I was probably the worst paperboy of all time.
It all started when a junior high neighborhood kid, who was quite cool as I remember him, wanted to quit his paper-route. I was enamored with the idea that I could become a paperboy, earn a little money and become cool like the neighborhood kid. Unfortunately, like most of my early plans in life, this one also failed.
Before I was awarded this fantastic employment opportunity, the cool kid allowed me to follow him on his route for a week before he turned it over to me. I would meet him at his house after school each day and we would fold the papers, put them in the paperboy bag and then ride the route together. He had the entire route memorized and knew a little about each of the customers. This impressed me to no end. Here was this really cool kid, who was so smart he had memorized his entire route of nearly 200 customers. This feat was not so impressive after I began the monotonous process of riding this same route everyday, tossing papers to the same people over and over and over, but at the time, I was in awe.
The cool kid also rode his bike with ease, he tossed each paper with a flick of the wrist and each paper floated onto the porch of the house. If he did miss I was happy to run onto the yard, grab the paper and place it on the porch, much like a trained dog. This on-the-job training was the best part of my paperboy experience; it was the only time when I was able to live in my dream world where everything made sense. In my mind I would soon take over the route, ride my bike with ease and flick papers that would drift softly onto the welcome mats of my customers. Unfortunately the real world had a way of intruding into my day dream world and when my training period came to an end I had no idea which houses were paying customers and which were not.
Not knowing where to toss the papers might seem like a problem that would have crossed my mind before I became the official paperboy, but it hadn’t. I didn’t consciously think about who my customers were until the first day I was riding my bike down the street, loaded with papers, looking for the first house. I didn’t have a clue where to start. Suddenly the whole idea of being a paperboy didn’t seem so glamorous; in fact it was frightening.
My 5th grade mind came up with a plan. I decided to toss the papers to random houses and hope for the best. So I rode confidently down the street tossing papers at every third house. If someone was in the yard, I studied them carefully to see if they looked like they were expecting a paper. Anyone who made a movement toward me got a paper; if they looked away I rode on with coolness. Somehow it all made sense to me and I really thought there would be no problems.
When I approached the Country Club apartment complex my confidence was finally shaken. The twelve apartment buildings all looked the same. They were the same color of awful green; they all had the same bushes, and the same kind of lawn. The Country Club apartments were as close to a slum as my small city could offer. It would be years before I could equate anything positive with the term “county club”.
I thought about bluffing my way around the apartment complex as I had done with the first part of my route, but I truly feared that I might toss a paper on some illiterate’s doorstep and he would take insult, chase me down and beat me to death for mocking him with a newspaper. Instead of risking bodily harm, I made an executive decision and rode through the complex and delivered exactly zero newspapers.
Again, this seemed the most logical thing to do and I am sure it made sense to my feeble brain at the time, but today it seems like one of those bizarre dreams where you do completely illogical things for no apparent reason.
As I neared the end of my route a sudden revelation hit me, I had about twenty papers left. I was a block from my house and I knew that arriving home with twenty papers would be a bad thing. My mom would certainly have a few pointed questions and would say responsibility about fifty times in the span of three sentences.
The solution was a simple one; I rode up to a garbage can a block from my house and dumped the contents of my paper bag into the can. Problem solved.
The next day there were a number of complaints stacked on the bundle of papers that were delivered to my house. I noted the addresses of the complaints and made a mental note to make sure I got papers to those addresses. The sheer brilliance of this plan pleased me a great deal. I would slowly build the list of customers from my list of complaints. Each day I might add five or ten “new” customers to my pretend route and eventually I would have something resembling the actual route I had inherited.
I still had the problem each day of disposing of a number of papers. I began hiding them in bushes, tossing them to houses not on my route, I would toss complaining customers two papers to make up for the one they missed the day before, I even stuffed a bunch down a sewer drain. Eventually all my hard work was noticed by the newspaper office and I got a call from the distribution center. I was never an expert liar but in this case I made a pretty rock-solid case against the previous paperboy and his inability to train me. The next day I had a complete list of paying customers.
