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Newspapers, then and now

My elementary school was called Allendale, a name I never gave much thought to. It was a massive, pale green, two-story Victorian building on a quiet neighborhood street. Two years before I headed off to junior high school, I suggested to my folks that being a paperboy would build character, or words to that effect, and solve my financial situation — I was always short of pocket change for, say, a comic or baseball cards wrapped in waxy paper along with a square of pink bubble gum. To sweeten my argument, I pointed out that the newspaper shack, where a cohort of boys gathered each afternoon after school, waiting for the bundles of newspapers to arrive, was less than a block away from Allendale.

“Okay,” my parents said. “Let’s see how it goes.”

And so I spoke with the manager of the shack, Al, a swarthy guy with a stub of cigar resting precariously in the corner of his mouth, heavy black glasses halfway down his nose, his short-sleeved shirts peppered with small burns from the cigar. “Okay, kid,” he said, “Let’s give it a try.” And so I got my first paper route: a list of addresses, street names, plus a heavy bifurcated canvas bag for the papers, some 60. I learned how to fold and tuck each paper, ready to be tossed onto front porches, stoops or walkways. The filled bag hung from the handlebars of my Schwinn bike, balanced and within easy reach.

There was a lot to learn, and I memorized the houses that took the paper — it was the Oakland Tribune. There were usually four sections to the daily. Sunday’s edition was a monster, impossible to fold, so I walked my route.

I soon learned that I was most accurate when throwing cross-arm, and with some practice I usually hit my target. When I didn’t, I’d stop and approach the house, listening for a bark or a growl, find the paper on the lawn or in a flowerbed bed, walk to the bottom step of the porch and give it an underhand throw, aiming for the doormat.

I loved being a newsboy, delivering a paper that some people waited for. Often I noticed a curtain would push back when the thwack of the paper hit the porch. And, of course, I met the people who lived behind the doors and windows. Once a month I’d walk my route to collect for the paper. I had a small receipt book, a carpenter’s apron for change, and a pencil behind my ear. At times, when I rang the bell or knocked on the door, a very large person would answer, look at me, and though we had met before, growl, “Yeah?” If there is a generic image of this individual lodged in my memory, it’s of a man, his white T-shirt stained yellow under his arms, his chin stubbled, his squint creviced. I’d smile and say, “Collecting for the Tribune.” On occasion he might say something like, “Look, kid, catch me next month will ya?” It really wasn’t a question and I’d look at him and nod and mark him down as unpaid for that month. All in all, though, people were pretty nice.

I usually collected on Sundays, when I knew people were home. There were some who would answer the door, women, mostly, and turn and call over a shoulder, “Come on in,” and I’d step into a living room that looked and smelled so very different from my own. Sometimes I kept an eye on a baby while the mom went into the kitchen for her purse. Or I’d stand very still as a dog gave me a good sniff, poking its nose into my crotch. If I smelled cookies, I’d leave with dollar bills tucked in my apron and a couple of homemades in hand.

I loved being a paperboy. I loved newspapers before I ever read one or really knew what they were. That would come later.

Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.

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