E K Saunders, Paper Boy Inc.
I was a pre-teen scion of industry, my fortune made on the heels of a massive paper route conglomerate. In a few short years I’d gone from one measly route, which paid the bills, to four routes, which bought the bling.
Riley Jackson was an army-brat whose dad was shipping out to Germany to the front lines of the Cold War, where he’d be shining up the tanks parked on NATO’s eastern flank to scare the shit out of the Reds. Riley offered me his paper route before he left for the land of lederhosen. I’d sometimes walk with him as he delivered his papers and go collecting with him whenever we fancied a fix of extra-large Slurpees to give us brain freezes and nights tripping out on a sugar high. I knew I wanted that route for my own.
My enthusiasm wasn’t diminished by the fact that, where I lived, winter meant plugging in cars so they’d start in the morning. In my town exhaust fog was a weather condition, created by a surge of instantly frozen exhaust billowing from cars as they pushed off when traffic signals changed red to green. If you sniffled too hard, your nostrils would freeze shut. Your earlobes would turn to little nubs of frozen-solid skin in minutes and your tongue and lips could stick to the zipper on your jacket, painfully tearing flesh as you pulled them off.
I was a typical kid – undeterred by the harshness of the winter – and was quickly hooked on the combination of easy work and even easier money. We would get a “bill” from our “manager” based on the papers on our route. Any money we could collect from the subscribers on our route over and above our bill was ours to keep.
Such a scheme would be out of the question today. But back in the early eighties, it was a form of child labour our culture didn’t abhor. It was a time when the idea of unsupervised ten year olds knocking on strange adult’s doors on evenings and weekends, stepping into their homes, and haggling them for money didn’t seem to bother a soul.
Among my customers I faced scores of adult pathos, loneliness, and perversion well before any of my peers. I didn’t fully apprehend some of the phenomena I’d witnessed, but was struck by the intuition that something was off. ‘Adults are fucking weirdos,’ I thought.
I concluded there must have been something dubious and corrupting about adulthood that transformed people who ostensibly started out like me into lunatics. I could hardly wait to walk that adult gauntlet, the idea not tempered in any way by the reality I’d probably become a bona fide nut-job like many of my customers. Adults didn’t live with their bossy, apoplectic mothers and slobber-faced brothers, at least back then, two realities that outweighed the negative baggage.
After a year, I had bought out the paper routes of the other, less energetic, less earnest kids who delivered papers in the town-house and apartment complex where I lived. Four routes had become one route. All mine. I was an entrepreneur, a master of my own destiny, and I loved it. I didn’t have to ask my poor, single mother for money she didn’t have. I imagined I was saving her the guilt of being unable to provide any frills for her kids. I was happy to take the burden off and make my own way in the world.
The amassing of such a large area of responsibility required creativity to minimize the imposition on my life and keep complaints down. I paid well below what I made to get friends to help, anticipating Wal-Mart’s shabby labour practices long before they made the company billions. I extorted my brother with threats of wedgies, wet-willies, and noogies. I considered myself a benevolent older brother for extending the option.
I had an iron-clad memory and was a visual thinker. Every customer got their paper because I had all two-hundred homes in my route committed to memory. I didn’t need to rely on a list to deliver my papers like the feeble-minded schlubs who had the routes before me.
My route had four apartment blocks and fifteen clusters of town houses. I could get it done in under an hour, most days. At the start of the route I had to find a way to carry four stuffed newspaper bags. On Saturdays, when the paper was full of extras, I looked like a Sherpa carting supplies for an expedition up Mount Everest.
I mapped out the most effective, efficient way to get my papers delivered fast to make sure folks would have their paper in time to stuff their faces with Hamburger Helper and watch the evening news. Delivering to all my customers in the apartment buildings was fast and easy. The main stairwell went up the middle of these three-storey buildings, separating each floor into a left and right hall. So, I’d start with the apartment’s stack in my arms and run down the left hallway of the first, second, and third floors tossing papers as I ran past each door. Then I’d do the same on the right side of the building to get down. A friend timed me, and I finished a whole apartment in about two and a half minutes.
My customers were relieved to have me over the previous paperboys, who I learned were extremely unreliable. They had often made mistakes and many customers did not get their paper. When they did get it, it often came late, as they were ready to watch their M*A*S*H re-runs and hit the sack.
