Monday, August 10, 2009

The Paperboy, Part 3 (Jobs v. Life, 3)

Life is what happens when you're not working... and this is part 3 of my ongoing attempt to explain my life by the work I've done. Click here for the Table of Contents.

Here and there, if you look hard, you'll find evidence that your parents were smart and looking out for you. I'm not just talking about the kind of smarts that told your parents to make sure you had a place to live and food to eat, either, but about the kind of smarts that save you a walk up a giant hill for no real profit.

Although not walking up that hill still leaves me feeling a little guilty and sad, years later, about my friend Jim and the things I didn't tell him.

I've always heard that when you go back home everything will seem smaller than you remember it. That's not true. I've gone back to Hartridge, where I grew up and my paper route was, probably 3 or 4 times in the past 15 years, and nothing's smaller at all. The same stuff is still mostly there -- although Hasslinger's pond has been filled in and houses are being built on it, and The Swamp and Kill Hill are likewise part of a condo-and-housing project, and the path along the ridge by The Canyon is now paved. The Pine Tree is still there, though, and the Canyon.

Those are, by the way, the actual names of features that were located in the field and forest behind our house. (I've mentioned before that we were not very creative with names as a kid.)

The things that are still there, though, are still there and are still as big as they ever were: The hill at the end of the street where I camped out for two days the time I ran away from home is just as tall -- and just as obviously awkward and out-of-place as it ever was. The Canyon is still as deep and The Pine Tree is still as tall.

And the hills on our paper route and in the subdivision as just as steep as they ever were. I thought maybe my memory had made the hills steeper and longer, but it didn't, and I suppose that's because my mind couldn't embellish on those memories of riding up those hills (and not riding up others) because I'd done it so often, it was engraved directly into my brain, hard-wired into it the way my phone number (367-6392) was also hard-wired into my brain.

I have a near-perfect memory of things like that, like the size and slope of the hills I had to ride up to deliver papers and my phone number. Those are the things that helped form me, I guess: my phone number and those hills being the building blocks for what would eventually become my "character," such as it is. Things are no longer written into my mind so clearly. A few years back, I had to give my ZIP code at a store as we bought some DVDs.

"ZIP code?" the cashier asked.

"53925," I said, immediately and without thinking at all.

"That's not our ZIP code," Sweetie said, immediately and without thinking at all -- she's probably come to expect that kind of thing from me, after all these years.

"It's not?" I asked, because as quickly as I'd said 5-3-9-2-5, I'd become convinced it was, in fact, our ZIP Code and could not, now, think of what our real ZIP code was.

Sweetie gave the cashier our real ZIP code and we moved on and bought other stuff that day, but I bet she's never forgotten and I bet if you cal her right now and ask if I know our ZIP code, she'll say "I doubt it" and tell you that story.

Despite my inability to remember basic facts of my existence now, I have a clear recollection of most aspects of my paper route, and those hills are chief among them. Our route had only three streets on it, with a few associated courts/circles.

I always, when I was a kid, wanted to live in a court, those little circular cul-de-sacs that are for some reason a part of a subdivision. I don't know why they get put in, as they serve no functions that I can figure out. It must have something to do with the lay of the land, or land-use regulations, or something else boring that I don't really care to know. But I didn't care about that, back then; I just wanted to live in a court, because it seemed neat -- no traffic, and the yards were unusually shaped, sort of wedge-y. I also, though, as a kid, got the impression from my parents that courts were lower-class, too. I don't know why I got that impression, but I did, through osmosis, maybe, the way I gathered lots of pseudo-information that I thought my parents were passing on to me, information gathered in half-bits and overheard conversations, inferences I made from silences to some questions and nonanswers to others, and one of those inferences was that there was something wrong with living in a court, that it was undesirable, that it marked you as kind of lower-down on the ladder.

