My first job was at age 13, delivering newspapers.
Even though I came from a fairly well-off upper-middle-class family, at a very early age, I wanted to make my own money. My Dad never gave us "allowances" like other kids had, so as kids, we were always broke and begging for money from our parents. Money, as I have noted time and again, is control - power - and if you don't have any money, you have no control or power over your own life. It is as simple as that.
Of course, employment opportunities for 13-year-olds are not very plentiful. So when a classmate suggested to me that I "take over" his paper route, it seemed like a golden opportunity. For only a small buy-in, I could be a teenage entrepreneur!
Nowadays, the vanishing job of "paperboy" has been replaced by "paper delivery person" who often is an adult and drives a car. And as we shall see, there is probably a very good reason for this. Paperboys were routinely exploited, back in the old days - a lingering legacy of exploitative child labor.
My first paperboy job was for the Syracuse Evening paper - the Syracuse Herald-Journal. We delivered this paper six days a week, and then delivered the heavy Sunday edition of the Post-Standard on Sunday Morning.
The way the system worked, you were not paid a wage, but rather were considered an "independent contractor" which I suppose was one way around child-labor laws. We bought papers from the local distributor and then re-sold them to route subscribers - in theory, anyway. And in many instances, we had to "purchase" our route from the previous paper-boy, in effect purchasing the unpaid collectibles and the right to run the route. It was like running a small business, in miniature.
The local distributor was also the local undertaker, and their house was creepy-weird, to say the least. It was almost an exact replica of the home in the TV Series Six Feet Under and the family was about as odd.
Every day, after school, we would race down to the garage behind the funeral home to get our papers and go off to deliver them. We would race, as we had to get there early to make sure we got all our papers. If one or more paperboys felt they were short-changed on papers (by the funeral home director) they would swipe papers from your pile. If you were short a paper, you could complain to the funeral home people, but they usually were conveniently not available when you arrived. What usually ended up happening was that you would go to a paper vending machine and buy papers out of that box, if you were short some papers. And rarely would you get reimbursed.
Compounding the paper problem was that the paper came in at least two editions - the City Edition and the County Edition. And since there were several counties surrounding the city, there were even multiple County Editions.
Some subscribers wanted the City Edition, others the County Edition, and woe be to the paperboy who delivered the wrong edition to the wrong subscriber! Many folks felt no compunction about calling up and bitching about this, even if they had not paid the paperboy in a month or more. But more about that, later.
So you show up at the dingy garage behind the funeral home and get your papers. And you pedal off on your route. A study old one-speed 26" bicycle was the vehicle of choice for paper boys. I used my oldest brother's old bike, fitted with side baskets in the rear (purchased from another paperboy) and a "Sunday Edition" basket in the front. I also had the canvas shoulder satchel that is de rigeur for such work. All loaded up, the bicycle and papers could easily weigh 80 to 100 pounds. It was like pedaling a sled.
Now, on Television and in the movies, they portray the paperboy as a carefree individual, who pedals lazily down the block, folding the newspapers into nice tight packages and then tossing them onto porches as he goes along, hitting the doormat with unerring accuracy. That is the fantasy.
The reality is, that with advertising supplements, there were few days a week you could fold the papers that way - most time they were too thick to fold. So you had to use rubber bands to make them into nice tossable packages. And since it rained a lot in Syracuse, you'd need plastic bags around them. And it took nearly a half-hour to package all the papers that way, if you wanted to do that.
But the point was moot. In addition to requests for City and County editions, most subscribers had detailed delivery instructions on where and when they wanted their paper. Some wanted them placed on small clips under their mailbox. Others, in apartment buildings, expected us to dismount, climb a set of stairs, and place the paper on their doorstep inside (One apartment building in particular had a smell in it so nasty that I tried not to breathe in there. I was certain one of the tenants had died in there! Perhaps they did). And yet others had complex instructions on placing the paper between the outside door and storm door, or inside the house itself! (many folks never locked their homes back then). Tossing a paper on a front porch was always problematic, as high winds, rain, and the like could ruin the paper in short order, and you'd have another angry subscriber calling the funeral home to complain.
So delivering papers was not a matter of pedaling and tossing, but constantly mounting and dismounting your bike, walking or running large parts of the route, and following and remembering obscure delivery instructions for the version of the paper and where it should be delivered - and when.
Yes, there were people who insisted that they get their paper earlier than others, particularly the morning paper, which I would deliver later. This made things trickier, as you would have to re-arrange the route, sometimes crossing back on yourself, to serve these early-birds first.
And of course, on top of this, you had to keep track of people leaving for vacation, requesting that you "stop paper" for a week or so. If you delivered the paper by accident, they would get upset, and of course, you couldn't charge them for those papers.
