A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
.Delivering newspapers was a perfect way for me to begin earning money in Oklahoma, but I realized years later that I also learned a lot in that lowly, largely invisible service job.
I was 14 when I first became a carrier for "The Tulsa World," my hometown's daily newspaper, and I stayed with it for 3 and 1/2 years until college. I got the job on a tip from a schoolmate and I take pride now that I had enough ambition, organization, energy and confidence to go for it. Gumption, too.
My primary motivation was to have a steady income. I'd long been devising various ways to make pocket change: collecting pop and milk bottles for refunds at a grocery store; gathering old newspapers and magazines to sell at a recycling plant; doing odd jobs in summer such as mowing lawns and painting house numbers on street curbs.
But those sources of loot were seasonal, impromptu and unreliable. Being a part-time newspaper delivery boy gave me a dependable year-round cash flow in the mid-1950s, and that became my first milestone on a half century of employment.
Yet, I never cited that first job on my long, detailed resumes -- an unexplainable oversight. Obviously, I was remiss in giving credit where it was due. But it’s not too late, so I’ll shout it out: being a newspaper delivery boy was a successful foundational experience and a satisfying memory!!!
I loved ripping around my neighborhood on a bicycle in between the dark and early morning hours, not worrying about traffic, and feeling like I was earning my way to independence and freedom.
I delivered papers directly to monthly subscribers’ doors in the quietest hours of the day. There were no days off, and customer interaction was rare. My experience was nothing like the popular image of newsboys decades earlier -- urban ragamuffins hawking tabloids on the street corners. Those kids were tough, loud, aggressive and annoying.
I quickly discovered there was more responsibility to the job than I thought. About 75 subscribers were counting on me every day to bring them a newspaper by 6 a.m., so I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. and ride my bike to a service station a few blocks away. There, one of the Tulsa World trucks would drop off about 30 bundles of papers hot-off-the-press.
Each bundle was numbered for a specific route and held exactly enough for the list of subscribers plus an extra. My first task was to find my assigned bundle and open it by cutting baling wires.
If I had a message from the circulation office, it was tucked under a wire. Messages might involve changes on my route — a “start” meant a new subscriber, a “stop” was cancellation, and a “pause” gave me dates to suspend and resume delivery.
There also was a dreaded (but accurately named) “kick” message -- telling me that a customer complaint had been forwarded to the manager. Most were for missed delivery, wet or “lost” papers.
On most mornings, a half dozen other teens gathered to do the same thing, so we chatted aimlessly about sports, movies, music and other trivia. At some point, the route manager, a middle-aged man we called “Mr. Crow,” came in his pale-green Ford to make sure all bundles were picked up and to check if anyone needed anything. Sometimes he urgently sought a volunteer to cover for a carrier who had called in sick.
Before setting off on my route, I had to fold each paper, making it a "tri-fold," and secure it with a tight, green rubber band. Then I tucked them all into a huge canvas shoulder bag with the Tulsa World logo on it and stuffed it into an oversize basket attached to my bicycle handlebars.
I kept an up-to-date list of subscribers to make sure I knew which houses got papers and those to skip.
The actual delivery process was a supreme agility test. I had to steer the bike with my left hand, balance the heavy load, and throw a paper with my right hand onto a front porch or steps. If my throw went astray, I'd stop, retrieve the paper and get it in the right spot.
To succeed, I had to keep my bike in good shape, restock my supply of rubber bands regularly, set my alarm clock each night and track weather forecasts so that I could have clothes ready for whatever the early morning portended.
I worked as an independent contractor. I had a subscriber log book to record amounts the customers owed and paid. On a few evenings near the end of each month, I walked my route with my log book and knocked on doors to collect the fees.
Most collections were straight-forward transactions, but not all. For instance, I looked forward to collecting from a petite, attractive brunette, woman who was probably in her early 30s and occasionally came to the door barefoot and wearing only a sexy, black slip. Then, she left the door open wide enough for me to watch her find a handbag and billfold. That five-minute wait for payment was pure visual bliss for a rampant teen imagination.
