Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Paperboy, Part 2 (Jobs v. Life, 2)

Life is what happens when you're not working... and this is part 2 of my ongoing attempt to explain my life by the work I've done. Click here for the Table of Contents.

You know what I remember most about my years as a paperboy? Subbing.

"Subbing" was what we had to do with papers, back then. The papers came in two sections, one of which had to be inserted into the other. Back then, I didn't know why that was, why there were two parts of the paper, the "main" and the "insert," as I called them.

The main was the front page and all its pages, and the local news, and all it's pages. The insert, or the sub, was the features, and included, in the paper I delivered, the Green Sheet -- the comics and "Dear Abby" and the crosswords and the Jumble.

The "Green Sheet" was called the "Green Sheet" because it was green -- in the rest of the paper (which at that time was only black and white) it stuck out like Gatsby's beacon, a smidgen of green in all that newsprint. It was famous, I guess, for being a green sheet of comics and entertainment -- famous as far back as 1954.

The Green Sheet was why I started reading the paper, back when I was a kid - -I could easily pull the comics out of the newspaper and read those, and sometimes read other things like the trivia quizzes or Dear Abby, on that same Green Sheet, all without having to resort to paging through the newspaper to find the comics. Later on, I would begin reading Newsweek for much the same reason -- because Newsweek had editorial cartoons and humorous quotes in it, and I liked reading those, so I'd page through the magazine in the school library to get to those, and sometimes then read other articles. So, you parents who despair because your kids only read the comics (or, like mine, only read the grocery store ads), don't worry: eventually, they might move on to reading actual substantive news articles and learning about the world.

It's important to say that, I think. It's important to point out that kids (or adults) can read the comics and still be productive human beings, or read anything and still be productive human beings. I've heard that former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun used to begin every day by reading the Sports section of the paper, and that's always seemed significant to me.

Society -- us, we-- make a distinction between "things that have merit" and "things that don't," and we tend to lump almost anything humorous, or fun, or popular, into the latter category. If something is funny, or fun, we seem to think, it can't be worth much to us.

I've always had a problem with that, and not just a problem in the "Comic books can be educational, too," sense. Because while, yes, comics can be educational, for the most part they're not (or not very) and the more educational they get, the more fun they tend not to be.

No, my problem has been more along the lines of this: Why is it that everything has to be so danged serious all the time? Why are only serious things considered to have any merit or point in society? Why is it better to read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises than to read Watterson's "Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons"?

No, I'm totally serious about that. What makes The Sun Also Rises better than Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons? Why is one considered by most people to be a literary classic that has to be inflicted on our students year after year, while the other is considered drivel?

I think it's snobbishness, and what I like to call The Cult Of Seriousness. People revere stuff that sucks because they think it makes them a more serious, more literary, more artistic, more better person. That's why we spend money to keep producing operas but relegate comic strips to the Internet to beg for money. Imagine if the National Endowment for the Arts were to not give $50,000 to an opera house that nobody wants to go to, and instead were to give $10,000 grants to each of five cartoonists. Wouldn't the world be better off paying Natalie Dee and Buttersafe to promulgate their thoughtful-but-weird humor, or better off having XKCD get even more exposure than he already does, than having yet another production of York! The Opera?

I sure think so, but as a society, we've decided, no, we're going to have kids read things like The Canterbury Tales and watch things like York! The Opera instead of reading things like Doonesbury and watch things like Better Off Ted, even though, so far as I can tell, the merits of the latter(s) far outweigh the merits of the former(s).

So anyway, thanks to the end of the Green Sheet, parents don't have to worry about kids being able to easily find the comics in the paper, and thanks to that and to my and Harry Blackmun's examples, can rest assured that kids who spend their time reading comics will eventually go on to read things that are more approved by society -- even though I hope that secretly they will, like I sometimes do, go read some comic books anyway. I like to think that somewhere, in the vast recesses of the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C., Justice Scalia is holed up with the latest issue of Green Lantern -- and that he's re-reading it for the second time. The world would be a better place if he would do that.