I got that impression, too, about carpeting in the kitchen, something I've only seen once in my life, at the Sommerfeldts' house the time we went there for a Superbowl party when I was a kid -- going there at a time when I didn't care about football and wasn't especially friends with the Sommerfeldt kids, so it wasn't an especially fun night for me. The highlight of the night, as I recall, was my discovering that the Sommerfeldts had carpet in their kitchen, and that made such an impact on me that to this day I can recall the texture and pattern of the carpet: It was brown and made to look like sidewalk or patio bricks, carpet with a brick-imprint on it which worked so perfectly that when I first walked into the kitchen I was surprised to feel the springy, spongy quality of the floor, and couldn't stop walking on it and being amazed not just at how soft it was but that they had carpeting in their kitchen period.

Later on, I heard my mom and dad talking about how stupid that was. I recall one or the other of them saying "What if somebody spills?" So carpeting, like living in a court and having blinking lights on a Christmas tree, was out.

Our paper route had Hartwood Lane, which was the street we lived on. It then had a portion of Oxford Drive, the street our street crossed into, and then Penbrook Way. That doesn't sound like much, but Hartwood Lane was the shortest of the three streets and it had probably 30 houses on it. Oxford Drive ran the width of our subdivision, Hartridge, and was superlong, but we only had about two blocks of that street to deliver papers on, and then we'd take a right onto Penbrook Way, the hilly portion of the route, and take that about 4 blocks or maybe 5, to where it ended.

That all added up to about 70 customers, daily, and 100 or so on Sundays. At the start of the paper route days, when I joined Bill on it, Bill divided up the jobs this way: I would deliver the papers, and he would do the collecting. Not knowing much about paper routes and how hard the various tasks were, I agreed. Bill sold that idea to me by pointing out that I'd get to ride my bike and use my newspaper bag -- an actual paperboy bag in yellow that said Milwaukee Journal on the side in green, and had padding on the shoulder. I was the only one of the three boys that ever had that bag; sometimes, to deliver the papers we'd just balance them on the handlebars of our bike (especially when they were thin, as they always were on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The Saturday paper sometimes didn't even need to be subbed, sometimes.) But more often, I'd load them into my bag and deliver them that way, learning to ride my bike by leaning slightly to the right to counterbalance the papers pulling me to the left.

We didn't have the kind of paper route delivery that let us just toss the papers onto the lawn, so I suppose that my paper route was the very first job that would ever let me look at something on TV or in the movies and declare it fake, something I do to this day: I can't watch lawyer-oriented shows, for the most part, because I constantly decry them as fake or oversimplified or just wrong. I'll see Sam Waterston and a defense attorney and a judge walking on the courthouse steps discussing constitutional issues that have arisen in a case and the judge will make a decision and they all move on with their lives, and all I can do is say That's not how the law works? Where's the Court Reporter? There's no record of that.

I'm a lot of fun to watch TV with.

That kind of behavior may well have started back when I started delivering papers. Movies, TV shows, Dennis The Menace comic strips and the like always depict a paperboy tossing the papers as he rides by, throwing them in bushes and onto the roof and through windows. I don't recall deriding that as fake when I was 12 or 13 or 14, but I do recall wondering why I couldn't do that.

We had to, instead, put our papers into the paperbox that almost everyone had hanging from their mailbox post, allowing me to begin judging subdivision residents not just by their lawns (as we all did) but also by their paperbox and how it was affixed to the mailbox, and even whether they had one at all.

Some people didn't have a paperbox, and I didn't like them much, period -- because it slowed me down. After time, I got good enough that I could fold the paper with one hand and slide it into the paperbox as I went by, speeding up my delivery and, as a side effect, making me feel cool -- not the last time I would feel a sense of cool from something that probably nobody else in the world would ever even remotely think was cool, but that's the kind of kid I was. I'd ride along, folding the paper in my left hand, then pulling it from the bag and transferring it to my right hand -- as I rode, then effortlessly sliding the paper into the paperbox, without ever slowing down, and I'd think to myself: That's worth something. In my mind were half-formed images of someone higher up in the Milwaukee Journal company (Mr. Ferris, maybe) seeing me do that and marking me as a kid with promise, a kid that they could use to show other paperboys how it was done.

Maybe there would be some sort of meeting, like when they had the annual spring and fall subscription drives, and Mr Ferris (who, so far as I knew, was the highest-up in the Journal company, aside from the circulation manager I'd meet later) would gather all the paperboys and say Briane, show them how you deliver the paper, and I'd have to do a demonstration, and all the other paperboys would start using that technique, too, and it would be the Briane method.

