Sometimes in the hours that fall between too late at night and too early in the morning, I find myself in my living room, unable to sleep and too tired to move.
Alone in the dark, with my head tilted against my favorite wingback chair, I occasionally see headlights approaching. Then a car slows to a stop in front of my house.
“Paper’s here,” my mind says.
A guy in a car slides it into a tube next to my mailbox by the curb and he pulls away. I think it’s a guy. I never see him get out.
“Lucky,” I think, before immediately and instinctively letting my thoughts drift off to Belmont and Neumann and Colvinhurst and Ivy Lea. And numb fingers, wet feet, dead birds, scary dogs and spider webs. So many spider webs …
“You guys wanna help me deliver papers Sunday? I’ll pay you each 50 cents.” That was Hugh O’Brian, one of the big kids on Twyla, offering a job to me, my brother and our friend Tim Stoerr. My brother was 9. Timmy was 11. I was 8.
Of course we said yes. Fifty cents? That was two Richie Rich comic books.
For months, all or at least one of us would trudge down the street to his house where we would put the Sunday Courier-Express newspapers together: comics inside features inside metro. Then we would stack the papers in his dark green, wooden wagon. Except for the wheels and the handle, the wagon looked exactly like the two boxes on the O’Brians’ front lawn by the curb. (They had two routes). All came standard with a heavy lid that would sometimes slam down with incredible force and thus would be outlawed today.
For the next hour, we would haul that wagon a block over, pulling it up and down streets that looked like ours only nicer, and deliver the Courier to more than 100 homes. Each paper must have weighed at least 10 pounds. We would take up to four at a time from the wagon and place them inside screen doors or fold them into milk boxes or toss them into open garages or wherever the customers said they wanted them.
Three of the customers paid Hughie by leaving the money on the step inside the screen door, $1.40 apiece for seven-day delivery. He told me it would be there and to be sure to get it. When we were finished and he asked me for it, I was incredulous. “I got the money. Why don’t I get to keep it?” Hughie was more incredulous about what a goofball I was.
Two years later, when Hughie decided he didn’t want the route anymore, he asked my about-to-turn-12-year-old brother if he wanted it. A seven-day-a-week morning paper route was a huge responsibility. It would mean being up at 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 7:30 a.m. on Sunday , no matter how bad the weather was, no matter how sick he was, and delivering the paper to about 35 subscribers who were counting on it Monday through Saturday and about 115 on Sunday.
And that wasn’t all: He also had to find time to walk to virtually every customer’s house – except for the handful who paid inside their doors or paid by check to the main office, God bless them – knock on their doors and ask the person who answered to give him money. Hughie suggested he collect every two weeks, which meant most people paid either $2.80 (daily) or $1 (Sunday). If they didn’t answer the door, he would have to go back until he got the money. He also would have to issue each paying customer a tiny little ticket that was the size of a fingernail that was proof they paid, if they could find it, which was unlikely.
Then he would have to walk home, usually in the dark, alone, his pockets bulging with cash, most of which would be used to pay the bill the district manager would leave for him. He would get to keep whatever was left over - about $10 to $15 a week, including tips.
He said yes, of course, because how else is a 12-year-old going to score that much cash in 1975? But my brother wisely knew he would need a partner/underling, preferably one he could both boss around and count on to get out of bed by placing his mouth within millimeters of the person’s face and screaming, quietly, “GET! UP!!!!”
I said yes, of course. I was 10 and needed work and no one else was hiring goofballs.
The day the wooden paper box with the lid of death and route Z10 on its side was placed on our front lawn by the curb was the last day either of us was unemployed.
We went to work in July. One day that first week, we walked outside into an absolute downpour. We had just about finished the route when we saw our car pull up on the curve on Colvinhurst and heard our grandmother tell us to get in. It was the first and last time she ever did that. I have always suspected that my grandfather, who had his own Courier route almost 50 years earlier, informed her that we needed to learn to deal with bad weather with no help from her.
My grandmother could live with that. What she couldn’t live with was how much newspaper ink ended up on our clothes and our skin. Plus, I had hay fever, which guaranteed I would incessantly rub my eyes with filthy hands and spend a good chunk of the mid- to late ’70s looking like a raccoon.
Except for that first week, I can’t recall delivering papers on rainy days. In my memory, the temperature was always in the teens or lower, with snow banks over my head and a foot of snow in every driveway. But we were proud of our Post Office-like devotion: We never failed to deliver. The only day in more than six years of owning the route that our customers did not get their paper was on a Saturday in January of 1977 when the Courier didn’t publish. (It snowed a little the day before; you could look it up.) The Blizzard of ’77 shut the region down. Many people didn’t return to work or school for more than a week. My brother and I were back to work the next day.
We made a good team. Our singular goal was to finish the route as quickly as possible. We tried every delivery combination to maximize efficiency and to stay in bed as late as we could.
But as individuals, we approached the job the same way we approached life: as polar opposites. He was punctual, charming and paid attention to detail, while I would walk into trees, get yelled at for somehow forgetting to deliver to the same house four days in a row and wake customers before dawn to ask if I could use their bathroom.
We also approached customer service differently. He learned subscribers’ names, while I was satisfied remembering house numbers.
“Guess who I saw at the store today,” he would say. “Mr. Jacobson.”
“Who?” I would respond.
“Sigh. 78 Ivy Lea. I saw the guy who lives at 78 Ivy Lea today.”
“Ohhhh! 78. I love their bathroom.”
Like all winning combinations, we made up for the other’s weaknesses. I tried to point out when there was a dead bird on the street so he could scream and run away from it and he strengthened my character by making sure that I had all the houses with maladjusted and poorly restrained German shepherds.
We discovered early on that we lived in a high spider web neighborhood. Any gap that roughly correlated to the height where our mouths were was a prime spot for an arachnid to build its home. We excelled equally at recognizing where one might be and learned to protect ourselves by throwing our arms or the paper over our faces and ducking.
Our favorite time of the year was December when the Courier gave us calendars to hand out. We learned that even though it would be extra work, we had to make a separate trip to customers’ houses to give them the calendars and wish them happy holidays. Then we would awkwardly stand on their porch until they gave us a tip, which pretty much everyone did.
After we had had the route for about a year, my grandfather volunteered to be our Sunday assistant. He said we could load the papers in his car instead of the wagon and he would drive the route. He had only two requirements: We had to listen to his favorite Canadian radio station – I never would have learned how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit otherwise – and he got to deliver three papers at the end.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was watching my grandfather relive his youth. That was worth every spider web and German shepherd.
My brother turned the route over to me the summer before his senior year in high school. I kept it one more year and gave it up when I got a job as a telemarketer, selling The Buffalo Evening News over the phone. (Sorry for interrupting your dinner all those times.)
The following year, 34 years ago next month, the Courier closed. But I never stopped working for newspapers. I also never stopped loving them and reminiscing with my brother about the adventures on our paper route.
Not that long ago, I was shopping at Riverside Men’s Shop and saw that the store was selling T-shirts with well-known logos from Buffalo’s past. One stack of shirts had a very familiar dark green color and across the front of it, the words “Courier-Express.” I’m not sure who smiled more broadly when I gave it to my brother and former boss on his birthday.
Then he did me one better.
On my 50th birthday, he told me he had a gift that he knew I would love. I removed the wrapping paper and there it was: A Courier-Express newspaper box.
He knew it would make me cry and that I would cherish it as much as I cherish the years we delivered papers together.
I will never get rid of that box. I keep it in my garage, but a part of me wishes it was out on the front lawn by the curb, where it belongs.