I also learned my predecessors weren’t much conversation, which didn’t build the goodwill needed to have people overlook their shabby performance. I was well-spoken enough to offer more than a grunt in response to their mindless banter. I could carry a decent conversation, even if I couldn’t be less interested in its contents. I credit the years as a fly on the wall at my rich grandparents’ country club for insights on how to make obsequious idle chatter if it meant cheddar in the bank. Compared to the knuckleheads before me, E K Saunders Paperboy Inc. was a benchmark of customer service.
The size of my route meant I had to be strategic with collections. There were several lonely widows on my route. I couldn’t collect from too many of them in one night, especially if it was on an evening before my bill was paid. They’d wait with their door open and a fresh batch of cookies, wooing me away from my fruitless attempt to tiptoe past their door to the fire escape.
I was like a mouse, their offerings of sweets the favoured tune of these septuagenarian pied pipers. Before I realized I’d succumbed, there I was watching Family Feud with Mrs. McDougall in her housecoat and baggy stockings, wearing earmuffs to protect my hearing from the volume on her television, which was louder than a stack of Marshall amps at a Judas Priest concert.
If I hit too many of these old ladies it would take weeks to collect and, over time, would end up morbidly obese. My belly had quickly reflected the fruits of my success; I was getting chubby from the junk food my wealth afforded. I could never decline gracious offerings of baked goods from customers because I was polite, weak-willed, and eleven.
There were several pervy women on my route. One would answer the door in mid-riff revealing teddies and slinky pajama bottoms, and I couldn’t help but notice it was always cool and bra-less in her apartment. Another would throw the door open with a warm “hi sweetie,” and float angelically to her credenza to get her loot. Her bouncy, perky bosom would send a flurry of waves cascading through her gown, the breeze of her gait lifting it to reveal glimpses of alabaster flesh beneath.
I’d given her a newspaper, but she’d given me a chapter of an Anaïs Nin novel every two weeks. It seemed unfair to charge her for the papers, but I would never have been able to live my very own version of Delta of Venus if I didn’t collect, so I took the money, reluctantly. The memories kept me enthralled in teenaged masturbatory bliss for years to come as I imagined countless iterations of what could have transpired had I been just a little older, or had they been willing pedophiles.
I realized there was a species of female vastly unlike my flabby, lumpy, stubby mother. This exotic variety of female had skin like butter and bodies with curves and dimples in places that left a tingling, alert sensation in a part of my body that my eleven year old self hadn’t quite got to know yet, but really was beginning to enjoy. I never, ever went collecting in sweatpants when I planned to hit these homes.
Collecting payment from customers was at times a cat and mouse game. The brinkmanship between enterprising child and the irresponsible adults on my route was striking. It occurred to me the newspaper’s collections strategy was incredibly naïve, partly exploitative, and painfully lazy: “we’ll get children to be our accounts receivable because nobody would screw a kid out of his money, but if they do, well, it’s just kids.”
In essence, the newspaper had left it up to me and legions of ten year olds to keep the accounts of their adult customers in good standing. If I was to to be used as a pawn by my benefactors in their proxy war with deadbeat customers I would have to convincingly rattle my fledgling sabre in a standoff with the serial delinquents on my route, all of whom were men. I am proud to say my sabre was in very good hands.
Obviously, the first tack was to get them to pay the honest way. I’d hit their homes at all times: evenings, weekends, weekdays I was supposed to be home sick, weekdays where I’d just skip out on school, and holidays. The wily customers pretended not to be home, even when I could smell their dinner and hear them watching television programs ready-made for deadbeat putzes, like Solid Gold, and The Love Boat.
I carried my collections book all the time. I was a soldier and it was my rifle. If I happened to see the lights on at the bums’ apartment, I’d ditch my friends, buzz Mrs. McDougall or other widow to let me into the building and knock on his door. Inevitably the deadbeat’s hearing was off. I imagined they were taking their sixth dump of the day because they lived on a diet of pizza pops and cola; that they were jerking off to smut magazines, because no woman would ever want to be with losers who bilk innocent children of their hard-earned money. In my pre-adolescent fury, I kicked doors to send an unequivocal message: I know you’re in there, scumbag, it’s only a matter of time.
I had another army-brat friend named Randy who was a little older than I. He had a massive chip on his shoulder, which I assumed was because he’d moved ten times in his thirteen years and couldn’t keep friends, which made him even more angry about it. I’d walked his paper route in the past, and he taught me all the dirty tricks to deal with delinquent and annoying customers, but also how to bat your lashes and grease the nice customers for extra tips.