The Green Sheet seems significant to me because back then, not only were comics not hidden away, but they were specially segregated, marked out for easy reach, and everyone I knew read the comics in the paper and probably read them first, thanks to the section being green and easily pulled out of the rest of the paper. Which isn't to say that there weren't controversies back then about the comics. There are always controversies about the comics, it seems, because someone always likes a comic, even Nancy, and who likes that one? But because someone always likes a comic, any change to the comics page is met with more outrage than almost anything else you could imagine at the time.

At the time. Nowadays, I'm no longer astounded at the level of outrage that can be produced. We live in an out-rage-rific society, and outrage can be manufactured at a prodigious rate. But back then, outrage was reserved for important things like selling arms to Iran, or removing comic strips.

The controversy I remember most of all was probably, in the long run, responsible for me going on to read other parts of the paper beyond the Green Sheet, and that controversy was over Doonesbury. Specifically, it was a controversy about whether Doonesbury should be in the comics section or on the editorial page.

Very few comics back then (or now) ran anywhere but on one page, or a couple pages, of the paper in the features. There's always that odd comic out, like Gil Thorp, that runs in the sports section, but I never understood that. Will sports fans not go to the comics section to read a comic about sports? Would comic fans be put off, perturbed, by a blatantly-sports-oriented comic plunked down in the middle of their funny pages? Other soap-opera comics didn't get pushed to other sections. Mary Worth wasn't in the Lifestyle sections, or by the obituaries. Heathcliff ran in more than the "Pets" section. But comics that were seen as being too focused were relegated to specific sections: Gil Thorp and Tank McNamara to the sports section, and Dilbert to "Business," back when there was a daily "Business" section in most newspapers.

And Doonesbury was forever being shoved off to the editorial pages and then back, moved and switched and debated, because Doonesbury dared to have a political viewpoint, which apparently was way too much for the Green Sheet or most funny papers.

The issue of whether Doonesbury should be a comic or an editorial cartoon was, in my memory, as hotly debated as any other topic that got public attention when I was a kid, and ultimately, the editorial cartoon side won, with Doonesbury going to reside on the editorial page near throat-clearing essays about the importance of voting in the Second Aldermanic District elections in April and other such topics. I followed Doonesbury and would, each day, read first the Green Sheet and then turn to the editorial page to see what Doonesbury had to say that day, too, and I imagine that I eventually began reading other articles of note in the editoral pages, too, graduating from comic strips on to more serious articles and topics that receive more societal approval than comics do.

Like I began, I remember all that because I remember subbing, putting one section of the paper into the other section. Each day, in the afternoon, Mr. Ferris would drop off our stacks of newspapers for us to begin subbing them, and I didn't know then why the papers could come in two parts but not be all put together into one part. I know now: I know that it's because a big part of the paper is in fact put together well before it comes out. The main section of the paper is printed the day that you get it, or close to it (depending on how far away from the publisher you are) but the features, the classified ads, the comics, those things-- those are all printed in advance and prepared for a given day. Those pre-printed sections, then, came separate to the paperboy's house because they'd been prepared separately, so we had to put them together: the main section being lifted open to have the features section put into it, then the whole thing stacked off to the side, so that the evening paper delivered by us was one unified whole, giving the appearance of having all been written in the preceding 24 hours -- a trick of the trade, pulled off by paperboys.

"Subbing" was even more intense on Sunday mornings, when there were even more sections of the paper to put together, because those papers were bigger and had circular ads and fliers and things in them. Paperboys didn't sub the papers on Sundays. In Hartland, where I lived and delivered papers, the Milwaukee Journal (and the Milwaukee Sentinel) had as their circulation department a run-down building downtown, a building that consisted of mostly a back room with long tables in it, and stacks here and there of leftover papers. There may have been offices, too, but I don't remember ever seeing any.

