Sunday, January 20, 2008

My First Job

This morning, as on every other morning of my life, I opened the old wooden screen door and stepped out onto my front porch. Lying neatly, right at my feet, was my local Sunday newspaper. As if it had been placed there with love. I peeked over the railing and spotted my Seattle Times at the bottom of the steps, safe and perfect in its plastic sleeve. I sent a silent “thank you” to my delivery people, the faceless ones who so kindly meet my needs and those of my neighbors by not requiring me to walk out to the yard or (egads!) to the front sidewalk to fetch my papers.

You see, every morning, my hair looks like this:

and I believe that nobody other than D. and the other animals who live in my house should be subjected to that crowning glory.

This morning, as I sometimes do when I see how nicely my papers have been delivered, I thought back to my pre-teen years when I had that job—and how much less care I took to meet my customers’ needs. I was a substandard newspaper carrier.

I inherited my paper route from my older brothers. Each of them had done it, mornings or afternoons, and on Sundays each of us sold three different newspapers—our local paper, the New York Daily News, and the New York Times—in front of our church. For years, every Sunday for four Masses, from 8:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., year round, one of us kids was out there schlepping hundreds of papers over to the church so we could sell them to the people who walked by our paper stand on their way home.

And every afternoon after school, I folded somewhere around a hundred papers and arranged them in my paper bag, which featured a hideous, attention-grabbing, neon orange strap, ensuring that I could not hide from the boys in my class who were playing hoops or baseball along my route. Then I either took off on foot or on my badass Sears Free Spirit 3-speed wonderbike and headed up the street to bring the news to the people.

My paper-tossing skills were not great. In fact, I really sucked at it. The shrubs, the porch roof, halfway up the stairs—yeah, those were my targets. But landing one on the porch at the actual front door? A rarity. Sometimes I’d get lucky and hit a screen door with a smack! But most times I just grabbed a paper out of the heavy canvas sack and lobbed it in the general direction of the porch. And kept right on going.

It wasn’t that my parents had not instilled the “if you’re going to do something, do it right” mantra in me. Apparently it didn’t take, at least not back then. Had my father witnessed my performance, he would have made me pick up every single misfired paper and walk it to the customer’s door, placing it between the screen door and front door. Then, he would have had me ring the doorbell, greet the customer when they answered, and apologize for the poor quality of my work.

I took great pride in the occasional toss that actually landed on the porch. As time went on, I became better at it. But for the most part? Toss and go. Walk up the block. Toss and go.

Now, my favorite customers received world-class service. I used to collect once a month from each subscriber, and some of the little old ladies on my route greeted me with homemade sweets each time. Their papers went behind their screen doors—every day. And the two older women who were confined to their wheelchairs? I walked into their living room and handed the paper to them. But the strong ones had to work a little harder to get theirs. Even if it meant grabbing a broom to retrieve it from the roof.

Today I understand how they must have felt. I understand how much they probably despised their papergirl. And why my tips were never that great.

But as a sixth grader who hated being outside in the cold and felt scared in the dark, I had one mission: get home to supper. Get rid of the papers and get back home to supper. Complete my route, hopefully unscathed by bad dogs, mean boys, vampires (these were my Stephen King days) or frostbite, and get back home to the warm kitchen where supper was on the table.

When I think back to that time in my life, I wonder if we were crazy, naive, or stupid. Who would allow a young girl to walk the streets after school, even in winter when it was very dark, to go to strangers’ homes to collect money once a month and then to carry this money around with her? Were things so vastly different then? Was this routine act that is now unthinkable really safe then? Or was I just very lucky?

What I thought then was that it was cool (apart from the hideous orange strap on my bag). I was our small city's first female paper carrier. I was so proud of that. I was earning my own money and learning how to fulfill an obligation every day. There were no sick days. There were no “Mom please drive me today” days. Oh, no. Mom had a bunch of kids to take care of and the aforementioned supper to get on the table. And Dad wasn't home from work yet.

I had nobody to rely on except me. Whether I wanted to do it or not, I had to. On days when I would have given anything to just hang out at my best friend’s house listening to music and talking about boys, I was still out there. Throwing papers. Into the bushes.

Perhaps that’s the real reason my aim was so poor.


Nora Bee said...

A great story. I always heard that being a papergirl was harder than it looked....

Anonymous said...

Even if it meant grabbing a broom to retrieve it from the roof

LOL, Too funny, you hooligan! Funny, tonight I was talking to Kyla about how her daddy broke a trampoline as a kid, and had to pay for it with the money he got as a milk boy.
"What's THAT?" She asks? So I had to explain about milk that came in bottles, not cartons and was delivered to your door. *sigh*, the good old days.
Great post, vivid imagery! XXXX

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I also had a paper route. I loved the apartment complex I had- quick to deliver to and quickt to collect from.

It's a different job nowadays. Thrown from a car that is driven by an adult you never meet. Paid for online.

I miss the old days sometimes.

Claire B. said...

My sistah! Go papergirls!

Mrs. G. said...

I always wanted a paper route. I thought the bag was cool, because it looked so official. I roamed the streets when I was little. It's so different now.

Mary Alice said...

Great post. Interesting to look back at events from adult perspective.

I am not sure that it really is all that different now....I think that we all just have so much more information being thrown at us from all over the world, hearing everyday that some child is missing from somewhere five states away scares the hell out of us and make the world seem smaller and scarier. Probably the ratio of bad guys per good guys is still the same. We just are too scared to risk it.

Melanie said...

This is a lovely post.

I used to help my childhood best friend with her paper route and I will tell you this: there is no sound more satisfying than the hollow THUD of a rolled paper hitting a front door. Success.

Professor J said...

Nice post--and a great idea for a topic. I may steal it.

carymc said...

I think things really were different back then. The world has changed, and for the worse.

Great story.

Claire B. said...

Thanks Nora Bee, Hay, Mary Alice, Jenn and Carymc for reading and commenting on my little story.
Mrs. G, I too remember roaming the streets and playgrounds unsupervised. Melanie, that "thump" sound can only be appreciated by those who have experienced it! (And where was my childhood best friend, anyway? Little brat never helped me, but she's still my best friend even though we're thirty-something years older and thousands of miles away from each other!) Professor J, steal away! What was your first job??
Now I'm off to read all of you.