Labor Day and it is fitting that we honor the “first job” many of us aspired to, that of paperboy.
In fact according to wikipedia President Truman, actors John Wayne and Bob Hope, and baseball star Willie Mays all had paper routes when they were young. So did TV journalist Tom Brokaw, Walt Disney and investment manager Warren Buffett.
30 years ago, I was envious of the kid across the street who had the neighborhood paper route because the route was passed to him by his older brother, and to his older brother by his oldest brother. The family across the street had turned the paper route into a family dynasty.
Waiting in the wings was the youngest brother who was my age, he was the heir apparent.
From my vantage point across the street, I knew the paper route was a tough business, neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night, nor newsprint covered hands would keep the kid from his appointed rounds.
Around 4 AM the paper truck would swing around the corner, slow slightly and a pile of tightly bound papers would tumble out of the back of the truck and on to the driveway.
Around 5 AM the front porch lights would come on and the kid across the street would pull a wagon out the side of the garage door load up the bundle and pull it into the garage where he’d roll the papers. On Wednesday’s he’d have help adding the six page grocery circular into each paper. Saturday and Sunday had more inserts and his brothers and I would often help.
Every day, every home for six blocks in either direction received the paper. He would ride clockwise the first half of the route, counter clockwise the second half and make one final long lap up the middle of the of the neighborhood and he was done. 64 papers rolled and delivered and earned him about $4.20 and another $3.90 for the afternoon paper. I thought at the time, it was a pretty good deal.
Every afternoon the process was repeated. Same truck and nearly the same number of papers. But afternoons required a little less work since the paper was a little smaller and there were always more friends to help.
What really attracted me to the idea of the paper route was the low slung, 5 speed Schwinn sting ray bicycle that was rigged for delivering newspapers with front and side clip on baskets, when not on the paper route the bike spent the time leaving me and my ten speed road bike in the dust.
But the work didn’t stop with rolling the papers, stuffing inserts, and having a good throwing arm; because back in the day every paper boy was responsible for collecting payments, selling the subscriptions and dealing with the frequent missing paper.
I don’t think I remember when, but somewhere along the way the paper boy died, or at least he grew up.
The woman who has the route this morning delivers to about 1/4 of the homes on my street. I imagine that the paper route is a dying art; it is now all drive and toss and not much need for a good arm and friendly smile.
On rainy days my neighborhood carrier drives an SUV and on a nice mornings like today she drives a convertible Saab. The car's flashing turn signals and rapid stop and pace let me it the paper girl.
She rounds the corner and slows, tosses the paper squarely in the driveway across the street, and I politely wave as she drives past my house leaving my driveway free of paper and plastic bag.
I stopped the home delivery of the Charlotte Observer long ago. My news “feed” is on line, where I read what “crawls” based on a series of key strokes that have logged my ever changing preferences. I’ll buy the New York Times or the Sunday Post and Courier a couple of times a month when I’m in Charleston.
The on-line Charlotte Observer is so poorly designed, and news so stale that I’ve given up using it as an online news source on all but the most desperate of days.
In a way the death of the newspaper boy is also the death of the paper and with it a really larger sense of community.
The Observer classifieds are all but gone, the section is now just a couple of pages, thanks to Craig’s list and the paper's still outrageous classified advertising pricing. Most of the columnists I grew up with in Charlotte are gone. The comics in the Sunday paper are old and tired, or maybe I’m just old and the humor doesn’t apply any more.
Having a paper route was the best job I never had, looking back I know I would have done a good job but I grew up before the last of the kids across the street aged out of the business.
I imagine it was a sad day when the last bundle of papers was finally rolled and the last paper was delivered and I fear the future and that last day is closer than we realize.