It was to that building, every day, that papers were delivered, and from that building that Mr. Ferris would take the papers and distribute them to the army of paperboys waiting around the lake country area to sub them and deliver them to people's homes. Mr. Ferris did this in his old, unmarked post office jeep, a surplus mailman's jeep stripped of its formal insignia and driven by a grizzly, white-bearded, foul-mouthed, bad-tempered old man who lived near Nixon Park. (I knew that because I would, sometimes, while riding my bike, see his old jeep parked outside his house, just across from Nixon Park and down the street from the factory that will always in my mind be Hartland Plastics, a company that no longer exists but which my Mom once worked at.) Mr. Ferris had the only surplus post office jeep I'd ever seen to that point, and the only one I've ever seen to this day. He's the only person I knew who ever drove one of those, and I guessed that he did it because it made sense to drive a mailman jeep around -- they stopped all the time, he stopped all the time, so in my 13-year-old mind, I assumed there was something special about post office jeeps that made them suitable for people who needed to make frequent stops in their lives.

Monday through Saturday, Mr. Ferris dropped off our papers, pulling up and tossing bundles of inserts and mains onto our porch. Sundays, he didn't. On Sundays, the only day that the Milwaukee Journal was delivered in the morning, we had to get up and go to the circulation building and pick up our papers, which had been pre-subbed by the gang of teenagers that hung around the circulation building subbing and smoking and joking.

I remember the general idea of those guys, but not anyone in specific: the smoking, kind-of-frightening teens that subbed the Sunday papers were not part of my 13-year-old crowd or part of the social circle my parents hung around, at all. They were, if I had to guess, the kind of people who hung out with the neighbors and residents my parents looked down on -- they were the kids who lived in those houses that my parents frowned on and discussed in quiet voices, the kind of kids who were suspended from school or whose parents were divorced or in prison or otherwise the kind of people who were not really meant to live in Hartland. I didn't talk to the subbing, smoking, teenagers. We would simply pull up in my dad's car and grab our bundles of Sunday papers, putting them into the backseat and sometimes the trunk and go deliver them, while I'd look at the teenagers in their black rock t-shirts with their long hair and their punching-each-other-in-the-arms and I'd wish that I was at home, in bed, still asleep. I didn't know if the teenagers had graduated from paper routes to subbing or whether they just did that, or whether they had other jobs, too, and I didn't really want to know. I didn't like them and didn't want to know much about them.

Sundays were the only day my dad helped us with the paper route, in part because we had to go get the papers in downtown Hartland and in part because the papers were really, really thick on Sundays. Our paper route had about 100 or more "Sunday" customers, so we had more papers to deliver on that day than on weekdays, too, making it more necessary for Dad to help us with it. I don't think he got anything out of helping us, as I look back -- I don't think we gave him any money or helped out in any way. He just got up and helped us with the route, every Sunday, because that's what he did -- that's what parents do. They get up and help you with the paper route they had you get in the first place.

We would trade off on Sundays, alternating Sundays delivering the paper, too. At first, when I got on the paper route, it was my brother Bill and I, and we divided up the duties into collecting and delivering, with Bill responsible for collecting the money and me responsible for delivering the papers. We traded off Sundays, each alternating getting up to go with Dad and deliver the Sunday papers. Later, when Matt got old enough to become part of the route, he and I divided the weekly duties up differently: we split the route in half and each delivered and collected half of the route, but we still split up Sundays, so that the only person who got up every Sunday to deliver papers was my dad.

Later, too, when I took over collecting half the route and Matt took over collecting half the route, when Bill had moved on to other jobs, I learned just how profitable our paper route actually was -- during the time that Bill was handling the money, I'd never made much. I found out, after Bill was off the route, why that was, also.

1 comment:

lisapepin said...

I was surprised that you put Bill in charge of collecting the money! How young and trusting you were then. :)