Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Paperboy, Part 1 (Jobs vs. Life, 1)

Life is what happens when you're not working.
-- Me.

I like to believe that quote is true. It's one of the catchy little quotes I've come up with in my life, and this particular quote happens to be one that also encapsulates my essence, that essence being: I am a terrible employee/worker.

What else could you say about someone whose motto is "Life is what happens when you're not working," other than that the person who believes that is a terrible employee/worker? It tells you where I place work in the general scheme of things... and in case that's not explicit enough, I will set it out this way:

Work is less important than everything else that happens to me.

And, let's face it: You all feel the same way, too. We all feel the way I do, even if you don't admit it. I could put it to the test, if I had $300,000,000. If I had $300,000,000, I could give it to you and then see what you do a day, a month, or a year after you got that $300,000,000. I'd be willing to bet that you would not be at an office, wearing a tie (or a skirt, or a skirt and tie, depending on your preferences) and looking out your window longingly and thinking to yourself Life is what happens when you're not working, and also wishing that you could, instead of being at work, be walking along a path through a little forest, holding your two-year-old's hand in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other, and taking the time to point out interesting things:

"That's a tree," you want to be saying. "And that's a stream. I wonder if there's fish in there." And you'd know that your two-year-old probably wasn't getting the whole gist of what you would be saying, but it wouldn't matter because that's not the important part, anyway; the important part is the part about just being walking through the woods, with ice cream, etc.

Also, the important thing is to keep in mind that the other two-year-old you have would be involved, as well, but he's the more crazy/independent one and he would probably be running ahead, so that in between pointing out interesting things to the first two-year-old, you'd be also telling the other two-year-old to slow down and wait up, making your conversation be more like this:

"That's a tree... Mr Bunches, wait up! And that's a stream. Mr Bunches, put that down. Don't you put it in your mouth. Hey, stay on the path! No don't go in the stream! Get back here ! I wonder if there's fish in there. Let's not tell Mommy about this, and we'll just hope you dry off before we get home."

That's what we'd all rather be doing, and if I had $300,000,000 to give to you, you'd probably opt to do something like that instead of whatever it is you're supposed to be doing right now but you're not doing because you're reading this, instead. Except that if I had $300,000,000, I wouldn't give it to you. I'd keep it, because if I gave it to you, you'd get to take that walk in the forest and I'd still be here in my office with the sun shining outside but me inside.

But even though I've clearly got my Work/Life rankings in order, I still end up spending an inordinate amount of time at work. And I've done that since I was about 12 years old, when I first began working. I've had a job for 3/4 of my life, and my job, whatever it may be at a time, takes up anywhere from an hour or two a day to 10 hours a day -- at present, taking 9 or 10 hours a day, and most of the time spilling over onto the weekends or, like last week, interrupting a day of vacation with an emergency phone call.

Anything that takes up that amount of time must have some benefits, I began thinking. It must have done something for me, other than to simply allow me to do other things. I must have gotten something out of it (other than pay). Maybe I learned something? Maybe I grew as a person? Maybe I got valuable skills that paid off by pushing me on to bigger and better things?

I don't know.

I don't know because I'm still sitting here, in my office, with bright sun outside and me inside listening to talk radio and not working (like I said: terrible employee/worker. I wasn't kidding) and it doesn't seem to me, as I'm sitting here, that I'm getting a whole lot out of work other than the ability to have a life outside of work. If it wasn't for my job, I'd have no money. If I had no money, I'd have no house, no clothes, no books, no ability to buy that ice cream cone. I suppose I could still go for a walk in the woods, because that's free, but it would be a decidedly different walk if I was naked, starving and homeless while I did it.

Although even then Mr Bunches would probably get into that stream.