Those houses that spent a week on my imaginary route were probably disappointed, but now I was free to screw up my job in so many other ways.
It didn’t take me long to discover that once I had the list of customers that was equal to the number of papers I had to deliver, I was in trouble. In the past, if I had tossed a paper somewhere inconvenient I could always pull one from my surplus and give it a second try. Now if I gave it a second try, I would run out of papers before I ran out of houses, which meant I got to head home early, but for my customers at the end of the route, it meant they would get no paper.
My first month on the job finally came to an end, and with the end of the month came collections. The whole concept of collections now seems ridiculous to me. The newspaper office would send me, the weakest link in the chain, out to collect money for the month’s papers. I would arrive to collect money, people would blow me off and I would go to the next house. I stuffed money from collections in my pockets, in my paper bag, in my socks, anyplace that would soon drift from my mind and be lost. The money was one problem, but facing my angry customers was a whole other issue.
There was no one else to blame for tossing a paper on the roof, or on a yard that was being watered, or under a bush, or cracking a window with an ill-advised toss. Each door I knocked on would bring me more surprises and examples of my incompetence. Sometimes these folks were angry, other times they just listed off a series of complaints and then paid the bill. I offered no excuse for my job performance; I just stood there taking the abuse like an expressionless painting of a paperboy who didn’t really care. There were a couple people that expected me to refund them for each paper that was not delivered or destroyed through some fault of mine and I happily refunded their money and never gave it a second thought. This may be why I netted about negative $50 for my year and a half of work.
One older lady requested for her paper to be porched each day. She had trouble walking out to her yard to get her paper, but she also had a large dog that was tied to her porch that terrified me. Whenever I rode my bike within 20 feet of the dog it would become a crazed ball of fur, teeth and froth. There was no way I was going to get anywhere near the porch and there was no way I could guarantee the paper would end up on the porch. The older lady told me she would happily tip me fifty cents a month for my extra effort, I told her that her dog scared me and getting her paper where she wanted it was physically impossible. She gave me an ultimatum, either get the paper on the porch or I will cancel my subscription. I’m sure she wanted me to suddenly change my mind and promise to get her paper on the porch, but one less paper delivery had certain appeal to me. I canceled her paper on the spot, walked back to my bike and rode off. She stood in her doorway with her mouth open as I whistled down the street.
Of all the problems dogging me, the one that I could never shake was the last guy on my route. If his paper wasn’t there by 5 o’clock my parents got a call. I tried everything I could think of to please him, except the obvious solutions of going a little faster or starting my route with his house and going backwards. For some reason I found the best solution was to toss the newspaper at his metal garage door as hard as I could. The impact would make a noise like thunder. This did little to please my customer, but if he wanted to know when his paper would arrive, he now had a system to announce, “Your paper is here!”
I continued this abuse of his garage until it was time to face the victim of my abuse at the end of the month. He let me know that my efforts were not appreciated and that he would contact the office if I continued to use his garage door like I was Keith Moon. I stopped the gonging the following day, but found a more interesting way to annoy him.
This fellow had a set of white double doors that served as my next target. The first day I smashed the paper right against the door with a satisfying thud, but what really pleased me more than the noise was the black mark the paper left on the white door. As the month wore on I found that I didn’t even have to throw the paper with much steam to get a pretty good mark on his door and when it was time to collect that month’s bill his once white doors were blackened by my accurate tosses. He complained again, but this time I had a ready made excuse, “I was just trying to make sure you got your paper on the porch.” Now how can you be mad at a paperboy who was doing his best to do his job?
He was obviously still angry, but there was nothing he could say other than to request that I toss the paper on the porch without damaging his door. It was a small victory, but a victory nevertheless. Customer service has never been a gift of mine.
From that point on I really tried to land the paper, without incident, on the porch. It became a small point of pride with me; some people might even say I had matured, but really I developed a fantasy world where I competed against the best paperboys from around the world. Most of the time the contest came down to the last toss and if I landed it the US would be victorious over the Russian paperboys again. If I did miss the porch, there was always some judge’s ruling that placed the victory in the US’s hands. These technicalities were always a bit convoluted, but as I saw it we owed them one for the 1972 Olympic basketball loss.
