Monday, November 16, 2009


(Note: This entry is rather long.)

My first job was a paper route. That fact makes me feel like a real American boy. I started in my neighborhood when I was about twelve, delivering my hometown paper, The Davis Enterprise. It was published six days a week: Monday through Friday in the afternoons and Sunday mornings.

I started off using the bag, the one that goes over your head like a poncho, with pouches in the front and the back. Putting on that bag, heavy and tight with newspapers, was a skill that took me months to learn. At first I would try to crawl under it, stick my neck through the collar, and stand up. Then I figured out how to use the bag's own weight to generate enough momentum to swing it up and over my head. It was a fluid movement, graceful, I think, and you had to commit to it otherwise that bag would hit your shoulder or rake the side of your head and you'd have to try again. The only thing I can compare it to is putting on a backpack carrier with a thirty-pound toddler in it.

This is just like me, except I had more freckles and less gumption. Also, note how such a system requires constant rotation lest the back pouch become so much heavier than the front pouch that the carrier gets choked, or pulled backwards off his bike, or worse.

* * *

A guy in a van dropped the papers off on the sidewalk in front of my house.

The papers were delivered in a stack, flat, the way they look inside a vending machine, bundled with a plastic strap that I could saw through with my house key. I clearly remember the pop that the plastic would make as it snapped and fell away.

If it wasn't raining I would sit down on the sidewalk and fold the papers right there. If it was wet, I would haul the bundles up the driveway and fold them just inside my front door, my pile of papers spilling off the cold tile onto the living room carpet leaving faint smudges of newsprint on the floor and being constantly tramped on by pets and people. If anyone was perturbed by the sight of a muddy paw print on their front page I never heard about it.

* * *

The nice thing about working for a hometown paper was that it was small. Not a lot of news. It could be easily tri-folded like you would a letter.

But there is an ideal range of bulk for the tri-fold. Too thick and not even a double rubber band will keep it in check--it doesn't pack well and to throw it with any force is to risk a mid-air explosion. But too thin and it's like throwing a piece of cardboard or a playing card: weak, erratic, unpredictable. A good tri-fold can be thrown like a frisbee, one flick of the wrist and it sails in a straight line right up the driveway, or the stairs, depending on if you are delivering to houses or apartments.

On most days a tri-fold was ideal. But sometimes Sunday was too big for anything but a sloppy bi-fold (or, on holidays, a tubular approach where the paper is rolled lengthwise without bending the spine), and Mondays were almost always so word-hungry that a quadruple or quintuple-fold was in order.

By the time you finished a quintuple-fold you were basically holding a hard stick of newspaper in your hand. A stick that could be tossed off sideways like a typical tri-fold, but that could also, on extremely miserable or extremely rapturous days, be thrown overhand like a baseball. And travel at great speeds for great distances, even right up to people's doorsteps.

And get you in trouble.

Screenshot from one of my favorite original Nintendo games: Paperboy.

* * *

At one point there were three paper routes in our household. I had the streets in our immediate neighborhood as well as a stable of student-dominated (I grew up in a university town) apartment complexes on Lake Boulevard, three blocks away. Dustin, my younger brother, got the new development on the other side of the drainage pond that backed up to our house.

I say "household" because I have very nice parents. In particular, my father would often get up with us at 5:00 am on Sunday mornings and drive while we threw papers from the back of his gold Mazda pickup truck, or hopped out at key locations to make pinpoint strikes into the apartment complexes. This was the same pickup truck I drove through fields, parks and pedestrian overpasses late at night. The same truck whose beautifully textured vinyl seat I allowed to be burned by a rogue ash from a friend's cigarette. The same truck I decked out with an Alpine tape deck and hi-fi box speakers behind the seat. The same truck from which budding vandals threw leftover jack-o-lanterns, Christmas trees, oranges and eggs. The same truck.

Sometimes, when we were sick or otherwise afflicted, he would even do the whole route for us.

We certainly didn't deserve that kind of a father.

* * *

Somewhere along the way we acquired a bike with a big front basket.

Ours wasn't quite this cool.

What we gave up in ability to avoid walls, cars, and bushes we certainly gained in coolness, capacity, and dignity.

* * *

One Sunday morning I loosed a bundle of papers in the twilight and looked at the top headline. A boy my age had been murdered. His name was Andrew Mocus, and he had been on my baseball team the year before. He was beaten and then pushed into a passing train by another boy I knew and definitely feared.

I didn't know Andrew as much more than a kid with the wrong friends from the wrong side of town. There was definitely an east/west class division in our hamlet. And the dividing line, believe it or not, really was the railroad tracks. Anything could happen east of those tracks, we knew that. The only three fights I've ever gotten in happened in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade when I was being driven across town to Valley Oak Elementary School. East of the tracks.