So it was hard work, particularly for a young kid. But hey, the money was worth it, right? Well, not exactly. Back then, if everyone paid their bills you might expect to make $10 to $20 a week, if that, delivering papers for about two hours every afternoon, plus four hours on Sunday. Do the math on that, and it works out to about a dollar an hour, if that.
And that was assuming people paid - and tipped. An enormous number of customers felt that it was OK to stiff the paperboy, for some reason. And the subscription department would not let the paperboys drop customers for non-payment. Circulation for newspapers was already down during those days, and lower circulation meant lower ad rates, so if someone didn't want to pay, well too bad for the paperboy!
And non-payers would accumulate on your route, until they owed you $20, $30, or even $40 or more. On Saturday afternoons, we'd go to do "collections". During the week, we would leave an envelope for payment. Less than half would put the money in the envelope and leave it for the paperboy. Old ladies usually were the most conscientious, leaving a quarter tip, sometimes tipping a dollar or more at Christmas. But others never paid, until you knocked on their door. And even then, they would say they "had no money" and to "come back later" even if you could see loose pocket change on their hallway table. It was a Catch-22 for a young kid.
And of course, there was always several characters who would come to the door in their bathrobe and ask if I wanted to come in for a soda and candy. No, seriously! And that is probably another reason why they don't send children out, door-to-door anymore, delivering newspapers.
The Sunday edition was particularly onerous. We had to get up in the morning (which, as afternoon boys, we were not used to doing) about 4-5AM and head down to the funeral home to get our papers. The papers were huge - and thick. And since the volume was at least four times heavier than the heaviest days (Wednesday ad supplement days) we had to make two to three trips back to the funeral home to get papers. It was backbreaking work, trying to pedal a bicycle loaded with these papers and carry a satchel as well. And of course, everyone wanted their paper before Church or morning Mass, so there was an incentive to hurry (or have yet another phone call made to the funeral home!).
I enjoyed the work, however, despite all the setbacks and difficulties. However, I was not an astute businessman, which is not surprising for a 13-year-old. Tracking down non-paying customers was a particular chore, and if enough didn't pay, well, at the end of the week, you wouldn't have enough to pay off the funeral home people for the papers. You'd work like a dog all week long and end up owing them money!
And of course, the number of papers that I counted as delivered was always less than what the funeral home people counted. They played games with the numbers and always seemed to have me delivering five more papers than my records showed. They were not nice people.
Perhaps, now that I think about it, the smarter paper boys - the ones who stole papers from my stack, had subscribers on their routes they didn't tell the paper about - and pocked the full amount for the paper from them. There were undoubtedly ways to play the system, but they never occurred to me. I suppose if I had befriended some of those nice men in their bathrobes offering candy, I could have made some real money. But I was a pretty naive kid - like most are.
So after a couple of years of the evening paper route, I jumped at the chance to switch to mornings. One of the other boys told me about it, and it sounded like a sweet deal. No collecting, no "buying papers" and re-selling them, just delivering the papers, and getting paid - on a salary, plus tips. And the best part of all? No Sunday delivery! Which meant I could sleep in, at least one day a week.
I took the job immediately, abandoning my evening route (I was unable to find a chump like myself, who would "pay" to "buy" my paper route. But by that time, the idea of delivering papers was considered pretty uncool to most kids, anyway). The enjoyable aspect of this was that it put the funeral home people on the spot, and they had to deliver the papers themselves, until they could snooker some other kid into doing it. So, while it cost me some money, it was worthwhile to stick it to the man, so to speak. I could only hope that the old witch who ran the place keeled over dead of a heart attack doing it.
Their funeral business wasn't doing very well, as it turned out. They also had the ambulance business in our small town, and people got tired of being taken to the hospital in a hearse. I think also many folks thought this was a conflict of interest. So the townspeople got together and formed a volunteer ambulance squad, effectively cutting the funeral home's income in half. The folks running the home were none too popular, which I think killed off the rest of their business. Today, the home is a private residence. Needless to say, I have no desire for a funeral - just cremate me, or whatever is cheapest. I don't want any of my money going to these sorts of creepy people!
The man I went to work for, delivering the Syracuse Post-Standard, was a fellow from Camillius named Charlie Pilger. Charlie was a sweetheart of a guy and very understanding and friendly. I had to trust him to pass on the tips to me, but he was easy to trust. Plus, getting that weekly pay without collecting made it all worthwhile.
Charlie started me out on a small route, about $15 a week. I had to get up around 4 AM and dress warmly, and then pedal my bicycle into town. Four in the morning is an interesting time, as everyone, even the drunks, are asleep. And it is quiet as a mouse. It was an introspective time for me, and I used the time to think, while I delivered the papers.
Charlie moved me around to different routes, over time, and at one time or another, I had delivered papers to nearly every house in town. Some times I would take on other boy's routes while they were on vacation. Who the other boys were, I do not know, as we did not all meet at one location every day. In fact, I never met another Post Standard delivery boy the entire time I worked for him. I think he had a "older" guy who delivered papers from his car, but I never saw him.