I sat down and listed all of the jobs I could remember having, as I sit here today. These are those jobs:

Chenequa Country Club.
Burger King
Marty’s Pizza
JCPenney’s Madison
That factory in Hartland
That public interest group fundraising thing
Coffee Trader
That restaurant where I worked just the one morning as a waiter with the drunk guy who irritated me.
Marcus Theaters
Marcus Theaters Washington D.C.
UWEX (?)
Registration office at UW (?)
Tenant Resource Center
Department of Revenue
Law Clerk
Self-employed Lawyer.
Lawyer at a law firm.

I've left off of that list volunteer jobs and internships and the like (those are in part explored elsewhere anyway). As I look over the list, I feel as though I'm missing some jobs -- as incredible as that may seem -- but I can't think of any others, not right now. Maybe it's all that sunshine outside that's distracting me.

The list alone doesn't give me any hints as to what I've gotten out of them, this collection of tasks that has taken up nearly 1/3 of my life, this list of things that I've done when I'd rather have been doing something else entirely.

And maybe I haven't gotten anything out of them, other than the ability to do other things when I'm not doing those jobs.

I've decided, then, to explore those jobs, in order -- and do so under the nom de timekiller "Jobs vs. Life," of which this is the first entry. (Don't get this confused with Cheesecake Truck or Ninety-Four, though.) I'll track through everything I can remember about each job I've had, in order, and see maybe whether that job ever gave me anything lasting, or any benefit beyond simply some pocket money, or if it was, as I suspect each of them was, just something that took time away from the rest of my life.

So let's begin with Paperboy.

There are no paperboys anymore. I don't think that anywhere in the world there is still a neighborhood where kids ride bikes or pull wagons around and drop papers off at people's houses, where 10 year olds walk up to people's houses weekly or monthly and ask them to pay for the previous week's papers. I might have been among the last generation of those people, because in my lifetime, I've seen paperboys become "Paper Guys," or "Paper Carriers," guys -- mostly guys -- driving older cars or jeeps around, early in the morning, cars stocked with 200 or 300 papers.

These paper carriers are not paper boys; they are, to my mind, mostly surly people who don't want to be up that early and who are doing this either as an adjunct to some other job, or because they can't qualify for any other job. They're guys -- mostly guys -- who fell into a job that was created by a confluence of forces ranging from serial killers to corporations.

Serial killers, or at least the idea of serial killers, began the demise of the paperboy, and corporations finished them off; both of those were helped by people's lives being so busy, as they put work ahead of life and focused more and more on careers and less and less on lives.

Here's what happened, and I'm absolutely correct about this, too. People stopped liking afternoon papers. Afternoon papers fell out of favor because people didn't have time to read them anymore. That didn't happen because of the Internet or the Kindle or the iPod or the other usual suspects blamed for killing off newspapers. It happened because more and more people were going to work: Moms were going to work, Dads were going to work longer, and as a result, people weren't home as early in the afternoons and didn't have as much time in the evenings to read papers.

So they didn't want afternoon papers anymore. They didn't want big thick newspapers full of news stories and features and comics, newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal, which I delivered in the afternoon beginning when I was 10.

The Milwaukee Journal, which was an afternoon paper, was a big paper. I still remember the Wednesday edition, which hurt my shoulder as I lugged it around the paper route we had in Hartridge -- a subdivision of tiny Hartland, Wisconsin, and exactly the kind of place where you would expect to find paperboys.

Reading that kind of big paper, with its numerous sections and comics and thick stories, required a lot of time -- time that the moms and dads back then had, because they worked 9-5 (or 8-5, or 8-6) and then came home and ate dinner and did yardwork and relaxed in front of the big TV that sat directly on the floor and got three, maybe four, channels.

Over time, though, people stopped wanting to read the evening paper. They didn't want news that was, by that time, nearly a day old and they didn't want to spend their evenings reading that old news. They were getting home later, and had bigger yards and bigger houses and there were VCRs and cable television providing other entertainment options, and so the papers slowly stopped publishing the afternoon papers, preferring to print morning editions that had fresher news.