Randy was always practicing his Tae Kwon Do on me, making me his figurative and literal shadow boxer. He seemed to be perpetually readying for the inevitable battle with a band of thugs who would surround him, taunt him by calling him a “dog”, and leave him only one means of escape from the indignity – with a fist – just like Bruce Lee. He was either unco-ordinated as hell or he meant to kick me in the face repeatedly. I’d kick him in the balls “by accident” on many other occasions when he would least expect it. I could be a vengeful little prick myself, and reasoned that, if he was such a ninja warrior, he should have been able to stop it from happening.
Thanks to Randy, I could kick the shit out of a door, and butter up a customer as cheap as Scrooge, or crusty as Genghis Khan and get a tip at Christmas. That kid could charm the pants off of the Wicked Witch of the West and dang it, so could I. One Christmas I made a hundred and fifty bucks in tips. The new year would be a banner year for sugar consumption, waistline expansion, and zit-creme expenditures.
I gave the bums who were in arrears a chance to be stand-up guys. I wrote my visits on the back of my collections book and left slips of paper under their door, which were always passive-aggressively pleasant. Looking back now, these people must have felt their delivery boy was either the son of a mobster or an Amway salesman.
Many evenings it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I coursing the townhouse complex in the shadows to sneak up on unsuspecting home-dwellers. Even as a child I thought they were earnest, deluded morons, but I felt a fraternity with them – we were confreres in the art of getting unwilling people to open up to our aims. We were toiling in our separate ways to absolve the heathen dwellers from their spiritual and financial sins.
If collecting didn’t work I’d change tactics by launching a shock and awe campaign of annoyance. I’d give them the most mangled paper at the bottom of the pile. I’d take the comics and sports sections from their paper – because, let’s face it, they were dudes and that’s all these morons read. I’d give them yesterday’s paper. I’d throw rocks at their window, play knock-knock on ginger at all hours, sneaking out of my home in the middle of the night just to unleash it. I’d leave creepy, angry notes in their mailbox, realizing years later how obvious it would have been to any half-witted adult that it was me, the only child in their life who had genuine reason to send them hate-mail.
For the worst deadbeats I’d find out what car they drove and get an ice-cream at Dairy Queen and squish it on their windscreen. I figured the buck fifty for the ice-cream was an investment – I had fifty bucks riding on the fact I’d wear them down. I’d break eggs on their car. I’d leave notes on their neighbours doors asking them to call me when the dipshit next door was in because he owed me fifty bucks for the paper. The bum who lived next to the Aphrodite paid up within days of the letter I slipped under her door. And he never was delinquent again. Looking back, I think I got that guy laid.
Humiliation, terror, harassment. No childish, angry tactic went untried. It never occurred to me one of these dirtbags would get really angry and want to unleash a world of hurt on my paperboy ass. Either way, it never happened, which I suppose I should be thankful for.
I told my manager all I’d done to collect the fees from the deadbeats. He laughed and said I was the wiliest bastard, son-of-a-bitch of a delivery boy he’d ever met.
I had this earning money thing down to a science. I never was wont for anything. I had the record collection to rival that of an adult enthusiast. I had Slurpees whenever, and wherever I wanted. If my friends with poor single mothers like mine wanted to go to a movie it was my treat. I bought pizzas for everybody.
I was a young tycoon. I was king of the world. Who needed school when you could make money so easily? Man, life was easy. Adults like my mom and all her lower middle class friends constantly struggling to make ends meet seemed to me at the time as a bunch of grade-A losers. The cost of housing, cars, utilities, and all the adult vices they over-indulged in to dress the perilous wounds of a squalid existence never factored into my shrewd assessment. The cost of chips, soda, slurpees, and pizza seemed a fair approximation to the costs of living, in my eleven year old eyes.
And then, as quickly as it began, the party was over. In nineteen eighty-three, my mother moved us to a new end of town. Not that it mattered. Soon the afternoon daily I delivered would decide to become a morning paper. I was a teenager. Mornings were like parents – they existed but I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Cartoons were no longer incentive enough to get me out of bed, especially when hormones and wet dreams kept me up all night. My years as a newspaper delivery baron would be behind me for good.
The money I’d saved held me in good stead until I was sixteen and began to acquire more big-kid tastes: cars and women. I’d need to get a job again, which I did very easily. And once again, in no time I had cash in the bank, a mint car, money for beer, parties, and a kick-ass wardrobe.
It strikes me now that my I could stand to tear some pages from my enterprising, industrious youth, because I don’t have money for extras like beer and parties and my wardrobe is decidedly discount-store in nature. I’ve been trying desperately to tap into the courageous, go-getter spirit I had as a child to see if he’ll take me back so we can pay some bills and have some fun.
He still thinks I’m a bit of a chump, but he’s warming up to the idea