Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Paperboy, 6 (Jobs v. Life)

Life is what happens when you're not working. -- Me.
Jobs v. Life is an ongoing attempt to explore my life through the jobs I've had. Read it from the beginning here.

It seemed so harmless when I began forging newspaper subscriptions. Who would ever find out? I wondered, as I came up with the plan that would have, today, landed me in some sort of juvenile detention facility (Wales, we called it as kids, the Home for Boys located in Wales, Wisconsin), but which back then simply got me a disappointed look from the Milwaukee Journal circulation manager.

Life as a paperboy was largely routine: Every day, the papers would be dropped off by Mr. Ferris, every day I'd sub my share, inserting one section into another, and every day I'd ride around and deliver the papers. Once a week I'd go collect, asking people to pay me for the papers I'd delivered, a process that always seemed awkward -- and still does today, when I have to remind clients to pay me for the legal work I've done for them. There's always a slight sheepishness to my requests, a feeling that I'm not actually owed the money, that I have to ask them to pay me and hope they do, and I've had that feeling forever, at least since I did the collecting on my paper route and felt sheepish, then, about asking people to pay for the papers they'd been reading all week.

It would have been simpler, then, to get people to pay for the newspapers up front, and that is what we now do, in fact -- our subscription to the comically-tiny Wisconsin State Journal is paid for six months in advance, and my Kindle subscription to the New Yorker is deducted automatically, in advance, each month. Back then, it never occurred to me that I could do that -- that I could charge up front, go there on Friday and say If you don't pay me, no paper starting tomorrow. The world was different back then, and most people paid; only a few didn't pay regularly and those few were the losers of the world, the kind of men who answered the door with no shirt on, having obviously not showered, or people who came to the door with a beer in their hand and a baseball hat on. Back then, grown-ups -- the ones society valued, anyway -- didn't wear baseball hats regularly, and they did pay their bills on time.

Even if it had occurred to me to charge up front, or in advance, I doubt I would have done so, for the same reason I feel embarrassed now to bring up money; I'm one of those people who feels as though they maybe shouldn't be paid.

Don't get me wrong: I think I do really valuable work as a lawyer -- as valuable work as any lawyer can do, given that lawyers, as a class, add nothing of value to society and exist only because we exist; if you eliminated "lawyer" as a job beginning right this instant, society as a whole would not change in any great degree -- but regardless of the value of my work, there is always something in my head that feels as though I shouldn't have to ask to be paid, and that by asking I'm exceeding my boundaries, I'm doing something wrong, which in turn makes me uncomfortable talking about money with clients and customers, and in turn makes me try not to do that.

As a lawyer, I don't have the opportunity to ask for all the money up front -- that is, I could, when you hire me, tell you you need to give me $10,000, right now, but most people can't do that and in the back of my head, I think that if I insist on such a thing, insist on getting paid in advance, nobody will ever hire me and I'll have to find real work.

As a paperboy, I had the opportunity to ask for money up front but that same feeling, the resistance in my character and mind to asking for money kept me from, at the time, even thinking about doing so. It was awkward enough to ask the beer-holding, shirtless, baseball cap wearing deadbeats to pay me for the papers I'd already delivered. I wouldn't have been able to imagine asking them to pay me for papers yet to come.

That was all part of the routine, though: subbing, delivering, collecting. That routine existed every day, 365 days a year, with no real variation. Here and there someone cancelled or moved. Here and there someone started a new subscription. But my paper route was essentially the same for the years I held it.

Three times a year, though, there was an alteration in the routine, a new set of tasks to do. Once a year, paper boys back then delivered calendars to their customers at Christmas; and twice a year the paper had a subscription drive.

The calendars were delivered by paper boys in hopes of getting a Christmas tip. That was the only reason we ever took them. We'd tell the Milwaukee Journal how many we wanted, and then, a week or two before Christmas, we'd go around, at night, after dinner, and deliver the calendars. Delivering the calendars meant taking them right up to the person's door, trudging through the dark and cold and wet and snow up to unfamiliar houses with unfamiliar smells and weird decorations and unusual furniture -- all furniture was unusual when it was in the Mueller's house -- and ringing the bell, and waiting.

Someone would come to the door -- usually the housewife -- and say "Yes?" This was the first awkward part of the delivery, a delivery that hadn't been made since a year ago: Most of the people didn't know me, particularly. They saw me if I collected, but more often they saw my older brother who did the collections for a couple years, and other than that they never interacted with me, anyway. Collections were done during the day, usually on Friday, and yet here I was, in the dark, and bundled up in a winter coat and Green Bay Packer hat with the large pompom on top, standing on their porch, on a Tuesday, or Thursday, holding up a calendar for the next year.