It was during one of these victory celebrations that I was almost killed: When I say “almost killed”, I guess I mean very nearly killed or if things had gone horribly wrong I would have died.
It was a Friday, and on Fridays the papers always were a little heavier due to various supplements that were inserted into the paper, so the papers were much easier to toss and the wind would not blow them on a roof or into a window.
As I came to the final ten houses on my route I imagined I was pitted in one of the toughest newspaper boy contests of all time. The free world was depending on my ability to land the final ten papers on the porches of the final ten houses. This scenario had been played out before, but I usually screwed it up within two or three houses. This Friday was different though. Each paper left my hand with a little magic touch. I didn’t start to feel the pressure until I reached house number seven. My breathing was a little forced, I could feel my hands shaking and I had to pick up the intensity a bit. My focus paid off as I hit the porches of the seventh, eighth and ninth houses. It all came down to one last throw. Howard Cosell was doing color commentary in my head as I approached the final house and let loose the paper. It darted through the air and landed without a bounce on the front door mat. The celebration in my head sent electrical impulses into my arms and I raised my balled fists in victory. The crowd went wild and I was the hero of the Western world.
This celebration ended suddenly as I saw a brown Trans Am speeding directly toward me. At the last moment the car slid sideways, ala Starsky and Hutch, and hit me broadside sending me flying off my bike and onto the sidewalk.
A high school kid jumped out of the driver’s door and pounced on me. Grabbing my T-shirt with both hands he shook me while shouting, “If I ever see you pointing that finger at me again, I will break it off.” I wasn’t really terrified; I was more confused than terrified. Did this guy know me? Was he confusing me with someone else? What finger was he worried about? I even wondered if my dream world was slipping into reality and this guy was a Russian spy who was upset with my successful completion of ten porches in a row.
As he let me go and drove off I wished I was Bruce Banner so when the high school kid grabbed me I could have said, “You’re making me mad, you won’t like me when I’m mad.” Then I would have turned into the Hulk, tossed him onto the porch, picked up his car and snapped it in half on my knee and then rode my bike home in my Hulk form.
The more I thought about it, the cooler I thought it would be if I was the Hulk riding my bike. I wondered how far the Hulk could ride with one push of the pedal. I picked up my bike, still in character, and got ready to find out how far the Hulk could go on one push. I moved the right side pedal to the top and prepared to see just what the Hulk could do. I put all my weight on my right foot and pushed as hard as I could. My Hulk-like strength was focused on this one push and when my foot slipped off the pedal I went head over handlebars. The ensuing crash would have been hilarious to watch on videotape, but videotape had not been invented yet and so the crash took place without much notice.
My knee hit the asphalt first, then my shoulder and finally my chin. I was sprawled out in the middle of the street like some idiot pretending to be the Hulk who wasn’t quite up to the task. I picked myself up and brushed off the pieces of rock that were now imbedded in my flesh and watched the blood flow from my leg. Just as I was about to have myself a nice sit-down cry, a car pulled up with a very concerned looking middle-aged woman at the wheel. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Even though I was just in the 5th grade I knew the rules of being a man. No matter how bad it hurts, you never admit it hurts. “I’m fine,” I said as blood dripped from my chin onto my shirt.
“Are you sure you are okay? What happened?” she asked again.
“I’m fine. I do stuff like this all the time,” I replied, which was probably closer to the truth than I wanted to be, but you can’t just say, “I was pretending to be the Hulk and my foot slipped off the pedal, and because of the incredible force harnessed in the Hulk’s legs, I fell like a rotten apple from a tree.”
I straightened my bike’s handlebars and hopped back on. As I was riding home trying to ignore the burning pain, I could feel my flip-flop beginning to stick to the bottom of my foot as the blood ran down my leg to pool on my flip-flop. There was a satisfying smacking from this stickiness, a stickiness that I began to really enjoy. It might have been the only thing I enjoyed in my time as a paperboy.