By Ron Gawel
It was a rather bleak and dreary Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1964 – April precisely – when that particular moment occurred that was about to make a marked difference in my daily existence. My life at the critical age of 12 was about to be taken over by forced labor. I tried to act excited and overwhelmed, but I just wasn't. In the eyes of apparently everyone but me, it was a big deal and golden opportunity. The truth was I was scared to death of taking on a paper route. It was one of those times growing up when your parents really wanted something for you much more than you ever really wanted for yourself.
I started that very afternoon, training for three days with an OK, young teenage guy named Huey, somewhat unkempt and always bearing that “slept in” look. I also couldn't help but notice his thin flamingo-like legs which were revealed plainly, starkly showing below the hem of the raincoat and standing in oversized high-top sneakers.
After that I was on my own, scuffling along the streets of Cleveland Avenue in Niagara Falls each afternoon right after school with a bulging bag of newspapers that weighed me down, skinny little kid that I was, especially Wednesdays, the day those store ads, otherwise known as “inserts,” came out and we carriers had to put them together inside each edition.
Nearly 90 customers was a lot for this gangly 12-year-old to take on and it took close to a good hour to complete the route each day. My customers never understood the concept of somebody having to be first and somebody obviously having to be last. A great many of my customers were seniors, most often the ones that would grumble if I was later than usual, or walked across their front lawns which, in some cases, became forbidden.
Collecting was an extremely tedious and hated task (in some cases like pulling teeth), but essential. I simply was not assertive enough to responsibly carry it. I feared having to tell delinquent customers how much they owed me for great dread of being confronted by denial or hostility. In all honesty, I was not the best when it came to keeping account payment cards current and all the time updated and at times understood their dismay. I would at times come up short for my bill and my dad would always make up the difference.
I was scared silly of going to one particular big old red brick, rather creepy residence which was a dead ringer for the Addams Family mansion, always expecting a Lurch-like individual to answer the door. They had a ferocious German shepherd, rightfully named “Killer,” who would see me coming down the sidewalk and come charging toward me. Every day as I approached the dilapidated property, I was petrified of another close encounter with this animal that terrorized me.
Much else to remember, as well, like headlines I would never forget as I handed my disbelieving customers their papers. The time in June 1968 that Robert Kennedy was shot while on the campaign trail in Los Angeles and in big black letters sprawled across the top of the front page KENNEDY FIGHTING FOR HIS LIFE! And with the daily headlines that altered history over that five year span of great change, as with Martin Luther King's assassination earlier that spring.
By the fifth year of this mixed bag, it all became somewhat of “A nightmare on Cleveland Avenue” and that April just as it had begun so long ago, with graduation and all approaching, I threw in the towel and washed my ink-filled hands of it all.
Ron Gawel occasionally writes for a newspaper, but doesn't deliver them anymore.