I enjoyed the morning route, but getting up in the AM was hard to do, particularly when I had an older brother who liked to have loud beer-soaked and pot-stewed parties every night in our shared two-bedroom apartment over the garage. Trying to sleep with all that loud music was not easy. I had previously caught him stealing my route money when I was doing the evening paper, which was one reason I never made much money at it. Between that and the partying, I moved out, into the main house, which made things a bit easier.
However, Syracuse winters are nothing to be laughed at, and let me tell you, it gets cold at four in the morning! During the months of January and February, I would put on two pairs of long johns, two pairs of blue jeans, two pairs of socks, and then wear a t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, parka, hat, scarf, and sometimes two pairs of gloves! It was freaking cold!
People today try to tell me about how cold it is where they are, and say folks like me, living in the South, have no idea what cold weather is like. Well, buddy, get up at 4 in the morning and spend a couple of hours delivering papers sometime! You'll know what cold is, then. And it sucked!
Of course, riding a bicycle in the snow is also not very fun, but there was really no other way to get into town. My parents flat-out refused to ever drive me on my route (as they did my oldest brother a decade prior, on rainy days). I think they wanted me to quit. Well, in fact, I know they wanted me to quit, which of course gave me the incentive to stay on. I think they thought it was "lower class" behavior to be delivering papers. It was a stick in their eye to keep doing it, so I did.
I actually made a set of tire chains for my bike that worked, sort of, providing adequate traction over snow covered roads. But for much of the routes, in snowy weather, I had to walk my bike. Adding some excitement to the job was the prospect of snow plows, who often would not yield to me as they tore down the main highways in the early morning. On more than on occasion, I had to scramble up a snow bank while a "wing blade" passed by, inches from me.
But despite the hardship, I stuck with it, as I enjoyed having the money to spend. What did I do with the money? Squander it, of course. While $10 or $20 a week might not sound like a lot of dough today, for a kid with no expenses, it comes to $500 to $1000 a year. Now bear in mind that back then, you could buy a brand new Pinto for about $2000. And a nice used car could be had for $500 to $1000. So it was not chump change. In theory, I could have saved up for a car. In practice, I spent it all on candy, soda-pop, record albums and other junk that I probably didn't need.
And as I got older, I started spending the money on other things. My Brother, who by then was nearly 18, wanted to go out to bars with his friends. Problem was, they were all broke. His initial reaction was to steal my paper route money, but that approach didn't last long, as I previously noted. So they ended up taking me along, and I would buy pitchers of cheap draft beer and throw a few gallons of gas in his car. Back then, the drinking age was 18, and if you were 15 and were shaving, you could "pass" in most bars - particularly the sort of bars that needed the business and were all too happy to look the other way.
But by that time, drinking and drug use was taking its toll, and getting up at four in the morning just wasn't in the cards, so I had to tell Mr. Pilger that I could no longer do the paper route. I did go back and do a driving route for him when I was 16, albeit illegally on a learner's permit. In an effort to promote the Post-Standard, the paper decided to deliver the paper every day for two weeks to everyone not on the subscription list. It was an odd job, as they gave me a list of subscribers and had me deliver papers to everyone not on the list! It was only a two-week gig, though. I piled my brother's broken-down station wagon to the roof with papers and set off every morning for nearly four hours, delivering papers.
By then, minimum wage jobs at the mall were opening up, and even though they were ten miles away, they promised more hours and more pay. And that's when I started my second job, as dishwasher at the ill-fated "1890's Beef 'n Reef" restaurant (which was about as bad as the name implies). But that's another story.
Since those days, as I have noted, few papers have "paperboys" anymore. Dwindling subscription rates and issues with child labor (as well as the increased perception of risk to children) have pretty much done away with the job. Nowadays, adults handle the routes, and put the papers into plastic tubes attached to people's mailboxes. The nostalgic image of the freckle-faced paperboy, baseball glove dangling from his handlebars, tossing papers on to front porches with carefree accuracy, is now long gone, if in fact it ever existed.
I look back on all that hard work with mixed emotions. I am glad I had the gumption to start working at an early age. I am sorry I did little more than squander the money at the time. At that age, until I was well into my 20's, I viewed money like most people do - as something that passes through your fingers - and the more than you have to spend, the wealthier you are.
And perhaps in part, that was the most valuable lesson of the paper route. Later in life, I looked back and said to myself, "That was a lot of hard work, and for what? I never saved a penny of it or spent it on anything of value. I was as broke as I always was, just having more money to spend!" And because of that lesson, I started looking at money in a different way - as something worthwhile to own, in and of itself, at least for a part of your life. Something that can be accumulated, not squandered. But that lesson would be a long time in coming!