When I was a kid, until you could drive, one of the best jobs you could have was to be a paperboy. The term might seem sexist but I’d never seen a papergirl. I’m sure they existed. But the paperboy was iconic.
Back then, everyone got the paper delivered to their door. Or at least their driveway. Every decent sized city had a morning paper and an evening paper. In San Jose and the surround areas, it was the San Jose Mercury in the morning and the San Jose News in the evening. We were evening paper people. On our entire block there were, maybe, two houses that did not get a paper. The rest of us assumed that they had access to a free paper at work or that they just plain hated America. We hoped for the former but secretly assumed the latter.
The paper was delivered by a boy on a bicycle. The bike had two large canvas bags usually emblazoned with the name of the paper on the side. They were stuffed with papers that the paperboy had picked up in bales and then swiftly rubber banded each one. If the paperboy was the morning guy, he had to get up at 4 am or so to get the papers, band them, stuff them into the bags and ride street by street, reaching back for a paper and then limberly tossing the it onto the driveway or walkway of the house of the subscriber. He knew which were his houses and would develop a rhythm to pedal and toss. Occassionally, a paper would end up in bushes or on a roof and the diligent paperboy would circle back and toss another. A really diligent paperboy would retrieve the errant paper. Most would pedal on pretending not to notice, weighing the time lost versus a mild rebuke at collection time.
Yes, if you were a paperboy, you had to collect. Certainly, the paper could have given the customers envelopes to mail their money in and eventually they did. But in the heyday of paperdom, the paperboy collected. Once a month, he’d go door to door with a receipt book and gaze at the homeowner with doe-like eyes hoping for a tip. Yes, the tip. You worked for peanuts but the tips added up quite nicely. Most subscribers would wait all month for collection day to scold the paperboy for missed or poorly thrown papers. The really good paperboys knew how to disarm the situation in less than a second with the eyes, an ‘aw shucks’ smile and quickly greeting the soon-to-be buttery soft customer by name. Always with Mr or Mrs before and always with a nod of thanks after the customary ‘keep the change’.
Back in those days, the news was the news. You read the paper. You watched the evening news. The idea of having your news tailored to your point of view? Well, that’s what magazines were for. Newspapers were born to do no such thing. It was news and you read it. Generally, you read all of it. From what Lyndon Johnson said about the war and stopping the Communists, to the Governor talking about cutting an amazing new freeway through the hills of the peninsula in Los Altos to something that might be going on right on your street. World, national, state and local news, sports, weather, the classified ads and the crossword…The paper came every day and every day it was picked clean. Fully exhausted.
Fast forward to today. My paperboy is a bitter Vietnamese paperman in an oxidized Toyota Tercel with no hubcaps. He gives the paper a weak flick of the wrist that may or may not send the tiny paper (a mere shadow of what papers were back in the day) to the curb in front of the intended house. There is only a morning paper and he delivers to every eighth house or so. There is no collecting. You pay in advance by credit card and since you have never seen the bitter paperdude, you feel no compunction to tip so you don’t.
Aside from the whole other story about the decline of the daily newspaper, people saying they get their news online (which means they read six words and look at a picture or a piechart), the paperboy strengthened neighborhoods, gave kids a first job that was really like running their own business. It entailed some physical work, some customer service, some money-handling experience and dedication.
A lot of the old ways have been replaced by other better things. But not the paperboy. He’s just gone and the fabric of neighborhood life is thinner because of it.