That never happened.

But I was pretty good at it, and so I resented people who were so low class and inferior that they had paperboxes that hung down towards the street, or which were loosely affixed and hard to get the paper into, causing me to stop and put the paper in and lose valuable time and valuable momentum (as a fat kid, I liked coasting on my bike, whenever possible, and used my inertia to my benefit.)

Worse yet were the people who hadn't yet put up their paperboxes. Once or twice, someone would get a new paper box and leave it sitting, upright, next to their mailbox for sometimes as long as a month or two, which I didn't get -- why not bring it in until you hang it?-- but others never put the box up at all, so I had to open up their mailbox and put the paper in, something that was time-consuming and annoying, especially if the mail had already come. Sometimes the doors of the mailboxes were loose or would jam, and I worried that I'd break it and get blamed for it.

We also had two people on our route who didn't want the paper put in their box at all -- I had to bring the paper up to their door and put it on their mat, which was the worst of all. I hated those people. I don't know, looking back, what they thought their deal was, and I don't know, looking back, why I did that, and why my Dad agreed that we would do that for the one of those people who had Sunday only delivery.

I don't like to think of myself as one of those types of people who simply goes along with what the other type of people says, but obviously I have a streak of that in me. There are people in life who tell you to bring their paper to their door and put it on their doormat instead of in their paperbox the way everybody else gets it, and there are people in life who will do that, and who will also follow your directives that, if the weather is bad, you're to put it just inside the screen door, between the screen door and the main door, and if the weather is windy you're to put it under the mat, a little, so that the mat will keep the paper from blowing away.

While I was out delivering papers, Bill was "collecting," something that in my mind I thought must be equal to the effort I was putting in, riding up and down Penbrook Way and around Oxford Drive and all. Bill would go door-to-door and get the weekly or monthly money from our customers, and then, each Sunday, we'd divide up the money, setting aside the part we had to pay to the Journal for our papers that week, and then taking the rest as profit. Each week, Bill would count the money, sort it out, pile the dollar bills, mark things in the little "route book," -- a collection of index cards held together by a ring -- and then hand me my half of the profits, which each week amounted to about $5.00. Some weeks, there were no profits -- people hadn't paid or hadn't paid enough or something -- and so Bill would break it to me that we'd made nothing that week.

My dad's rule was that a paper route could be begun around 12 or so, and continued only until we were 16; at 16, we had to "grow up" and "get a real job" to earn our money. Bill was about 14 or so when I began. For two years, I worked as Bill's low-paid (and sometimes no-paid) junior assistant on the paper route, for an average of what probably worked out to $3 per week -- $3 earned by an hour-plus per day of biking (or walking, in the winter) around the route delivering 70+ papers in heat, rain, blizzards, and more.

When Bill moved on from the paper route at 16 and I took over as Senior Paperboy, with Matt joining up as the new Junior Assistant (these are titles I just invented today), I learned that the paper route brought in as much as forty bucks a week, if not more. Matt and I divided the route up differently, after Bill left: we each took half the route and did the deliveries and collections for that half, then split the money evenly. Matt had Hartwood and Oxford; I had the other half of Hartwood and Penbrook Way. I took Penbrook Way because I kind of liked it, in spite of having to go uphill all that way, and it was all that way -- each time I've gone back, I've marveled at how steep the hills are, still. Not embellished at all.

Instantly, we were rolling in money, especially for 14- and 12-year olds. We were getting $20 per week, and this was 1983. That was a lot of money, then, and I think it's still a lot of money, now.

I don't have any specific recollection of ever confronting Bill with the realization that he'd been cheating me for two years. I'm sure that I did -- no offense ever went unconfronted among the Pagel Boys, and our fights could blow up, like a tropical storm, from absolutely nothing, so a fight about something would be a certainty, but at this point, unlike the hills and the phone number, the fights have blurred into a hazy montage of swinging golf clubs, punches in the chest, thrown shoes, chases around the house that as a fat kid I always lost, doors slammed in faces, more thrown shoes, and picking up the copper lid to a decoration and using it as a shield against the metal bar the other person had grabbed (the metal bar being the bar that was used as a lock of sorts, lain in the tracks of the patio door to keep that from serving as an entryway for serial killers.) I would, over the years, confront Bill about almost everything, but at this point the only thing I can recall confronting him about for certain is the time he took all the inserts and labels from all my cassette tapes and threw them all out because he thought the cases looked better without the album covers in them.