Those morning editions were smaller and had fewer features and the articles were shorter, all designed so that people could read them quickly over breakfast or on the bus or train or helicopter or whatever it was people took to work. Those morning editions also had to be delivered by 5 or 6 a.m. (our paper, which I no longer read at all, arrives earlier than 4:30 a.m.), which pushed paper boys out of the market. Parents were not going to let their 10-year-olds or 12-year-olds get up at 4:30 in the morning to ride around a pitch-black neighborhood full of serial killers all to deliver a paper and earn $30 a week.

Those serial killers, or the idea of serial killers, helped push paperboys out, too. Everyone knows how this part of the story goes: when I was younger... blah blah blah, but it's true: when I was younger, things were different. We roamed around Hartridge with relative impunity, and it was a pretty big subdivision to roam around. We would ride our bikes to one of two or three parks, or around to friends' houses. We played late at night across four or five or six yards. We trick-or-treated at night and without parental supervision, going through the whole subdivision for hours. We went into the field -- traveling through "The Canyon" and to "The Pine Tree" and "Kill Hill" (we were not creative in the naming-features department, except for that latter title.)

And we did all that without our parents ever really knowing where, exactly, we were.

Picture that nowadays. If you are a parent of a kid in the 5-15 age range, picture telling them "Go play somewhere that's within, say, 1-2 miles of our house, and be back by dinner." When they start to tell you where they'll be, tell them "No, no, that's fine. Just stay within the vaguely-defined confines of our share of this municipality, and keep in mind that I don't care if you're going to walk through an actual swamp."

Then, if you're brave enough to do that, do this: Go tell your neighbors what you did. Lean over the fence, or walk up their driveway, and say "I haven't seen my 12-year-old in 2 hours, but I'm not worried."

You may want to call your lawyer before you do that. Nobody would do that nowadays. We wouldn't do that because of the certainty, the absolutely positively 100% certainty that those kids would be killed as soon as they got out of our sight.

My mom pioneered that belief, that serial killers are waiting just around the corner, and I believe that she spread it, possibly through psychic Mom powers, so I'm sorry for wrecking it for all the other kids. If it helps, when our own older kids were younger, we would let them wander, at times, around the neighborhood while we were at work, a practice we stopped when we began feeling guilty about exposing them to them multiple serial killers who were no doubt lurking at the Bergmann's pharmacy candy counter near our apartment.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have been a kid in New York City, or to raise kids nowadays in New York City. Since the only thing that is more unsafe than a suburban street is an urban street, I wonder whether my mom would have been as lax as she was, back then, and I wonder if I would have ever been lax with my own kids. Probably not. Everytime I'm in a big city (and by "big" I mean the size of Milwaukee or larger) I'm on constant guard for pickpockets, armed robbers, rioters, crooked policemen, members of the El Rukn gang, and, of course, serial killers. If I have kids with me, I double my alerts and lock the doors while we're still miles outside of the city.

My mom has long known-- not believed, but known -- that just around the corner or behind the bush or outside of the house are serialkillingrapistmurderers. She must not have always believed they were so close, or she would never have let us leave the house; I'm pretty sure that when we were kids, the serial killers had not yet made it to our subdivision, progressing only as far as town.

"Town" was Hartland, the village proper, and it consisted of a couple of streets of "downtown" and then, a little further on, across the highway, a rudimentary strip mall (at that time, when I was a kid, the strip mall had a Red Owl grocery store, a Drews department store, some pharmacy, a florist, and usually 2-3 empty stores) and an A&W restaurant. We knew town was bad because we weren't allowed to go into town very often, and almost never unsupervised. And, in town, there were places that were worse than others -- we could go into town (a bike ride of about 1 1/2 miles) to go to the Jackson's Department store candy counter, but we were not to hang around the Suburpia Sub Shop, because the guys that ran it (we were told) were dirtballs.

