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Musing: Education of a Paperboy
In the morning quiet before others are up in our house, I sip my coffee and read newspapers. The habit started decades ago as a kid eager to read the comics (I still do that!).
Back in those older days, though, the newspaper meant a physical paper, not an electronic version on the iPad like I read today. No longer do I have to worry about drying a rain-soaked newspaper in the oven without catching it on fire, someone clipping an article on the opposite side of the page from my favorite comic, or even getting ink on my fingers. As long as I have an internet connection, I can download and savor my paper.
Unfortunately, that also means few people get to experience the first job I ever held, the job that taught me all the fundamentals of running a business—paperboy.
In today’s parlance, of course, the job title would be carrier and mostly applies to adults using automobiles. Back in the 1970s, though, kids fanned out before or after school, on foot or bicycle, to bring the news to houses and apartments.
In my case, it was the Gastonia Gazette—today called the Gaston Gazette, a two-letter reduction, probably instituted as a cost-cutting move to save ink. Seven days a week—Monday through Friday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings— I delivered to 150 customers spread over two apartment complexes and one neighborhood of houses.
A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal paid homage to paper carriers and reminded me of how much I learned in the years I held that job.
I was, like most carriers, a contractor, not an employee. There was no hourly pay, no overtime, and no extra money for working on a holiday. If I was sick or wanted to take a vacation, I had to find someone else to cover the route and pay them out of my pocket—though I might have unsuccessfully tried to apply the lesson I learned from Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence. My friends, sadly, had read the same book and demanded upfront payment.
My earnings were based on a simple formula—the amount of money I collected from customers less what it cost me to buy the newspapers, supplies, and any other expenses. If my bicycle needed repairs, the cost came out of my pocket. Same if a newspaper was lost, stolen, wet, torn, or had to be replaced for any other reason. I became very focused on controlling those costs because they were my costs, not some employer.
And the collections’ side? I learned quickly that some adults would lie through their teeth to a kid to avoid paying the few bucks of a subscription. No matter how many times I had to knock on someone’s door or how long it took to collect, I didn’t get any extra money for that effort. If I cut my losses with a non-paying customer and terminated their account, I still had to pay for the papers already delivered.
And, yes, I dealt with customer complaints. The one that sticks in my mind some 45 years later happened on a snowy Sunday morning. A surprise six or seven inches of fresh powder fell as I was delivering my route. The roads and sidewalks became too slick to ride my bike, so I ended up on foot pushing it through the drifts, a painfully slow process. As I neared the end of a very long morning, exhausted, hungry, and cold, a man charged out of his apartment and yelled that I was late. How dare I?
But if that all sounds terrible, don’t let me lead you astray. For every negative event like that, I remember a dozen good ones. As that irate man berated me on that frigid morning, his next-door neighbor stepped outside and thanked me profusely for getting the paper to him in such terrible conditions. As I collected money each month, I received offers of fresh cookies or snacks from regular customers, not to mention benefitting from the numerous very good tippers along the route.
I recall admiring dozens of glorious sunrises as I pedaled my way to the rhythmic thump of newspapers tossed with skill onto driveways and porches. I learned where to watch for wildlife tucked away in the corners of the neighborhoods. My life-long appreciation of nature grew in those solitary mornings.
Later, in college, I supplemented the pay I received from my myriad of part-time jobs with savings from those newspaper days. Those earnings paid for textbooks and more than a few meals (and maybe a beer or two).
Of course, I carried the lessons learned into a business career. And, in fact, into my present career as a writer (back to working for myself where my earnings are only whatever is left over after paying all the expenses).
So it saddens me that few teenagers today will have the chance to be a newspaper carrier. It’s one of those foundational experiences that make me who I am.
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Until Next Monday
May you remember those foundational experiences with fondness.
If you have questions or thoughts, drop them in the comments below.
See you next Monday.
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