Thursday, March 10, 2011

Still Just a Paperboy

What do Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Warren Buffett and yours truly have in common? Not much, since they are all geniuses in some manner, a title never bestowed upon me except sarcastically. The shared heritage is that we all were paperboys as kids, a job that is fast going the way of the slide rule and cassette decks.

A recent Time article says in 2008 paperboys (and girls) made up just 13 percent of newspaper deliverers. That number likely has dropped in half in the past three years, as paid newspapers shrink, and fewer afternoon papers remain. The shift away from afternoon delivery means adults now dominate when it comes to delivering newspapers, since it is done in the wee morning hours.

So it was heartening to learn that at the , near Allentown, Pa., publisher Fred Masenheimer still relies on an all-youth carrier force to deliver that paper to 14,000 subscribers. As the Time article put it, these kids still fill a canvas bag with papers, stretch the straps across a bicycle handlebar and head down neighborhood streets.

A photo hangs in my office, taken in the fall of 1968. It shows four solemn-faced boys standing next to a bicycle loaded down with newspapers in a pair of rear-wheel baskets. I’m one of those paperboys, the short fellow with the bad haircut and thick glasses — a 13-year-old entrepreneur with a canvas satchel strapped on my shoulder. My first job was peddling the afternoon edition of the Longview newspaper throughout downtown.

The paper cost a dime, and I got to keep a nickel. On a good day I cleared $5 by selling out 100 papers, plus maybe a buck or two more in tips. At Christmas, the oil wildcatters playing “42” at the Brass Rail, a smoky saloon near the old Arlyne Theater — both long gone — might even slip me a sawbuck if they were feeling flush. It was good money for a kid not old enough to drive, dependent on my cheap Sears version of a Sting-Ray bike for transportation from our home on South Twelfth Street to the newspaper plant downtown.

Like the Time article points out, just about everybody who worked as a paperboy has fond memories of those times. I have heard it for years when folks learn what I still do for a living, which is at its most elemental still peddling newspapers. “I used to be a paperboy,” they’ll say with a smile. “I threw the (insert name here) in my hometown.”

For me, the memory is different. I never outgrew being a paperboy. I loved that job, delivering the news to customers, many of whom I had to persuade to fork over a dime by recounting that day’s headlines. My route did not have subscribers as such but consisted of folks who decided daily whether or not to buy the paper. An ancient black woman who lived on Green Street, just south of Highway 80, was always a tough sell.

She usually could be found in the rocker of her front porch, a wad of snuff in her cheek. I once attempted to sell her an extra announcing that American astronauts had landed on the moon — July 20, 1969. Miz White, as I have decided to call her since she was black and lived on Greet Street, was having none of that foolishness.

“Ain’t no man landed on the moon,” she said. “They done rigged that up in a television studio.” My arguments to the contrary, being a huge space buff, had no effect. An extra edition cost a nickel and I got to keep all the money. In desperation, I tried to just give her the paper. That didn’t work either. She recoiled as if I was handing her a water moccasin.

More than four decades later, I’m still in this business. Looks like I’ll be peddling papers in one form or fashion until I get booted out the door. I like to think that at least a couple of those boys and girls delivering papers up in Pennsylvania will also catch the bug and decide to work at a newspaper. After all these years, I still can’t think of a more interesting way to make a living. For that, I feel blessed.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), March 10, 2011

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