When I was a young teenager, one of the coveted jobs for boys was having a paper delivery route. The job paid all of about $4.31 a week, involved long hours and miles of walking (in Winter) or biking, but was one of the main business-training and memory disciplines available to lads.
I knew about this occupation through Timmy O'Keefe--one of the famous sporting O'Keefe brothers of my hometown, Baraboo. Timmy was my baseball captain the year I broke into the Baraboo Little League; me with my burnt-potato-casserole overstuffed glove and my burning desire to play God's game. Timmy's nickname was Spazz because he had this little nervous twitch, but I found the twitch to be just part of the charm of the guy. He was a few years older, was a southpaw, and gosh, he was one of the famous O'Keefe's. For a period of time, he became my hero.
Timmy had a paper route. It took him up Second Ave to Park, and back down Third and Fourth to the library. He and I could sling that route in no time, riding both sides of the street. I think I remember being paid in chocolate cake donuts. I remember Timmy carefully instructing me as to which houses to deliver to, and my soon memorizing the whole route. I vaguely remember Timmy having a special status among the older paper boys by having a younger boy to do his work for him. Timmy would call me "Bear"; it was his way of saying my middle name--Bayard-- a name too foreign and puzzling to pronounce. I was too young to have a route, or else there weren't any open. But the day came when, having perfected the famous Baraboo News Republic delivery system handed down from boy to boy for perhaps generations, I got my own route. It wasn't a great route, of course. When you broke into the System, you got the leavings that the more senior delivery executives didn't want.
Mine took me to Baraboo's South Side, which like every south side in every city and small town in America is where the poorer of the town's occupants resided. I attended a brand spanking new grade school on Baraboo's south side, learning to cipher with some of the poorest-read youngsters in town. I remember it being a long, very cold route in Winter. I remember not being dressed warmly enough, and always having cold feet. I remember the long slog home after the route was completed, all the way up Lynn Avenue to Moore Street. I also remember the joy of being given a better route in the Spring; of finally being able to deliver the papers on my bike. The Spring I was in seventh grade I tried out for the junior high baseball team, and made second-string catcher. After school, I'd ride over to pick up my newspapers, and then scoot down to the ballpark for baseball practice, and then rush off to deliver the papers before dark. It taught me that I could be efficient with my time; that more things can get accomplished than you'd think.
After school and on Saturday mornings, we paper carriers would gather at the News Republic office, half a block from the junior high school, and, in the other direction, half a block from the town square. The sporting goods store was around the corner, and an electronics store was a few doors down, selling 45's and LPs. At the newspaper office, we'd collect our allotted portion of papers, count them, and then sit down outside or along the wall by the long counter inside to fold them.
Folding a Baraboo News Republic was also a time-honored hand-me-down from years past. The paper was just the right size--you couldn't do this with a Wisconsin State Journal--to fold three times across, and then three times again, tucking the last folds together so it was a neat, 7" square, flying saucer. In a pinch, this folding business could be done on the run, as one walked the mile or so to the start of one's route. Its purpose was to enable the delivery personnel to fling the paper from the sidewalk onto a client's porch, thus saving innumerable steps and adding immensely to both the danger and satisfaction of delivering papers. The satisfaction was seeing a square of the News Republic go sailing through the air to land neatly at the screen door of a Mrs. Carmichael's front porch. The danger was what happened when you missed. Paper boys were assigned only the absolute correct number of papers based upon paid-in-advance subscriptions. If an errant paper ended up on someone's porch roof, it called for a certain panicked creativity if the situation wasn't going to result in an indignant phone call from the client to She Who Must Be Obeyed. Yes, it can now be admitted. We'd climb up there and get it down.