That morning I sat in front of my papers for a good twenty minutes, silent and still. If it had happened ten years later I would have been calling someone on a cell phone, relaying the news in breathless tones. As it was I was alone, trying to remember Andrew whipping a ball from third to first. He had a good arm. His hair was longish and stringy and he was skinny and tough. His face is smoky in my mind. I see dark features, a bony elbow, a sharp smile.

When I go home I am still a boy. Andrew, also, is still a boy. But there was nothing wrong about him. He got pushed into a train, that's all.

* * *


Bags of them. I loved holding big squishy plastic bags full of rubberbands. Thick rubberbands that smelled like wet asphalt and snapped like jaws.

About one out of every thirty would break and leave a small welt on the back of your hand. Sometimes one found your face.

I still like to shoot rubberbands. At people. Especially my brother.

* * *

I gave up the paper routes in stages.

First, I unloaded the apartment complexes. Delivering to apartments was always a hateful chore. Every complex had its own numbering system that never seemed to make much sense. Apartment 3A might be nowhere near 3F. Building 1 was next to buildings 3 and 4 with building 2 nowhere in sight. The doors were too close together, the whole thing just a little too intimate. I preferred to be gliding down the street, flinging the news with abandon. No slowing down. No harassing stares from nosy neighbors or tenants trying to squeeze past on the narrow walks with their laundry. No pretty college girls looking at you like the paper boy that you are.

I gave the apartments to a man named Richard. He was married with a son my age and a college degree, and his last job had been as a successful computer engineer. He was 45 years old, but with the cognitive abilities of a 12-year-old. He had been in a bike accident. Basically, something hit the reset button in his brain and he had to learn how to be himself all over again.

Richard and I, as interpreted by these two professionals.

I walked the route with Richard for several weeks. We actually got along pretty well and shared some of the same concerns: do girls like me? what is the best kind of candy? do farts ever stop being funny? But then I would remember that he was 45 with whitish hair and a son. I had seen Big with Tom Hanks and I knew things couldn't possibly be that easy. I was 14-years-old but in full ownership of those 14 years, having lived each one of them in their proper order. It didn't take long to see that Richard was living in the interstitching between universes, too old to be chucking newspapers and too young to be anything else. A paper man.
* * *

It seems strange to me that less than two years after I delivered my last paper, I was hired as a high school intern at The Davis Enterprise to file photos, type letters to the editor, and write the occasional feature article. It seems logical, I know, but I still don't see the thread. Seriously. I wanted to swim with dolphins. Maybe there are residual ink particles in the decision-making part of my brain. It's not like I entered into this love affair with newspapers, wallowing in their black and white idyll, dreaming about moving from the streets to the editorial offices. When I quit I left nothing behind.

I was going to be a scientist.

Though, I always did like to read the San Jose Mercury News at my grandmother's kitchen table with a plateful of donuts. And I did make some hilarious newscasts with my parents' video camera, complete with skycam footage of a lego car accident, fake anti-diarrheal commercials, and the inexhaustibly humorous trope of anchormen picking their noses. But I never thought I would end up in a newsroom.

I just answered an ad in the paper, that's all.


Amanda said...

My first job was tossin' papers, too! In my case, though, it was a weekly paper and my brother and my dad helped me out each week. For the last few months it was only my dad doing it, a fact that still makes me sick in the gut to think about. Just a father with a full-time job who took on his kids' two paper routes to give them some spending money. Man, we were rotten kids sometimes.

Anyway, I can totally relate to the rubber band snaps and the annoyance that is delivering papers to apartment complexes.

Dave said...


A brilliant braided essay in blog form. This is what I try to show my students--how the deep and the mundane mix so strangely, wonderfully, naturally, funnily.

I delivered papers as a stand-in for my sister for a little while. It was an important experience and I guess was my first job.

Thanks for reminding me of Paperboy.

Much laughter throughout.

Ming said...

That picture of the old man and the kid in the context of you and an adult is creepy. Sorry, but it is.

Loved the story...loved the imagery. I can just see little Joey on his route. So young, so innocent...what happened to you?! ;)

DC Diva said...

Beautiful story Joe! I enjoyed reading it. I could picture perfectly everything you described. These are the life experiences, aren't they?

Kristen said...

Oh yes, the ting of the snapping rubberband welt.

Great story, thanks for sharing!

Linda said...

Warm & tender memories, excellent imagery, especially of you, reading about Andrew Mocus.

Joe Dad Plicka said...

Lovely essay and memories galore. The Sunday AM's were the best with the truck delivery.

Adrienne said...

I love reading what you write! I have heard before the sweet memory Dustin has of your Dad helping with the paper route on those early and cold mornings. Thanks for sharing it!