The Morning Paper

Posted: September 10, 2014 in Coffee Break Entertainment, Warning Book Length

Good morning? Yes, it is. It’s Sunday morning, not quite seven o’clock. The sky is turning pink over the open space behind our home as the sun begins its slow rise. I’ve been up since five or so, to let the dogs out and then to have breakfast. Kami’s still sleeping; she’s agreed to go in to work today to let one of her workers have the day off.

Despite Kami’s absence today, I’ll likely always remember Sunday mornings here in Colorado as my most favorite for a similar reason; it’s most everyone’s day off. Here, about ten miles east of Boulder, the town of Lafayette is still asleep.

There’s a conspicuous absence of traffic, and the noise and the fumes it brings, lending a strong sense of peacefulness outside. That will soon change as locals rise to attend church, go shopping, or do whatever it is they do on Sundays. For now, however, Mother Nature is still free to set the scene.

I have always felt close to the special feeling mornings bring, when everything is either still asleep or just beginning to stir. For many of my grade school years back in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I delivered the morning paper. In those days, kids my age still delivered newspapers, as we wanted to make some money yet we weren’t quite old enough to work at the corner store.

Though we didn’t work structured jobs, there was still an unofficial hierarchy to our work. Some kids, like me, delivered the morning newspaper while others delivered the evening newspaper. Delivering the morning newspaper brought with it certain responsibilities – such as timeliness – that were more than offset by the rewards.

For example, I was privy to the news of the day before almost anyone else, save those who wrote the stories. I read the headlines over breakfast, while everyone in the house was still asleep. On summer mornings, just as I was just finishing my work, the heat and humidity of the day began to take over. Only the 24-hour convenience stores were open for business at that early hour, so it was there I often went to buy gobs of what I now refer to as “…sugary garbage that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend for paying off their six-figure, dental school loans…”

But my introduction as a newspaper carrier had an inauspicious beginning. My first morning is one I’ll likely never forget. It was a cold, dark February morning when I stepped outside to the end of the driveway pick up the bundle of papers that the truck had dropped off earlier. I tried not to wake up everyone in the house, which was also still dark. I loaded up my newspaper bag, then headed off to a neighborhood several blocks away.

All along the way I wondered just what in the hell had I gotten myself into. It was easy to see why the kid who had done this route before me had quit. I came to know it not as “Holiday Tradition,” but “Holiday Attrition. It was simple; customers left a Christmas bonus for their carrier. And, like clockwork, many carriers quit their jobs just afterwards, as if they’d anxiously waited for their ten dollar bonus so they could retire in Boca Raton. The reality of it, however, was that some poor, unwary sucker like me got to cut his teeth in the cold blackness/ black coldness of January.

Those first few mornings of my first week I was woefully underdressed and mentally unprepared for the job. I was even a little scared. But the princely earnings were important enough to keep me going, so I rose to the challenge. Eventually, I developed a routine that adequately addressed every possible obstacle that might arise, and it became the foundation of the self-sufficiency I currently enjoy today.

Not all carriers, I noticed then, got that. Some, whose parents wanted them to “learn the value of a dollar,” drove them around their paper routes on days they felt it was too cold for their kid to go out alone. But I had three much younger siblings at home and parents who worked hard to make a living so, like most carriers, we were on our own to work things out. Given the autonomy I felt for the first time in my young life, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

I quickly learned to work smarter, not harder. By attaching my papers onto my bike’s spring-loaded rear rack, I put an end to the drudgery of walking my route forever, even in ice and snow. Not only was it easier, but more fun, and much faster, too. It left me with a great deal more time – and energy – to spend all that money I earned. It was almost too easy.

Over the years, I must’ve put hundreds of miles on that bike and, though I didn’t know it then, early morning bike rides became a lifelong tradition. They were – and still are – a quiet, even sacred time that belonged only to me.

It was the one place I could count on to be left alone, with only my thoughts for company. That peaceful environment I enjoyed six mornings a week allowed me to discover an esoteric and introspective side of myself I never knew I had.

Besides the usual kinds of thoughts guys my age had, e.g. girls, the mall, and Pac-Man, for the first time, I had thoughts that went way beyond that. Issues such as my future and what I would do and where I might go once I was old enough were often among them. Alone on my bike, I could wonder about whatever I wanted, however I wanted, something I couldn’t always do at home.

Summer vacation in particular brought even better opportunities to ponder my future. I had a favorite overlook, where I’d sit and watch the sunrise, and just think. I recall wondering on more than one occasion “What if this is as good as it gets?” as Jack Nicholson asked in the movie of the same name.

But I really did. I wondered how, things could ever get any better than they already were at that moment. Despite all the model airplanes, rockets, and trains, record albums, black light posters, and junk food my newspaper carrier’ s income afforded me, I recognized that time I spent alone, immersed in thought, was priceless.

What I took most from that experience was that things ultimately had little value to me. In fact, the desire to have things was strongest for me when I was a kid. After being in a position where I could buy for myself anything I wanted, I exhausted my Christmas list as it were, only to find that things weren’t at all what I wanted. It was possibly one of the first basic adult values I developed as a kid, and it’s one I retain today.

Further, I came to see other kids my age through a newer, different lens. While I wasn’t the model of maturity, I noticed the majority of other kids didn’t see things the way I did. In time, I began to feel increasingly estranged from most of them, and the autonomy I developed from having a newspaper route was likely the reason; I didn’t require much from anyone –an allowance, a ride somewhere, or even parents’ permission for many things.

My buddy Dave, who lived about a block away and also delivered the morning paper, also shared this privilege. We were largely inseparable throughout the naïveté of our early teen years. I inherited his paper route when the time came for him to finally relinquish it in favor of a “real” job, then college.
Even though this now meant I could just about roll out of bed and begin delivering papers, I nonetheless felt a sense of loss from the absence of my first paper route. My new responsibilities, I suppose, weren’t nearly as challenging and, therefore, the rewards didn’t feel nearly as great.

Unfortunately, newspaper carriers today are rapidly becoming extinct. Many folks get their news online, and hard-copy newspapers are disappearing – or changing their formats – to keep up. Newspapers that are still delivered by hand are usually wrapped in a plastic sleeve and tossed out a car window.

As they pile up like so much litter, the dry, yellowing pages indicate just how unwelcome they are. After all, it’s far easier to log in to a PC and peruse the headlines than it is to go to the front door, open it, bend over and pick up the paper, and fumble through the pages over breakfast in the kitchen, right?

This thought makes me all the more grateful for my experience delivering the morning paper. It was a phase of life that brought me immense personal growth and carried with it many healthy habits I still observe today. I came to see my customers as friends, at least to the extent a person can befriend somebody by visiting their front step for a few seconds every morning, six days a week. In turn, I’d like to believe I made a similarly positive impact on their lives as well, if for no other reason than to show that not all teenagers are unmotivated slackers.

All that took place over thirty years ago. Even still, when I’m out on my bike early in the morning in the middle of nowhere, I find myself wondering about my old customers, where they might be, and how many of them may still even be alive. I wonder if they ever had any idea about the wonderful contribution they made to my life just by being there, and I wonder if they ever wondered about me, as well.

Though I’ll never know for sure, it’d be nice to somehow let them know they cross my mind from time to time. It was an immensely valuable experience for me, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Sadly, young people today are largely missing out on overcoming the challenges, and enjoying the benefits, of delivering the morning paper.


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