So I'd have to introduce myself. "I'm the paperboy," I'd say. No name, just a title.

"Oh," they'd say, or something like that, and I'd have to go on.

"I've brought a calendar. As a Christmas gift." I'd hold up the calendar. "Merry Christmas."

Back then, nobody was really Jewish, or any other religion. Or at least, nobody worried about whether they were.

The housewife would thank me, open the door a crack and take the calendar, and sometimes get me some money. Sometimes they'd say "Oh, thanks, here," and they'd dig around and get a dollar or two, or maybe a five, or rarely a ten, and hand it to me. "Merry Christmas to you," they'd say.

Other times, they'd say "Oh, wait, I've got something for you," and they'd disappear, leaving me standing on a cold, dark porch looking into their house, the parts I could see, and judging how weird they were based on what kind of strange things they had -- dried branches in pots, or pictures of older kids in turtlenecks, or maybe a painting of some sort -- until they came back with some money or a check.

Worse than waiting on the porch was being invited inside to wait, being fully engulfed in a stranger's house with a stranger's weird odors, and dog or cat staring at me, odd throw pillows, and sometimes kids or husbands sitting on the couch. The kids would never talk. Sometimes the husbands would. "Hi," they'd say, and go back to watching TV until the wife came back out with a purse or check, and I could stop standing there dripping slush on their carpet and head back out to the next house.

All of that was done for, as I said, the sole purpose of generating tips at Christmas. I don't remember how much we got, annually, but I bet it worked out to less than it was worth, given the time commitment. Looking back, it might have made more economic sense to simply not order the calendars and stay home those couple of nights. Or, in the alternative, to at least let people know they were coming and explain to them that a Christmas tip was expected, because many people didn't get that: they'd take the calendar, say thanks, we'd all pause awkwardly, and then they'd close the door and leave me standing there.

Worse than that, or equally awful in a different way, were the subscription drives conducted twice a year. For these, we and all the other paperboys had to be picked up by a circulation manager -- generally someone we barely knew, or didn't know at all -- and driven to some part of the city where we didn't deliver papers. I didn't know, then, how they picked those parts of Hartland where we'd go to drum up new customers. I'd guess, now, that they went to areas that didn't have a high subscription rate, but I'm not sure there was that much science involved at the time. It might have just been whatever part of the city would be tolerant of a middle-aged man sitting and smoking in his car while 12-year-old boys walked around knocking on doors.

The idea was that we would go door-to-door and try to get people to subscribe to the Milwaukee Journal. The incentive for us was prizes: the more people we got signed up, the better the prizes got, using a point system that gave the most points for a daily-and-Sunday subscription, and the least for a subscription only.

We would be given little cardboard handouts, shaped like bookmarks, with whatever slogan was big that year. On the front was a picture of the slogan-and-ad, and on the back was some information about the Journal as well as a spot to fill out the name and address of the person ordering the paper, and boxes to check about what they were ordering. Set loose on some section of Hartland, we'd go and introduce ourselves, and ask people to sign up for the Journal, and, periodically, check back with the Circulation Manager and give him the cards we'd filled out.

I did that, year in and year out, with little success. I am not a natural salesman -- as you'd guess, from my reluctance to even ask people to pay me for what I did for them. I've heard that salesman are people that don't take no for an answer, and I've never understood that. No is a perfectly good answer, to me. When someone asks me whether I'd be interested in something, and I say no, I mean it. I don't want to take a second look, or hear more, or get a better bargain. I said no, and I meant no. I get irritated by people who persist after that, sometimes only mildly annoyed, and sometimes quite upset.

"I'm sure it's a bargain but I'm just not interested," I might say if I'm in a good mood and trying to be polite, hiding my bother. But if I'm not in a good mood or the saleperson has persisted, I can become rude: "Don't call here anymore. I'm not interested. Leave me alone." (And you can see another glimpse into my personality in that I think it's rude to tell people, total strangers calling for commercial reasons, not to bother me at my home.)

The people whose nights I was interrupting to try to get them interested in the Milwaukee Journal would, more often than not, tell me No, thanks, sometimes politely, sometimes rudely. They rarely talked to me, at all, beyond that. I'd venture to say that only about 1-in-20 was even kind of interested in hearing about a newspaper subscription, if even that high a percentage was.

Which made for discouraging -- and, in retrospect, frighteningly dangerous -- nights: A 10 or 11 or 12-year-old boy, wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood where he didn't know anyone, at night, supervised by someone who'd never met his parents, knocking on strangers' doors and talking to them. All the really good episodes of Law & Order start out with a premise identical to that, and such a thing nowadays would likely end up in the authorities intervening with lightning speed. Back then, it was simply accepted; my parents just let us go, and I don't recall them even talking to the guy who picked us up and took us. It's a wonder that I didn't grow up as the indentured servant of some sultan or drug lord.

