When I was about 12 or 13, my brother Jimmy got a paper route. For every newspaper he delivered and got paid for – he earned two cents. I think his route was for something like 55 or 60 papers, so as long as he could collect what his customers owed, he was earning up to $1.20 per day.
Don’t snicker. To kids raised during the Depression, that amount of money – it must have been up to $36 or so per month – was like a pot of gold.
Awestruck, I decided that I wanted to get a paper route. The trouble was, lots of boys did too. There was competition to get routes at our local paper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and I soon learned the Gazette wouldn’t give routes to girls.
The Des Moines Register wasn’t so picky though. They couldn’t afford to be. For some very good reasons.
The Register wasn’t a local paper so it didn’t have as many subscribers as the Gazette did. This meant the carriers had to walk or ride their bikes farther between houses. Lots farther. Their second problem was that they were a morning paper – a serious detriment for someone like yours truly who enjoys the lifestyle of a vampire — up all night and, when possible, in a slumber all day. And their final drawback was with collections. You can’t do collections for a morning paper at 6:30 in the morning at the time you’re delivering the paper. You have to return on Saturdays during the daytime, or on weekdays after school. And if the subscriber isn’t home, or doesn’t have the money to pay, you had to return again and again. I think the subscribers only had to pay 30 or 40 cents per week but getting the payment was one of the scary challenges of the job.
Even apart from the hardships of carrying for the Register was the merciless nature of a paperboy’s work. Delivering newspapers was not for sissies. The papers had to be delivered 365 days per year, whether rain, sleet, snow, ice, or sickness. If you missed a day you could lose your route. And then, of course, when collections can’t or won’t be made, the paperboy pays out of his meager earnings.
Well, of course, I was blissfully unaware of these imperfections when I was “hired” as a proud carrier of the Des Moines Register. I was Patty Gorman, newspaperwoman. Like Lois Lane, I was responsible for delivering the important news of the day to a news-starved and needy public.
The truth began to reveal itself on the first morning. It was dark and wintry at 5:30 or 6 a.m. when the newspaper truck pulled up and tossed our bundles out. A big boy showed me how to roll the papers and he gave me a canvas bag to put them in. He told me I would have to pay for the bag out of my first month’s earnings. He said he was supposed to accompany me on my first day to acquaint me with the route, and so we set out to find “my houses”.
It was a pretty nice neighborhood. The houses were mostly small bungalows, tidy looking. There were only two or three houses that took the paper on each block. A couple of the blocks had no subscribers at all, so we were doing a lot of walking. When we started out on foot, the big boy was carrying the bag. Toward the end of the route, he let me carry it and that’s when I realized he must have been toting quite a bit of weight. The remaining papers were still heavy, and then it dawned on me: the weight of the bag might pose a formidable problem when I went “solo”.
I was always the smallest student in my classes in school, It wasn’t till I got into high school and puberty kicked in that I did much growing. At the time of my paperboy career, I was a runt. By the time we ended the route and the boy gave me my collection book and instructions, I was getting worried but decided to keep quiet about it. I kept thinking about it and worried during the rest of the day.
My first decision was whether to go on foot or by bike. I can only remember one bike that my family owned. It was a blue and white girl’s bike that my sister Joan and I shared (fought over). Maybe my three little brothers got one later, I can’t remember. At any rate, the bike Joan and I used was heavy and, of course, it had one-speed. The worst thing about it was the the chain on it was always breaking and we had the good sense to never rely on it for any important transportation.
The bike would have helped with the weight of the bag, but because it was unreliable, my plan was to do the route on foot. As it turned out, the winter snows started almost immediately, and even some of the other paperboys gave up their bikes when the snow drifts and ice moved in on the sidewalks.
I can’t remember how many papers I actually delivered on my route. It doesn’t seem possible that I could have dragged more than 30 papers in the bag. Sundays were the worst. The Sunday papers weren’t anywhere near as big as they are today, but they were still significantly heavier than the weekday ones, plus I had a few extra subscribers who were Sunday Only.
Every morning, my mother was forced to drag me out of my warm bed to face the music. I wish I could say I figured out a way to masterfully excel as a paperboy, but I can’t. It was quite awful. Especially at the beginning of the route each morning when the bag was the heaviest. In the dark. Wading through snow drifts before the homeowners could get out to shovel the sidewalks. Dogs barking and snarling at me. Trying to get the paper onto someplace dry on the porch or inside the storm door.
Most of the other paperboys complained bitterly about collections. Not me. Collections were at a decent time of day and I didn’t have to haul the monster bag along. And the people who came to the door were nice. I usually got most of the payments on my first try. It was always coins not dollar bills so I hardly ever had to make change.
But a week or so before Christmas a miracle happened. I started doing my collections as usual and at the first house, the lady paid me and then she gave me two dimes. Puzzled, I handed them back to her but she pushed my hand away. “No, no, that’s for you”, she said. “It’s a tip for giving us such good service”. Confused and trying to figure out what a “tip” was, I thanked her and backed down the steps of the porch.
At the next house, a man answered the door. When he saw me, he called out “Mother, it’s Orphan Annie, the paperboy. Where’s her money?” The lady of the house came to the door and paid me. Then she handed me a quarter. “That’s something extra for you. Thank you and Merry Christmas.”
It went that way at almost every house. At one house, they gave me a fifty cent piece. Everybody kept wishing me a Merry Christmas. It was snowing but I wasn’t feeling the cold anymore because I was in a state of shock. The coin purse I put the collection money in was bulging. I had never seen so much money in my life.
I was practically in a trance by the time I got home. My brother Jimmy helped me count the money. “The people on the paper routes always do that at Christmas-time”, he said. “They call it ‘tips’”. Well, whatever they call it, it was all right with me. It was one of the most “enriching” experiences of my life.
You may be thinking that, thanks to this celebration of spirit, I went on to become an award-winning paperboy. Alas, no. I wasn’t very good at it and I knew it wasn’t going to get any better. I realized that I would never be able to ride a bike while pulling a newspaper from the bag and skillfully hurling it with perfect precision to a porch. Not without running into a tree and smashing somebody’s leaded-glass picture window.
Thus it was, that for the first and only time in my working career, I gave up. That was the end of my newspaper career. The only time I’ve missed it since – just a little bit – is at Christmas-time.
And now I would like to dedicate today’s blob to my nephew Michael Gorman, a newspaperman who will perfectly understand every word of this story. And also to any other family members who themselves had the valor, stamina, and perseverance to have done their time as one of that dying breed — The Paperboy.