Maybe I Had It Better in 1955
In 1955 there were four newspapers published every day in Chicago. I was one of hundreds of kids in the city who rode bikes seven days a week to deliver one of them. I had 100 papers or so in a canvas bag mounted on my handlebars. Had to deliver Saturdays and Sundays, too.
I don’t know why I did it. My parents didn’t make me. It must have been for spending money. But the jobs were there in 1955 for any kid who wanted them. Those jobs aren’t there today.
I can’t remember what I earned but it was good money for a boy in his teens. When I collected from customers once a week, the tips were good unless someone had lost a job, had sickness in the family or was just a grump.
After awhile you knew the homes at which you might get an extra dime. That was a big tip. The paper, Sunday edition included, cost 50 cents a week, a little more than $2 a month.
A dime in 1955 would get you a candy bar and a bottle of pop, or soda as it’s called in some places.
I picked my papers up at an old garage called “the branch” run by a man who must have once been a marine. His name was Spencer. That may have been his first name or his last. I don’t know if he had any teeth because I never saw him smile.
Organizing 30 boys to deliver hundreds of newspapers seven days a week was not a cushy way to make a living. And if one of his boys missed a delivery, Spencer is the one the customer called.
And Spencer was the one who summoned you to his desk for a proper chastisement, nice and loud for the other boys to hear, so no more calls like that from your route would come in.
The job itself would take about two hours to handle from start to finish. Spencer gave you your stacks of papers and you sat on a bench with the other guys and rolled them into makeshift tubes, put them in the canvas bag on your handle bars and then road off to deliver them.
Every paperboy was taught to lob the paper from his bike so it landed on the door mat of the bungalow porch. Some guys had pinpoint accuracy. Usually they were the ones who had been doing it for a few years.
One of those guys trained me. I can still see him hit those mats, three out of every four, if memory serves. I never got to be as good as he was but I was better than some.
Most of the houses were small brick bungalows with a few big frame houses on the corners. Sometimes you hit the mat and sometimes not but if the paper fell off the porch, you got off your bike, put the kickstand down and put the paper on the mat.
I can still hear that kickstand going down, the sound of error ringing in my ears.
I thought about that this morning 60 years later when I walked out in the pouring rain to try to find my paper in the dark somewhere on the soaking lawn. It’s always wrapped in plastic that sometimes keeps it dry. It's tossed there every day by a man or woman I’ve never met who whizzes by in a small van hours earlier and tosses it somewhere on the lawn. He or she just has to hit the lawn, no worries about hitting a mat or even getting it on the porch.
Sometimes the paper lands in a bush. Once it landed in a tree. I saw it out the window that day when the sun came up.
Whoever delivers the paper doesn’t have to collect from customers. We’re billed monthly on credit cards. Recently the charge went up to $24 a month. Quite a bit more than the $2 a month customers paid in 1955.
I live in a different city now. There’s only one newspaper and it’s on life support. But as someone who once read four newspapers a day in Chicago, I can’t stop reading it. A harmless addiction.
Sometimes I wish they would bring out an edition with only the sports scores, the obituaries and the letters to the editor. But the big thing is that in 2015, unlike in 1955, there are no paper boys on bikes seven days a week earning a little money and more than a little responsibility.
Maybe, in that respect at least, I had it better in 1955.