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A memoir from a paperboy

The other day I picked up a newspaper in my neighbor’s driveway and walked it up to place it on his steps. I looked at the fold inside the plastic bag and vivid memories of my first job as a paperboy rushed into my head.

I loaded the Newark Star Ledger in the metal basket of my bicycle I called my tank. Balloon tires mobilized a heavy metal frame I had found on a curbside left for the junk man. Sanding off the rust, I repainted the frame red and black. I gripped the handlebars of my tank, pushed my foot down on the pedal and off I went to deliver 30 newspapers to neighborhood customers in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Downhill, my tank hit top speed just coasting, a fast ride on a summer morning with the cool breeze running through my hair.

Uphill was a task. With the weight of the papers in the basket attached to the handlebars, getting to the tops of streets took every ounce of energy my legs could provide.

In those days, the papers had to be left on the porches or the steps. Some customers requested I put them between the storm and the front wooden door. One woman wanted me to leave it on the table inside her backyard screen house.

Of course, there were bad weather days. We had no garage. After a solid snowfall, I had to dig out my bike and when I saddled up on the frozen seat, the cold shot right through my winter underwear. Pedaling my tank through roads not yet snow plowed exhausted my 11 year-old body. On super cold days, my gloved hands were still numb from the overnight freeze of the handlebars. Wiping the water from my eyes on rainy days was quite the challenge, too and the papers had to be stuffed inside bread bags to keep them dry.

Saturday was collection day. In the afternoon, I took my punch cards and my leather money bag to each of the 30 houses. When I knocked on the door, I never knew what I was going to get. Old man Kusek on Desna Street shouted out of the back of his kitchen, “I’ll pay you next week.” I made note on his card that this was the fifth week in a row he had shouted those same words.

I walked up the stairs of Mrs. Lishka’s house on Day Avenue with my heart pounding in my chest. The kids on the block said she got away with murdering her husband and burning his body in the backyard drum barrel. They said she ate squirrels that were run over by cars and she never put a light on at night. They said if she let a kid in her house, he never came out.

“Paperboy,” I squealed after the fourth knock. Mrs. Lishka opened the creaking door.

“How much?” she growled. Her dark brown eyes peeked through white straggly hair that drooped over the sides of her face.

“Forty-five cents,” I answered.

“Do you want to step inside while I get the money?”

“No thanks.’ My voice stuttered. “I’ll wait here.”

She handed me a crumpled dollar bill and while I looked for the change, she slammed the door. A few years later I heard she had died.

The kids on the block said you could see her looking out the window on a dark and stormy night. It got around that the house was haunted and the “For Sale” sign remained on the lawn for three years.

Every week I dreaded collecting at Mr. Schaefer’s house on William Street. As soon as I took the first step up, two large German shepherds bolted against the screen door so hard, I thought it was going to burst open. Their barking, growling, and dripping saliva from their jowls pushed me one step back from the door.

“Don’t worry. They won’t hurt you,” a voice shouted from inside the house as the dogs snarled and leaped again and again against the screen. Mr. Shaefer came to the door to pay his bill with a dollar clenched between his teeth while he held each raging dog by their collars. I had to open the door and grab the money from his mouth. I turned and ran, thinking those savage beasts were going to break free and eat me alive.

Every two weeks, Mr. Kloch from the Ledger would come to collect the money. After I paid the amount, the rest was mine. Counting the change and then shoving the coins in wrappers was the fun part to see how much money I made.

At Christmas, I got bigger tips. I remember Mrs. Lishka gave me five extra dollars. Mr. Shaefer invited me in for some hot chocolate, but I’d rather stick a needle in my eye than step into a room with his dogs. Old man Kusek on Desna Street finally paid his bill which was so much, it was more than the sum of my tips.

My paperboy job taught me about managing money, serving customers, and accepting responsibility, all of which helped me move easier into my adult years.

I remember the time when I was in a grocery store with my mother. A family approached us and their little kid pointed at me and shouted, “That’s our paperboy!” I felt proud that moment and I still do today.

Paperboys have a significant place in the history of the American neighborhood. We were a nation of bike riding, news delivering entrepreneurs and just like the U.S. mail carriers, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Rich Strack can be reached at katehep11@gmail.com.