I wasn't really cognizant of the danger of those nights; I'd never been instructed in danger, or not as much as I should have been. Lectures from my parents about society and the people who made it up didn't focus, back then, on the deviants and serial killers and kidnappers and rapists who would someday become the almost-obsessive focus of my mom's talks to my sister and the reason she kept a steak knife under her pillow in later years; instead, Mom and Dad tended to discuss more the less desirable people around them -- the less desirable being people who lived in apartments or duplexes, people who didn't properly landscape their yards, and people who could be heard yelling at their kids, or each other, by their neighbors. I was raised to distrust people who fit into any of those categories, the result being that I got nervous when sent into an apartment building to solicit subscriptions, because apartment dwellers were, on some level, suspicious. If I approached a house with an unkempt lawn, my senses were buzzing with worry.

Between my natural disinclination to sell someone, and the constant state of nervousness generated by poor landscaping and rental units, I was a completely ineffective salesperson and never got very far in the prize-winning aspect of the promotions. I never got the Brewers' tickets, or the bike, or the Coleco Football head-to-head game. I got Penny Racers and things like that.

Then, on about the last year of my paper-delivering days, I had a genius idea: Why not just make up the subscriptions and turn them in?

I worked that through in my head, walking along Maple Avenue, cutting across the broad lawns underneath the giant old trees in front of houses set well back from the curb. What could go wrong? I'd just get the information from the people, fill out the card, and turn it in. It was a perfect scheme.

It never occurred to me that there was something missing from my logic, that there was something happening after the card got turned in; all I thought about was this: to make a sale, I talk to the person, I fill out the card, I turn it in, I get points and win prizes. If I were to, then, fill out the card with their name, and turn it in, I'd get the prizes and the people in the houses would be none the wiser.

I put it into action, immediately. At the next house, the old man listened to me for a minute, and then said "Thanks, not interested."

"Can I get your name?" I asked him. He paused.

"What do you need that for?" he asked.

"We've got to keep a record of who we talked to," I told him, a lie I'd made up on the spot.

So he gave me his name, and I thanked him, and I walked back to the curb, away from the porch light shining down on my misdeeds. I took out one of the cards, and the pen we'd been given to have people sign with. I filled in the man's name, and his address. I checked Daily and Sunday. I don't remember for sure, but I'm fairly certain there was a signature required, and so I signed the man's name. I likely didn't make any effort to disguise my handwriting -- forgery was new to me, and I wasn't an expert at it, or anything.

Before going on with the plan, I checked in with the circulation manager. I handed him the card. "I got one," I told him.

He took it, looked at it, put it on a stack. "Good job," he said.

I headed back out into the night full of purpose. I didn't forge every card, and I didn't forge a subscription for every house I went to; I'd figured that would be too suspicious, to go from an ineffective salesman to salesman of the year, and nobody ever got too many of these things. I meted the fake cards out, here and there, turning in a couple each time I checked back in... but I outdid every other paperboy that night, and I got some sort of prize, right up front. I don't remember what it was, but I recall getting it, and being extremely proud of my plan.

The next night when we went out again, the circulation manager pulled me aside.

"I want to talk to you about some of these subscriptions," he said. He held up the tickets from the night before.

"Um..." I said.

"They're not real."

I didn't say anything.

He said "How'd you get them?"

I didn't say anything, again, not right away, and he said "Did you make them up?"

I nodded, and he said "So they're all fake?"

I shook my head and said "Not all of them."

I remember him sighing and shaking his head and asking me to tell him which ones were real. I had to sort through them, going over them, while the other paperboys hung nearby, pretending they were going off to sell subscriptions but really wanting to see what was going on. I pulled out the 1 or 2, maybe that were legitimate, and told him the other ones were faked.

There were quite a few -- more than I'd have liked to own up to.

I stood there, wondering what was going to happen. Would he call my parents? The police? Would I have to apologize to someone?

He shook his head again. "Don't do that," he said. "It'll just screw things up."

Then he sent me off to try to sell subscriptions. I walked off into the night, feeling a little bad about what I'd done, but a lot bad about not getting any prizes. I didn't even try to sell subscriptions that night. I just walked around, looking at houses and trying to sort out just how terrible it was, what I'd done, and why I bothered doing this selling, anyway.

Not long after that I stopped being a paperboy -- but my resignation had nothing to do with the subscriptions fraud, or my feelings about the paperboy life in general, and had everything to do with the fact that I'd turned 16, and 16, in my dad's mind, was time to go get a real job.

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