Tales of an 11 year old papergirl.

(I was, of course, a girl. And on a bike. But just try to find that statue).

(I was, of course, a girl. And on a bike. But just try to find that statue).

Chicago got its first real snow of the season this morning, so I think it’s just the right day for this…. An ode to print media, young girls, and small towns.

*****

I used to deliver newspapers.

First it was the Chicago Daily News, then, when that venerable afternoon institution folded, the Chicago Tribune. I was about 11, 12-ish (the age my boy is now, and I occasionally ask him why he hasn’t yet found gainful employ), though I’m not sure of the exact stop and start dates.

I had a paper-girl’s bike with a huge metal basket in front and metal panniers on the sides; if I didn’t remove the papers evenly as I went along, the bike would topple over, newspaper sections slithering out and sliding across lawns. Sometimes it would topple over anyway.

I always placed each individual paper carefully between the storm and front doors; if a person’s storm was locked, I would find some other safe place to tuck it. By the end of my route, my hands would be blackened by the newsprint, a particular kind of smeary black that dries the skin and transfers itself onto everything you might subsequently touch.

I hated it.

Not just the filthy hands, but the whole experience — oh my God, I hated delivering newspapers.

I remember promising myself that I would never allow my own children to do it, because if they did, I would occasionally get saddled with the task, and I was not going to ever deliver papers again — and this from a girl growing up in a house where the mom only ever took over your job if you were literally unable to do it. It was, after all, my job — unlike some newspaper pansies, my mom didn’t throw me in the station wagon to get it done of a morning.

That was the worst of it, really. The mornings.

I didn’t like the afternoon Daily News route — it was lonely and boring, and kind of embarrassing, if you ran across someone from school, or some damn friendly adult that you knew. I would talk to myself, make up stories, essentially play make-believe at an age when I think most kids weren’t doing that anymore. It was on my paper route that I was Magna Woman, a superhero whose power came from a mysteriously exotic (if cheap) ring that I had purchased at the Field Museum on a field trip.

But the morning route — oh good God, that was just a whole other level of misery. For a child in the Midwest, it not only meant god-awful alarm-clock setting, it also mostly meant Dark.

Even if dawn arrived while I was out, I started my day in pitch black, a lighting scheme that at the time still frightened me. I seem to recall having to talk myself down daily from some inchoate fear.

And the cold. Oh God, I was always cold! I don’t have a single memory of not being cold on my morning route — and surely there were spring and summer mornings, as well. But they don’t remain. Just the cold, and the dark, and the lonely streets, and the whirligig mind of an imaginative 11 year old. Twelve year old.

One day it was about like it is as of this writing (the high for Chicago: 8, the actual temperature: 2, and the windchill? -20), and when I got to the Currens’ house, I found a note. “Emily – Ring the bell. There’s hot cocoa waiting.”

The Currens were my grandparents’ good friends, lovely people who I was always happy to see myself whenever I happened to helping out at one of my grandmother’s famous and well-loved grown-up parties. I would walk around in my best outfit with trays of crackers, and some people would look me in the 11 year old eyes, and some people wouldn’t. Some people would know the right way to be friendly, and some people wouldn’t. The Currens were always in the first group.

But it’s my sense that the Currens would have made hot cocoa for anyone who happened to arrive with a folded newspaper in sub-zero weather — they were that kind of people. When I think of them, pretty much all I see are belted robes, broad smiles, and eyes like welcome signs.

I sat, I drank, and Mr. Curren took me around on the rest of my route (here the grandparent connection might have played a role). If memory serves, they did this for me one other time, as well, each time saying “Oh, you’re welcome, Emily! Any time!”

And I know they meant it, because the one time I knocked in spite of there not being a note, in spite of the fact that it was a balmy 17 degrees or maybe 23, they wiped the sleep from their eyes and put the pot on the stove. They were good people, the Currens.

God I hated that route. But there remains within me a powerful sense of pride that I did it, that I was good at it, and that I later got a chance to actually write for the paper that I had delivered. For the girl with the topple-over bike, that was quite a heady thing.

And the Currens gave me cocoa and smiles on days like today, in the middle of coldest, darkest winter.

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9 Comments

  1. Jueseppi B.

     /  January 25, 2013

    Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat.Com™ and commented:
    I love Chicago, grew up there until college. Return as often as humanly possible. Great post Ms. Hauser.

  2. Great story. Thanks for sharing it. Hugs, Barbara

  3. dave in texas

     /  January 25, 2013

    I really enjoyed throwing papers. I did my routes on foot, though, rather than a bicycle. And like you, I was appalled that some carriers’ parents would drag them around in the car to get it done. I finally stopped throwing papers when I got a job (and I’m really dating myself with this one) helping a guy do home milk delivery. In that job, our cold weather problem was that we had to put a small heater in the back of the truck to keep the milk from freezing, and thus shattering the bottles it came in.

  4. Bob Toy

     /  January 25, 2013

    There are any number of jobs I am glad I never had (and this is speaking as someone who spent three long, miserable summers as a maintenence guy at a sewerage treatement plant); the top two I never worked are: fast food and a paper route. This is a reminder of *why* I am glad.

    OTOH, I commend you on your refusal to include referenced to impossible geographic features (“nine miles, uphill, *both* ways!”), unlikely weather phenomena (“eight feet of snow in the heat of August, every year!”), or how your Ungrateful Offspring Will Never Appreciate How Truly Awful It Was (“When I was your age, we didn’t have food–we ate our wool coats, and were damned happy for that!” “What ‘happy’? *We* were miserable, and we loved it!”).

  5. RosiesDad

     /  January 26, 2013

    I delivered papers from age 11 or 12 until I was probably about 15. Newsday on my native Long Island. It was a Mon-Sat gig when I began and then Newsday decided to add a Sunday paper to compete (such as they might) with the NY Times. Usually done by bike, the route ran from about 3 blocks north of our house to 10 blocks south. I guess I delivered between 40 and 50 papers each day. Nearly everyone on the street subscribed; it’s just what people did in the 1960’s and 70’s.

    The biggest pain in the ass was having to collect subscription fees because that was how Newsday got its money and how I got mine. There were always those families who were late pays and nothing more humiliating for a 13 year old kid than having to chase some guy around for $2.50 (or whatever it was). But then a lot of other families would tip the paper boy an extra bit (might have been a quarter or fifty cents a week) and maybe that helped make up for it. (I remember having a little book with all the subscriber’s names/addresses in it and marking them paid in pencil when I collected their couple of dollars on Thurs or Fri afternoon each week. And if someone was a chronic late pay–having to chase them for weeks to get paid, maybe adding another week’s fee to what they owed as a penalty for my trouble. Because I had to pay my route manager for the papers every week from what I collected and if someone didn’t pay for their papers, that was out of my pocket until the money was collected.)

    I’m sure there were rainy days and cold days when I didn’t want to do my route and over the years, one of my parents might have driven me a couple of times but mostly it was on me. It was so long ago that I don’t remember hating it or loving it but what I do remember now, even 40+ years later, is that it put money in my pocket and taught me responsibility–something that it is much more difficult to teach my kids today since they don’t have the same opportunity.

  6. mom

     /  January 27, 2013

    Is that the real Bobbie Toy??? Hi Bobbie

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