It stirred ink-stained memories, so I dug through boxes and found my canvas newspaper bag, my collection book, and even my drawstring pouch for carrying coins.
It feels so far ago. Hiring kids to sling newspapers on porches seems as antediluvian as sending children down into the coal mines.
I remember when we moved from the farm to Iowa City, and I watched with envy as the older neighbor boy ran his route. Sometimes he let me tag along.
One day he said he was going to quit and wondered if I’d be interested in taking over his route. Of course. But you had to be 12 years old, and I was only 11. Apparently I impressed the circulation manager at the Iowa City Press-Citizen, because he gave me the job.
Looking back now, I realize it was a big job for a small boy.
I delivered six afternoons a week. Then I’d go back out collecting two nights a week after my regular route. I had to rush home right after school to pick up the bundle of papers tossed on my curb. No clubs or sports for me.
I walked, delivering 65 newspapers. My route took me across major highways, through trailer parks, past cemeteries. Half the year I was doing it in the dark, and in the biting Midwestern cold and snow. Some nights my teeth actually chattered.
I remember feeling alone and forlorn as I trudged the snow-filled streets after dark, looking with longing into the windows of homes as families sat around the TV sets in their warm living rooms.
I remember having to take the loss when people skipped out without paying.
There were rewards, too.
Every Saturday, I would take my collections, ride my bike the 15 blocks downtown to the Press-Citizen, and dutifully count out the coins. All that was left every week was mine. Usually it amounted to $5, an unimagined fortune at a time when donuts cost a dime at Barbara’s Bakery, which is where I headed right after payday.
(I ordered either a long john or “cowpie”–what we called those crisp, flat, cinnamon-type rolls. If I recall, one cost a dime, and the other was 12 cents, so it depended on my budget which one I bought. But I always added one of those fudge brownies. Ruined many a lunch.)
When I got new subscriptions, I could collect prizes. One was a pocket hand warmer. It was basically a lighter fluid-filled flask that burned a hole in your coat pocket and didn’t keep your hands warm.
Newspaper boys (and girls) are no more. It has nothing to do with circulation change. I imagine it goes back to the disappearance of the newspaper boy in Des Moines in 1982. The world became a place where you couldn’t send a 12-year-old kid out alone.
How sad. Being a paperboy wasn’t just a job. It was my first business. I learned how to ask for a sale, how to save money, how to be responsible, and the increased value of deferred rewards.
Most of all, I learned about myself. Those daily two hours spent alone walking was the first experience this preadolescent had with solitude and thoughtfulness. It’s when I started pondering life, seeing the world from a larger perspective than I had inside my family. It was a privilege and an honor. And it was scary.
It seems that now adulthood is delayed under the banner of “caring and safety.” But is it a crueler crucible to deny children the opportunity to test themselves against the greatest challenge they will ever face–being alone with themselves?