For a couple of weeks there, in the summer when I was 10 or 11, I was a paper girl.
My brother Tommy R, then 8 or 9, agreed to take over the route of his friend Tommy Mac, whose family was heading off on vacation. (There were, at this time, at least four Tommy’s on our block, including two Tommy C’s. We didn’t have a ton of name diversity, that’s for sure. If memory is serving here, there were four Jimmy’s, four Patty’s (if I include my sister Trish, who was never called Patty, and was then called Po), and three Kathy’s. Street-wise, I was the only Maureen; neighborhood-wise, there were plenty of us.)
Anyway, my parents decided that “our” Tommy needed help on his route, which covered a fairly extensive bit of territory. I’m guessing that, on his regular route, Tommy Mac was assisted by one of his brothers – probably Jimmy Mac – or his sister Patty Mac.
So I was enlisted.
Being a paper girl had its pros and cons.
I hated to get up that early. And I wasn’t wild about starting the day covered in newsprint. But, much as on Halloween when it was fun to be out marauding around after dark, it was kind of fun being out so early in the morning, before most people were up and about. Plus there was the money angle…
The highlight of the week was “collecting”, which was done on a Saturday. I took the collecting lead, as our Tommy and I believed that having a paper girl would elicit more tips than a paper boy. This strategy worked, although I did argue with our Tommy that, if someone explicitly gave me something extra for being a girl – as did happen once: thank you, kindly Mrs. G up on Wildwood for that quarter - I deserved that extra in its entirety.
The worst part of being a paper girl was delivering the paper to the local Friendly’s. It would not yet have been open for the day, but the vents in the back were already spewing noxious, greasy, cloyingly sweet fumes. The Friendly’s manager liked his paper tucked in the door handle (just under the noxious-spewing vent) just so, and it took a while to do the job right. I can still remember exactly what those fumes smelled like. My Rosebud! My madeleine!
As luck would have it, our first day on the job coincided with a monsoon. My mother didn’t want us drowned-ratting around, delivering soggy newspapers, so she had my father drive us. He got a kick out of it, probably because it gave him the opportunity to rag on what candy-arses (not his words) we were to get chauffeured around on our paper route. Why when he was a boy… (He had a route with his sister, which covered an even wider swath than ours, as it extended down to the Brookline/Seminole area, where one of his customers was space pioneer Dr. Robert Goddard. Mrs. Goddard was still alive when we were kids, but she was blocks away and not in our territory.)
Of course, by the time my father was 11, he was a half-orphan and had graduated from the child’s play of a paper route, to a more substantial after school job as a candy butcher in a knitting mill. Since the Irish and French-Canadian “girls” who worked the looms couldn’t take any time out to grab a bite, they relied on the candy butcher, who went loom to loom selling candy bars and sandwiches. (Pronounced “sang-witches”.) Ever industrious, my father was soon promoted from candy butcher to bobbin boy, delivering giant yarn bobbins to the “girls”. He soon learned to spot the bobbins that had the fewest knots in their yarn, and delivered them to the “girls” who tipped him. (If this all sounds like something straight out of Charles Dickens, I do want to point out that this was the 1920’s, not the 1840’s.)
During my short-duration stint as a paper girl, we delivered the morning paper – The Worcester Telegram. The afternoon edition (The Evening Gazette) was delivered by an older, somewhat intellectually-challenged kid named Skipper, who was eventually replaced by a grownup, an even more intellectually-challenged guy named Roland. (Most Sunday papers, by the way, weren’t delivered. They were purchased from a news cart outside of church. Ours was manned by my cousin Jimmy, who, I believe, managed to put himself through Holy Cross on what he earned there. In addition to the Worcester paper, my father always bought a couple of the Boston papers for the sports coverage.)
Anyway, even in a neighborhood fully stocked with characters – Banana Joe, The Blue Jay, Elmer, The Runner, Mister Mur-fay - Rolie was enough of an oddball that he would have stuck out, even if he wasn’t an oddity by way of being an adult who delivered newspapers. That was strictly for kids! (Rolie also worked as a “swamper”, doing odd jobs.)
But, over recent decades, as paper readership has declined, paper routes have expanded. In many areas, they require a car, so adults have replaced kids as paper boys and girls.
I once worked with a woman whose husband had a paper route. L was the main support of her family. J worked on his novel, and brought in a bit of extra delivering newspapers. I remember L telling me that one time, when they were having a what-do-you-want-to-do-when-you-grow-up conversation with their kids, their young son very sweetly asked, “Daddy, did you always want to be a paper boy?”
I suspect that no one grows up wanting to be a professional paper boy or girl.
And, after reading an account in The Boston Globe on just what it’s like – and just how poorly it’s paid – I can fully understand why.
The job, once the bastion of neighborhood kids looking to make a few extra bucks on their bikes, has evolved into a grueling nocturnal marathon for low-income workers who toil almost invisibly on the edge of the economy.
Like many other newspaper delivery drivers, [Tony] Juliani works 365 days a year and gets no vacation, overtime pay, or workers’ compensation. He said he has not taken a day off in six years.
He delivers papers from 2 to 7 a.m., heads to a second job some days slinging weekly papers, and then a third dropping off Amazon packages until 8 p.m.
During delivery hours, most of the time it’s dark out. Plenty of times it’s cold. Or sleety. Or snowy. Or rainy. Or monsoony. And there’s no Dad to drive you around on your route.
Juliani, by the way, is 75.
It almost goes without saying that paper delivery drivers are considered independent contractors. So there are no guarantees. And no minimum wage. Few (if any) benefits. No vacation.
Welcome to the everyone’s-an-entrepreneur economy. All part or the sharing economy where us consumers get to share the benefits, and those who deliver the goods get to grub for a living. Let’s race to the bottom! Whee!!!!!
Of course, for many of the latter-day paper boys, delivering the news is just one of several temporary and/or marginal jobs being strung together to eke out a living. Many are immigrants. If they can pile on the crappy jobs and create the opportunity for their kids to get their feet up on a higher rung, good for them. But I sure wouldn’t want to be 75, up at 2 a.m., driving around tossing papers on front stoops.
Even without the ghastly fumes from the Friendly’s vent, a paper boy’s life is not a very happy one.