While town was mostly forbidden, no place in our subdivision outside of town was, and we were free to roam around it, at least for a while, and during that while I had the paper route that I would share first with Bill, then with Matt. We were the last of the kids to have a paper route in Hartland, as I said, and that's because, in part, the serial killers made it to the subdivisions and the smaller side streets and trick-or-treating had to end, kids had to have GPS trackers and parents had to put kids in daycare instead of leaving them home alone most days (as we were, as younger kids and then teens) and life became, in parents' minds, more unsafe than ever,to the point where, if I take the Babies! to the park and someone smiles at them, I pull them to me protectively and we huddle together until the potential serial killer decides to move on. Mom didn't raise any suckers.

Corporations finally killed off the paper boy, mostly because they wanted to get paid. When I was a paper boy, we had to "collect" once a week -- we would deliver papers all week and then go door-to-door, usually on Friday, to collect. Some customers were monthly, and some were weekly, but only a few were "prepaid," meaning only a few had actually paid the newspaper company in advance.

As I've learned in so many other jobs, including the ones where I was my own boss, it's never a good idea to get paid after you've given up the product. That's why grocery stores don't tell you to come back with your money the next day, and mechanics won't let you take your car until you give them cash. (Our mechanic won't, at least -- and he should give us a break, at least, because we mostly don't go even a week without taking one or the other car in there.)

Most customers, to be sure, were good customers. We'd go ring their bell and tell them how much they owed, and they'd pay us the $1 or $2 or whatever they owed. Sometimes they would tip us, which was nice -- never a lot, but anything is better than nothing. But there were the troublesome customers, the "monthly" payers who didn't answer their doorbell and didn't have the money on them when they did and promised to "get you next time, kid."

One of those that I remember was the guy who lived in the white house on the corner at the end of our street. His house was a duplex. One door-- his-- opened onto our street, and the other door (the lower) opened onto the other road, the road that made the corner. The house itself was nothing much: not very rundown or very kept up, either, which set it apart from the more meticulously landscaped houses in our subdivision. That, and the house was a duplex, which itself was something of a warning bell for the other people (like my parents) in the neighborhood. Duplexes implied renters, and renters was synonymous with undesirables.

This duplex, too, had gravel driveways for each resident. That, too, was frowned upon. A bare lawn, a duplex, gravel driveways: these people were trouble.

It wasn't that they didn't make some effort. One year, a row of tiny pine trees appeared in the front yard, each about 6 inches tall, about two feet apart. That was the sum total of landscaping in that yard. I don't know who did it -- a renter or landlord -- or what their motivation was, but it failed to impress my mom and dad.

"Those will never survive," they declared. "They probably bought them at some discount place."

It should have been no surprise to me that these people were not good at paying for their newspaper. I can recall the guy of the house (in my memory, he had a girlfriend or wife, somewhere, but I don't have any picture of her) answering the door, with a moustache and long hair and shirtless.

The shirtlessness, too, was a bad sign. People in our subdivision didn't go shirtless and certainly didn't answer the door shirtless. They might, as my dad did too often, sit around on Saturday mornings in their socks, underwear, and a t-shirt going over their checkbook, but they were by God fully clothed when they answered the door or otherwise went outside. My dad would wear slacks and a polo shirt to spray weeds in the yard.

The shirtless white house guy almost never paid. "I'll getcha next time, buddy," he'd tell me. Or "I don't got my wallet," or, simply, "I can't do it right now." We'd have to periodically stop delivering his paper until he paid up, and only when he did so, when we got money and could put a little check mark in the box next to his name in the little "book" of cards with each person's name and address on it, would we re-start the paper and go through the whole thing again.

Corporations don't like that -- they wised up at some point and decided that relying on the abilities of a 13-year-old to wrangle money out of a shirtless moustache guy is not a great business plan, and they realized, too, that all those thirteen-year-olds were eating into their profits: Why pay a bunch of kids to fail to collect our money, the news organizations must have said, when we can charge in advance and hire surly men to drop the papers off in the morning?

And so serial killers and corporations and people, in general, ended paper boy as an occupation.

But that hadn't happened, yet, when I was 12 -- when my dad said to me that I could start helping my older brother, Bill, on his paper route and start earning money doing that.

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