Saturday, September 08, 2018

Part II: The Way Mike Worked -- The Paperboy and the Bully

The Smithsonian exhibit, "The Way We Worked," arrives in Cheyenne later this month. I thought about my jobs during 55 years, from neighborhood newspaper delivery to arts administration. That history tells me a lot about myself and about the changing workplace.

I didn't have a paid job until I was in sixth grade. I helped my buddy Bill deliver the afternoon Wichita paper. Not sure how much I made. Some of it went toward buying Boy Scout uniforms. I probably spent the rest frivolously. Bill did most of the collecting, the most odious part of the job. I sometimes accompanied him on his rounds.

Let's harken back to the days of two-newspaper towns. Remember those? It's not ancient history. Denver was home to the Post and the Rocky Mountain News. When I moved from Florida to Denver in 1978, the tabloid News was the morning paper and the Post was delivered in the afternoon. They both went to morning delivery in the 1980s. The News no longer exists. The Post is held captive by a hedge-fund group and is rapidly shedding its editorial staff in favor of fat profits.

I am old enough to remember the golden age of newspapers, an era that ended with the Internet although its death knells could be heard with the advent of network TV news and, later, the dawn of the personal computer.

Newspapers were big employers in every city. Reporters gathered the news, photogs shot the pictures, and editors edited. In newsrooms of 1978, you could call for a copy boy or copy girl to come get your typed (in triplicate) story and take it to the editors' desk. Hot copy was set by typesetters who wore boxy paper hats. Route Men delivered papers and paperboys (and a few girls) threw them on porches. Each paper had a physical clip morgue and a staff to do research. Advertising fielded a big staff to keep subscribers happy. There were ad designers and artists. The Post building was located where the convention center hotel is now. Hundreds of people worked there. All those hungry people patronized area restaurants. You wouldn't be surprised to learn that local saloons did a booming business. The same was true at the News with offices on Colfax.

In 1962 Wichita, Kan., the early risers delivered the Eagle in the morning and my friend Bill and I delivered the Beacon in the afternoons after school. Trucks delivered the papers to Bill's house and I came over to fold and deliver. On most days, the papers were not huge. Most days, Bill and I folded the newspapers without using rubber bands. You would think that the package would be become undone as we tossed them to anxious customers. But they didn't. At least, that's how I remember it. I remember Bill and I sailed them like mini-Frisbees onto porches in the tree-lined College Hill neighborhood. It was a given that papers must land on every customer's porch. Sometimes, the elderly asked us to put it inside their front door or in the milk box that sat under the mail box. That was a wooden box that held the milk delivered by the milkman at about the same time early-rising paperboys were delivering the Eagle. Milkmen finished their rounds by the time the sun rose. They often had a friendly relationship with the woman of the house. This gave rise to a joke about some kids looking more like the milkman than their daddy. Sixth-graders liked these type of teasing jokes, put-downs if you will, throwing shade as the kids say now, or they did last week, anyway. Sometimes it was the mailman, and it was always a man back then. Sometimes it was the handyman or the furnace man or the repair man. The women were at home. The men were there to take care of the home's various needs. Sounds quaint, now, doesn't it? A well-ordered universe, one that conservatives dream about. If only it were that simple.

Lots of paperboys delivered by Schwinn. We walked our paper route. The bungalow-style homes were built at the turn of the last century and were closely spaced. Often, they were perched at the top of a six-foot rise. It was easier for us to walk the route, taking shortcuts along the way. Out in the suburbs, developers were building ranch homes with breathing room which caused many a paperboy to deliver via bicycle. And porches? There might be one, but usually it was a concrete slab that led up to the front door. Most family activity was moving to the big fenced-in backyard.

We sometimes delivered papers to porches where the occupants were out front, maybe watering the flowers or catching a breeze on a hot day or just waiting for the news of the world or, at least, Wichita. We were obligated to hand deliver then. Old folks, then and now, were anxious to chat as they might be alone all day and anxious for human contact. We had to make it quick, as papers had to be delivered on time. The old folks who wanted to chat were usually those who complained if the paper was late. As a 12-year-old, I only had a vague idea of the lives of the elderly. I was a kid. These people were born in the last century, before airplanes and TV and Elvis. What could I learn from them?

I had one challenge. A bully circulated in our neighborhood. His name was Jack Weird. I didn't make that up -- that's how I remember the name. Maybe my memory has clouded, he may have had the nickname Weird Jack which is entirely possible. But Jack was gunning for me and I never knew why. I would be walking don the street, papers stuffed in my canvas Beacon bag, and around the corner came Jack. Sometimes he was with a bully friend. Other times he was alone. I knew what was coming but just kept on making my rounds. Bill was on the other side of the street or the next block. That was a shame because Bill had a rep as a fighter and Jack Weird never bothered him. Jack closed on me and I could see his evil leer. When he got even with me, he shoved aside my bag, punched me in the stomach, and kept walking. Now, I have to admire his economy of movement. No time wasted on verbal abuse or actually pounding me into the ground, which would take time and effort. Just one punch -- Bam! -- and on he went. Until the next time he saw me walking down the street, on the way to school or a Scout meeting. But only if I was alone. If I was with anybody, he walked on by. If he was with someone, he punched me and kept on walking. Odd what you remember. I often wonder what happened to Jack Weird.

I served a year as an assistant paperboy. Our family moved that summer, 1963, to the suburbs, closer to the air force base where my father was a civilian employee. I had no paper route. I transferred to a Catholic school, St. Francis. I had a crush on a neighbor girl. I began playing basketball because, for the first time, a coach asked me to go out for the team. I knew so little about the game. One blustery winter day I wore my long johns to a game. I rolled them up so they would be invisible under my shorts. As I jogged down the court, one of the long john leggings unraveled, much to the delight of the other team. I made a quick repair but my teammates teased me about it the rest of the season. I put up with it, I suppose, because that's what teammates did. You could be bullied, teased, cajoled, punched. That's the way it was. It's a different world now.

My only job in the 'burbs was to take care of my brothers and sisters. My mom had delivered twins in June and was more than busy with them. I made my siblings sandwiches. Took them outside to play. Fixed their cuts and scrapes. My brother Dan helped with the first aid. We were both Scouts and proud of our lifesaving skills. We could rescue a careless swimmer. We could make splints and tourniquets. We knew what to do in case of rattlesnake bite. The Shay kids were the safest kids on the block.

JFK was murdered in November 1963. In the new year, Dad was transferred back to Denver. We lived in a motel while waiting for renters to move out of the house we left in 1960 when Dad hauled us off to Washington state and then Kansas. Again, my job was watching my siblings. I was going to get a job, maybe a paper route, but fate intervened when my dad was laid off by his aerospace conglomerate. He found a job with GE in Florida. Florida? Jeez, we were moving all over the damn place. Snakes and alligators! Hurricanes! But, we were mostly excited to live by the ocean. Mostly.

Next: Teen jobs in Florida.

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