I kept my cash collections in a cigar box until I had enough to pay the route manager for my papers. Once bills were paid, money leftover was my “salary.” Since I thought of subscribers’ unpaid amounts as mine, I made extraordinary efforts to collect from delinquents. My success or failure varied slightly from month to month, but I had enough pocket money to open my first savings account at a nearby bank.
Soliciting customers was also part of the job. Mr. Crow insisted that carriers invite non-subscribers to sign up. On my monthly collection run, I’d reluctantly knock on doors of non-subscribers and give an awkward, memorized sales pitch. My bumbling approach was frequently effective and I often scored Mr. Crow’s incentive reward: a gift certificate for two chicken dinners at a local restaurant.
I never considered my miniscule role from a corporate viewpoint, but I now see that delivery boys were a crucial final step to get our product to consumers. It was a smart business model, with a steady revenue flow from subscriber to delivery boy to route manager to the corporation.
Newspapers also brought a local marketplace into subscriber homes. Display ads flung open the doors of retail commerce and classified ads facilitated the exchange of used goods and offered services.
I can see now that I gained basic skills, including bookkeeping, accounting, management, sales, competitiveness, problem solving. But in my mind, those were tangential benefits.
I craved my own spending money rather than rely on my parents and their piddling allowance for household chores. I was determined to buy a motor scooter (and later a car) and knew I had to plan and save for it.
More immediately, I insisted on wearing James Dean-cool Levi jeans, not the sodbusters’ Lee Riders that my mother bought me.
That job required self-discipline, daily effort and, helped me get what I wanted, establishing a style and identity. I thought it was safe and acceptable.
My parents were pleased that my morning route didn’t conflict with school activities and enabled me to become more independent My younger sister said she thought it was a good job for me: “Subscribers expected reliability and you had to deliver. It taught responsibility daily.”
A friend whose two brothers had newspaper routes added that the job was a “wholesome opportunity” worthy of “respect.”
Weather conditions sure could be challenging. If it rained, I wore a plastic poncho and kept papers dry with a big sheet of clear vinyl. On cold winter mornings, I wore a fleece-lined cap with ear flaps and had a hand warmer in my pocket, cradling it in gloved hands when necessary. If ice or snow made biking impossible, I walked the entire route.
Loose dogs could be another problem. They'd chase me, barking and nipping at my ankles as I pedaled my bike. So I'd carry a squirt bottle full of ammonia water, ready and willing to aim the stream at the eyes of any threatening dog. That was generally effective after one spray.
I took pride in delivering the papers, and took subscriber complaints seriously. I knew I could be terminated and replaced. Thus, I learned that quality service was essential: to thrive, I had to do my job right.
I discovered other irresistible factors in being a delivery boy. While there was some camaraderie with other carriers, I relished the solitary activity of being on my own. I was enthralled by the mysteries of the dark and felt ownership of those early morning hours — the so-called hour of the wolf — just before dawn, any city’s quietest moment. I was active when almost everyone else was asleep and dreaming.
I found it exhilarating to be in motion, racing the clock to get a job done by deadline. I also experienced a daily epiphany of sunrise, that spiritual transition from black of night to the orange glow of a new day.
And in true adolescent form, I gave myself a daily reward on my way home, stopping at a bakery for a warm jelly “Bismark” doughnut.
Perhaps most satisfying, I ignited my Calvinist work ethic and felt like a contributing member of my community -- performing a vital role in distributing the news of the day and being an informed citizen, which was essential in a democracy. My job was part of the greater good!
Today, it’s commonly known that newspaper circulation has been in decline for several decades. With fewer neighborhood subscribers, the routes once served by delivery boys were often switched to adults who could drive a car (or pickup) and cover a much-expanded area.
My lament for the bygone days is based on benefits the job afforded me: learning useful skills and habits while growing up faster and more securely. Delivering newspapers was a great first job!
John English was a journalism professor at the University of Georgia.
"Active when almost all other people were asleep and dreaming. It was exhilarating to be in motion -- racing the clock to get done by deadline. And, I got to experience the daily epiphany of sunrise, that spiritual transition from black of night to the orange glow of a new day."