When I pointed out that he'd made it impossible, almost, to tell what cassette tape was what, because they were all just cassettes in clear plastic cases now, so I couldn't tell where my Psychedelic Furs cassette tape was without pulling out each and every one of them to read the cassette itself, he said: "You should be thanking me."

As steep as Penbrook Way was, I was spared the even steeper climb up a street that went off of Penbrook Way, a street called "Canterbury Circle," which sloped up and to the left off of Penbrook Way, and which would lead up to the second-highest point in Hartridge, a point so high that you could see Holy Hill, a church about 15 miles away, from the top of it. I didn't have to climb up that, and I didn't have to go into Windsor Circle, the other street that came off of Penbrook Way. Windsor Circle was flat, though, and I don't know why Dad negotiated that out of the route, but he did. When he got us the paper route, I remember seeing him talk to Mr. Ferris about it, and agreeing that we'd do the paper route but that we'd only do that route if Mr. Ferris reassigned Canterbury Circle and Windor Circle to another paper route, which Mr. Ferris agreed to do.

That might have been where I got the idea that circles, and courts, and cul de sacs, were lower-class, and undesirable. That might have been where I first began to deduce, by inference, that those were not to be sought after, because my Dad had negotiated them out of our route.

I always admired my dad as a kid, being enthralled by the way he could throw a football, negotiate with Mr. Ferris, and drive his huge Coca-Cola truck right up in front of our house and let us sit in the driver's seat, something he did a lot of times on Fridays, when he'd drop off his "breaker case" of soda, the case of soda that he'd get for free because drivers were allowed so many broken cases of soda per week, and if he didn't break one he'd bring a free case of soda home...

...and, looking back, now, I wonder if the actual rule wasn't "If you break a case here and there, you won't be charged for that." I always assumed that the Breaker Case rule meant that Coca-Cola said if no cases were broken, the drivers could take one or two home, but that doesn't make any sense, because it would be guaranteeing them that they'd lose 1 or 2 cases per week, minimum, either through breakage or taking-home-age. So I'm guessing, now, that maybe the actual rule was "If you break a case you won't be charged," and my Dad, I'm hypothesizing, was careful enough not to break a case, so he'd bring one home, and tell his boss that it had been broken.

... Which, as I think about it, was probably why he drove his truck to our house. He couldn't very well drive the truck back to the bottling plant and then unload a non-broken case and take it to his car, could he? So he'd have had to drive to our house from wherever he was, and then unload the Breaker Case, and then go back to work.

That's an awful lot of trouble to go to just to get a couple of free cases of soda a week.

I could have gathered that courts and cul de sacs were undesirable from the fact that my dad negotiated them away, and that kind of deduction would have been exactly what I would have come up with because, as you've just seen, my deductive skills are such that it took me 30 years to crack The Case Of The Breaker Cases. (I'm no Encyclopedia Brown, I guess.)

Such an inference -- that courts were, per se, undesirable, if based on my dad negotiating away Canterbury Circle and Windsor Circle, would have been incorrect, anyway. I know that now because of what I learned later on -- that one of those courts was eliminated because it was too steep and had too few customers to warrant going up and down it year round (even though one of those customers would be my future girlfriend-for-two-months.)

And also what I learned later on: that the other of those courts was home to a man who'd once asked my mom to marry him.

That's not why I feel guilty about not delivering to those courts, though. I feel guilty because I felt, later on, that maybe in some way my not delivering to those courts made it harder for my the-best-friend Jim to deliver to them from his own paper route, because he had to come to those courts to deliver, going way out of his way. And I felt, later on, that maybe the fact that it was harder for Jim to deliver to them contributed in some way to Jim's committing suicide.

1 comment:

lisapepin said...

OMG! I was right! That was your old phone number! Quick - what was mine?