Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Boy Peddler

It was a dark and stormy night.     No, wait.  Scratch that.   It was a dark and stormy morning.    I knew my papers were in and waiting for me because I had heard the delivery truck rumble past the house as i lay in my warm bed.   The truck ran right past my house, a humble little "five-room bungle"  and then dropped the bundles of heavy Sunday Milwaukee Journals a block away at "Dick's Tackle and Bait", a corner store specializing in minnows, grimy floors and men who smoked and cursed.   I wasn't allowed inside, Mom's orders, but in just a few minutes i'd pedal my bike, a metallic blue Royce with a huge paperboy basket down the block and make the first of three trips bringing my papers back to the house.  

I always clipped the baling wire that bound the big, heavy bundles close to the little spun connection and hung the wire up on a nail in my Dad's shop.   Over the years we found a million uses for that wire, fixing things and making little stuff. Over forty years later, when my father passed on, my brother cleaned out the old house and discarded a bushel of carefully hoarded newspaper wires.  

The papers came with a scrawled note on each bundle.  "Route 21  22 Cop 1 of 3"   and so on.   In the end, i needed a total of sixty-five copies of dry, presentable papers.  The bundles came wrapped with old newspapers to keep them dry and salable no matter what the weather was like.   That was the idea anyway.  If there were any which just plain were not good enough to deliver, I could call in and hope the man would bring me a couple of fresh ones.   If not, I'd have to buy one or two at the grocery store and just plain take a loss on them, to make my customers happy.  That was an important business lesson, "Keep your customers happy. Even if it costs you money".    We still run our business that way and sometimes our profit slips, but our reputation is good.  When i had counted all my copies, and stuffed the color sections like the comics and the ads and color magazines into the middle of the "black" sections I could begin to load my bike.   

The old Royce was blue, had fat tires and just one speed.  The speed was whatever speed I pedaled and with a full load of papers it was low speed.  My basket was used when i got it from another paper boy.  He was old enough he could "retire" and get on with life, head off for High School and have a girl friend.  Maybe even learn to drive.  The basket was huge and was fitted to the front of my bike with heavy galvanized struts that ran down to the front axle to carry the load   I could usually fit about twenty-two Sunday Journals in that basket and I'm pretty sure that the combined weight of the bike and papers was nearly double my own weight  The Sunday Milwaukee Journal was running over 1,400-pages at that time and twenty-two of them was a load.  

So, loaded down with the papers, my route book showing who had paid and who had not and dressed for whatever sort of weather was happening, I'd head out.   Peddling on sidewalks and streets, along the route I knew so well, I'd stop, lean my bike against the nearest tree and walk the paper to the door or porch.   Every customer had a special place they wanted the paper and the expected it to be there, on time, dry and right side up.  We Sunday route boys envied the Daily boys since they could fold and tuck the papers making them throwable.   A Sunday Journal simply did not throw.  Fourteen-hundred pages of newspaper are an atomic explosion waiting to happen if thrown.  

This was back in the days when a ten-year old kid could ride his bike out in the pre-dawn dark on city streets in some questionable neighborhoods at times almost without fear.  Actually, my biggest fear was having a flat tire three miles from home with a load of papers on.  When the basket was empty I'd high-tail it back home and pack the big basket with another load of papers and go back to where i had left off.  Then, repeat till the papers were all in the right place.  But, my day was not done.  I could usually make a fast trip around the whole route again, stopping at houses that still owed me money.  Then, high speed pedaling brought me home again, where I'd count all the money I had collected all week and after the route was done.  Hopefully I'd have enough to pay the Journal company.  The manager of the local office was a sort of rough guy, not too old, named Tony.  

The economic side of the paper business was like this:  every copy of the 1400-page paper cost me nineteen cents.  I sold each one for twenty-five cents.   So, for six cents per customer i rode my bike out at least once, probably more to collect, then rode again to deliver the paper, then rode into town and waited in line to pay the company and clear my name, thus allowing me to get papers the next week.  Basically, I'd spend six to seven hours a week collecting and delivering papers in all sorts of weather, risking my self and my bike at every turn and if everything worked just right, i'd make a grand total of $3.10 .   

I worry some times that I'm not too bright.   It all seemed OK to me at the time, and even looking back now I can see reasons why it was a good job. Learning the real value of a dollar is something that sticks with a person.   The paper route taught me more than i realized at the time about retail sales, profit margins and self-investment.  I really found my place on Easy Street after that, as  the next job i got paid me sixty-six cents an hour !