As for the gloves, they did okay. My hands had toughened from making and heaving snowballs with bare hands. But the next week when I showed up to collect, she had a pair of new gloves for me.
Then there was Mr. Stankiewicz. I met him only once because his wife had always paid me. When he answered the door, he had a serious look on his face.
“What do you want?” he asked gruffly as he towered over me.
His voice and demeanor were intimidating. “I’m collecting for the newspaper,” I shyly answered.
“Newspaper, huh. Which one?”
“The Pittsburgh Press, sir.”
“Press, huh. How much is it?”
I felt my voice quivering. “Sixty-seven cents, sir.”
“That seems like a lot. Why is it so much?”
“Well sir, it’s seven cents for the daily paper and twenty-five cents for the Sunday.”
“Okay,” he said as he nodded his head. He stuck his hand inside his trouser pocket and shook it. I could hear change jingling in it. It drew my attention. My eyes focused on it. He smiled mischievously. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll pay you sixty-seven cents, or you can have all the coins in my pocket. If it is less than sixty-seven cents, you lose. If more, you win. Wadda ya say?”
I pursed my mouth as I stared at his pocket with the jingling coins. My eyes lit up in anticipation, and I drooled as I imagined hitting the jackpot. I regained my resolve, looked him squarely in his eye, and stiffened my jaw.
“Okay. I’ll take what you have in your pocket.”
He grinned widely and pulled out the change. It was a handful.
“Smart kid, Hold out your hand.”
I cupped both eagerly as he dropped a cache of nickels, dimes, and quarters, into them. “You’ll go far,” he laughed as he did. Later, I figured it was well over three dollars since I kept a running total in my head about the amount of tips I collected.
Tips were, like they are for many service workers today, the lifeblood of my income. That was compounded at Christmas. Almost everyone gave me a card with a buck or two in it. A few times I’d hit the jackpot with a five-dollar bill. Most of it went into my first savings account my mother helped me open at the Pittsburgh National Bank branch in the Miracle Mile Shopping Center. I still remember handing my earnings to Mrs. Williams, the teller with white hair and big glasses. She always would tell me how proud she was of me as she entered the amount into my savings account booklet.
Not all of my customers were engaging. In fact, there were a few I never met. I just knew they got the newspaper and would faithfully leave what they owed me, most often with a tip, in an envelope inside their storm door or paperbox. At first I thought it was creepy, but I came to understand that some people were very private or mysteriously reclusive, and that was okay.
I had one customer, though, who taught me what a deadbeat was. Mrs. “Bond” got the Sunday paper only. When I took over the route, she would leave me a dollar—no tip—for a month’s payment inside the door. One month the money wasn’t there. I gave it a couple of weeks, but still no money. The next Sunday, early in the morning, I knocked on her door. No answer. I left the paper but decided to give her one more chance. The following Sunday, I knocked again. Still no answer. That time I had written a note, which I left with the paper, saying she was two months behind and that I needed two dollars the following Sunday. That next Sunday, no money, so I left no paper. Nor did I deliver one for the next couple of weeks.
Finally, my route manager, John, asked me why I wasn’t delivering her a paper. Apparently, she called and complained. I explained why. He said I had to deliver her a paper. I said I wouldn’t until she paid up. I told him it wasn’t right or fair and that I had given her several chances. We were at a standstill, but I stood my ground. It was an early lesson in having the courage to stand up for my principles. Finally, he agreed to give me credit for the money she owed. I started delivering to her again on the condition that she paid me on time. For the rest of the time I had the route, the money was inside the door.
When I muse about those days, many images come to mind that at the time seemed fleeting or incidental. A rich one is heading out shortly after dawn on a summer Sunday morning with fog slightly layered over the neighborhood, sloshing through dewy grass, and bushwacking between trees and shrubs as webs strung through the night brushed across my face. I can still smell the sweetness and hear the stillness. As a nascent teenager, I wasn’t conscious about morning energies, but I now realize that I was already intuiting something profound.
I picture that big-eared kid with stringy brown hair wearing cutoff jeans for shorts, a T-shirt, and dirty white canvas sneakers with taped-together eyeglasses sitting crookedly atop his nose trooping along with an off-white canvas sack hanging from his shoulder and a wire connecting his ear to a transistor radio tuned into KQV and grooving to the Four Seasons and Beach Boys. And when I do, I offer gratitude to the Universe for having been blessed by having that opportunity.
My life has been spent in people-oriented jobs that began with delivering newspapers. Today, as an essayist and an author of literary fiction, I focus on the human psyche: Why people do what they do. It was as a paperboy I began learning those dynamics. And the lessons I learned are affirmed today. Yes, there are deadbeats, losers, and mean, unpleasant people and dogs, but for each of them, there are countless others of friendly, well-intentioned, caring, and compassionate people and playful pooches.
In a wondrous way, my customers were more than neighbors. They became my personal community, a virtual extended family. Growing up without one, I used to wonder about how cool it would be if I had a dad like Mr. Mori. And in hindsight, Mr. Stankiewicz, a crazy uncle, and Mrs. Hartsfeld, a caring aunt.
In that era, paperboys, as they had from the early days of mass circulation of newspapers, filled an essential role. People depended on and trusted them to get them the news. I’m proud to have been one and to be in the lineage of that rich tradition. It’s sad seeing that era having come to a close. It was an opportunity for a kiddo to begin learning about the world beyond his ken and transitioning from childhood dependency to an independent adult. But there was more, a necessary component for a boy: It was fun.
It was fun largely because I knew I was growing up and had responsibilities beyond my home. And it set the tenor for my approach to every job I would have thereon: take it seriously but have fun while doing it.
Of all the wondrous aspects of being a paperboy, it was getting to know people and dogs up close and personal that made it the most fun. Which makes me wonder: How many postal workers today can still make that claim?
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.