Watching the Optic carrier slip my newspaper into its plastic tube last night, I got to thinking about the art of delivery back in the olden days.
I’ve already regaled my sons and grandchildren with tales–all of them true–of our five-mile trek to elementary school in deep snow, uphill both ways. What we haven’t done in any detail is paint a realistic picture of being a “Little Merchant” in Las Vegas.
Delivering papers in an SUV may be efficient and cost-effective, but there’s no romance to it. The job gets done, the carrier gets paid, and it ends there. By romance I don’t mean the mushy kissie-face, huggy-bear activity between boy and girl. Rather, romance is the adventure of braving the ice, wind, dogs and other carriers, and making it home in a condition to tell about it.
Romance is riding by Trigger and Silver’s house, taunting them and proving that a bike can outrace a human. Ah, such bravado was great. Trouble was it lasted only a day, and riding past that house the next day was daunting, especially since T. and S. oiled up their own bikes in anticipation of this bike-riding, Optic-delivering, taunt-making, death-defying, epic-telling paper boy.
Each Little Merchant had his own route. I recently met a man my age who said he’d delivered to the largest route, 286 customers, along New Mexico Avenue.
My route was First, Second and Third streets, north Grand, Railroad, Pecos and Commerce. The daily routine lasted about three hours; the job itself lasted a couple of years. It acquainted us with many interesting dogs and customers.
On occasion nowadays, raising my pants leg to my knee, I show the grandkids some of the red badges of courage: “This nip came from Rover; this one’s from Unlicensed Mutt #13; and this one came from Public Nuisance #1.”
The years have taught me why door-to-door meter-readers, mail carriers and paper carriers stir up the dogs. Had I known this 50 years ago, perhaps I wouldn’t have all the scars.
It goes this way: Dogs like to chase anything that moves. If it stops, so does the dog. Dogs also think they have “won” because the meter-reader or mail-carrier leaves. In dog parlance it comes out as, “And don’t come back.” But the deliverers do return the next day. Realizing that the ferocious bark worked the day before, dogs feel free to bark even louder this time.
Most newspaper delivery was on the fly. Three houses on the 700 block of Railroad had identical holes at the bottom of their screen doors to allow the respective Fidos entry and egress. On several occasions I was able to throw the paper through these openings, while on a moving bicycle. But that was a mixed benefit, as the same hole made it possible for Fido to work his mischief.
On north Grand lived the meanest dog on the planet. My first encounter forced me to speed up and execute a kick with my left foot. That deft movement resulted in the toe of my shoe landing between his teeth, and he didn’t let go until I had stopped the bike.
People didn’t used to worry much about rabies or loose dogs. The stakes of the game were much greater every Saturday morning, when it was time to collect. Whereas we whizzed by to deliver, collection required getting past the dogs guarding the front porch.
Collections acquainted us with interesting types. I recall the “Money’s in my sock” lady, the radio-goes-off-when-you-knock house, and the my-mother-said-you-never-brought-the-paper house.
The sock lady faithfully kept 29 cents rolled up in a pair of socks. When I’d arrive, she’d go through a lament and pull out a quarter. Five cents to go. The trouble was I myself needed to dig them out because my hands were more flexible, she said. I don’t know whether she ever changed those socks. After digging out the four pennies, I thought it less time-consuming to give her the penny discount. A penny was important for her. For me too.
Years later, a student I had at Highlands introduced himself as a neighbor whose mother never once paid me for her subscription. Somehow I managed without her 30 cents a week, buy if the student hadn’t boasted so much about her indiscretion, I might have liked him more.
In those days it was common to send a coin, usually a quarter, in the mail, in the form of a birthday present. One customer, apparently feeling guilty over having asked me to come back later detached a quarter from the gift card and handed me the coin, along with a guilt trip that I had destroyed the sentimental value of the gift.
Well that did it! Immediately I assuaged my conscience by telling her that her noble sacrifice had just reduced her weekly indebtedness from 30 cents to 25.
I felt elated over my largess until my friend Wilfred, who delivered the New Mexican to the same house, assured me the woman had been playing that card trick for years. But unlike me, he never fell for it–or so he said.