The paper's main counter was commandeered by a tall, scary, taut schoolteacherly older woman whose name I probably have buried too deeply in my subconscious to recover. She knew what was necessary to efficiently run a slew of amateur schoolboy paper deliverers, and the main factor was fear. It took a certain amount of courage to just approach her to ask for a job. Once asked, one was subjected to a scouring evaluation, each question innocent enough--"How old are you?" "Where do you live?" "Are you Bayard Gee's boy?"--but delivered in such dubious and accusing tones as to make a boy think this woman saw into his very soul. Believe me. No schoolboy wants an old woman to be able to do that.
Her approach was a good one, looking back. She knew the delivery jobs were in demand; she knew if she started a boy out with the right understanding that there wouldn't be trouble down the road. She knew that every now and then an example had to be set. Any boy not working up to her expectations would be subjected to a public dressing down that would bring smirks to the faces of the other paper boys. The smirk is a boy's most potent weapon, most often used against those younger and less experienced in life's ways. Smirks, public humiliation, the possible loss of a steady income. It was what made us shimmy up porch corner-posts in search of awkwardly thrown curve-balled papers that landed on roofs.
There are cruel paper routes where the newspaper people require the boys to collect the subscriptions. In later years I had one or two of those, and learned firsthand the valuable lesson that if you spend all of the subscription money up front, sooner or later there will be a day of reckoning. The Baraboo paper wasn't like that. There was one house where every day I had to go into a screened-in porch, drop off the paper, and collect seven cents for it. Every day. It happened to be located half a block from one of those corner grocery and candy stores you no longer find scattered across small-town America. Seven cents could buy me a bottle of cold chocolate milk and a nice candy bar. But this was the exception. Most people mailed in their paper subscriptions, and we paper boys were left to simply deliver the goods. I seem to recall we were paid according to the number of papers we delivered. The coveted better routes weren't just about location; they were about delivering more papers and making--who knows?--ninety cents to even a dollar per week more. As I said: coveted. Saturday morning was glory day, when the stern counter lady would parcel out our hard-earned wages. I remember well the sense of exuberance and freedom of those Saturday mornings. The printing plant was just on the other side of the wall from the cramped business and editorial office. This in turn was corralled by the high, long counter, past which a paper boy never strayed. The smell of printer's ink, the sounds of the huge print machines were all part of the ambience of the place. It bustled with copyworkers, an editor, the Counter Lady, deliveryboys, and the strange, inked men who worked the presses in back. A sense of purpose permeated the air on Saturday mornings. We bellied up to the counter one by one, collected our measly pay, and collected our allotment of the day's paper--still warm from the printing presses. And then we'd scatter outside or along the base of the wall to sit and fold papers, and gossip. Or we'd make a donut run to the bakery, beckoning to us down the block and across the alley.
I am reminded also (by Tim O'keefe himself, roused to life by my writing this little story) that the paper had an interesting but archaic motivational tool at its disposal. It would charge each boy ten cents for every paper he lost or that wasn't delivered, and at the end of the week, those boys who had delivered every paper perfectly got to divvy up the fund. I may have forgotten about this painful detail, as only rarely did I cash in on an extra couple dollar's worth of perfection. There were weeks, however, when I was sooo close!
A paper boy was assigned a paper bag, of course; new stiff canvas with the name of the paper stencilled onto the outside. It had a long sling so that a boy could carry it over his shoulder. If you were lucky enough to have a Schwinn with risers, you could wrap the sling around the handlebars and carry papers, donuts, ball gloves, school books, even a bat in one of those. A Schwinn bike with risers and with a Baraboo News Republic bag hanging from the risers was at one time in my life the highest status symbol to which I could aspire. Having attained it, I basked in the confidence, the status and surety of what it all meant.
For a span of time in my youth, I had, finally, arrived.
UPDATE: I got an email from my old friend Tim O'Keefe. In it he writes: "You must be referring to Mrs. McIntyre behind the counter. Donuts seemed like fair compensation at the time. Those were good years. I think we were the most important people in town in those days…especially on Saturdays when you needed to read Curt’s write up on Friday night’s basketball win. Fun article to read.