I was a pre-teen scion of industry, my fortunes made on the heels of a massive paper route conglomerate. In a few short years I’d gone from depending on my wage-slave mother for spare change she didn’t have to an adolescent tycoon. I was a self-made business magnate who could afford a mint record collection – replete with imports from Europe; who could buy junk food whenever I pleased, and order-up extra large pizzas on a whim.
Riley Jackson was one of my best mates, an army-brat whose father was shipping out to Germany – the front line of the Cold War. His job: spit-shine the tanks and personnel carriers lined ominously on NATO’s eastern flank, a bluff wielded to scare the shit out of the Reds, whose tanks and anti-imperialist ill-will were pointed at us. It seemed a needless disruption, uprooting families on a whim for a high-stakes staring contest. Such was the sabre-rattling, chest-beating tenor of the times.
Riley offered me his lucrative paper route before he left Canada to join the Von Trapp family in a country I had then believed was the embodiment of the Sound of Music. I said yes without a moment’s hesitation, undaunted by the fact I lived in a city where, in the throes of an endless winter, the mercury would dip lower than on the planet Mars. There is no explanation for why anyone would willingly settle in the frozen, mosquito-infested swamp of my hometown, other than to say they were obviously people with a penchant for poor life choices. As a ten year old I gleefully carried on the tradition of pioneer-spirited idiocy by snapping up that paper route, fully aware there would be several days where parts of my body that had no business freezing would be frozen. So long as the freezing did not foreclose the possibility of having a family, I was fine with it.
For the uninitiated, a paperboy is a pre-pubescent version of the person who delivers the newspaper to your door today. We legion were instrumental in a world where it took five minutes just to dial someone’s number, and you had to clear a half-day out of your schedule to cash a cheque. It was better to rely on children, not only to keep people informed, but also to collect money from the paper’s accounts, the proceeds of which we would remit to our “manager”. My recollection is that these “managers”, for all the management acumen they possessed, consisted of ex-cons, side-gigging school crossing guards, or Vietnam draft dodgers from the US who believed the CIA was seeking them as subjects for nefarious psychological experiments designed by their alien masters.
Whatever we collected over and above the 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 still venerated; encouraged, in fact. The idea of unsupervised ten year olds knocking on the doors of strange adults on evenings and weekends, stepping into their homes, and haggling them for money didn’t trouble a soul. The possibility of being victimized by a murderer or pedophile was a bummer, a wet blanket to douse the hedonism of the legions of easy-living, self-indulgent Baby Boomer parents. The experience would either teach us the finer points of working for a living, or it would force us to grow up a little sooner than our peers, hastening our implementation of the tactics our parents used to fend off emotional demons: denial, repression, distraction, and self-medication.
In all, the time and effort we put into the whole enterprise – stuffing, delivering, collecting, repeat – likely amounted to less than a dollar an hour. The exploitation of my child labour would have been only slightly less morally repugnant than what continues in places like Bangladesh or Cambodia today. The irony isn’t lost on me that it would have been mostly high-minded, liberal-leaning newspaper organizations meting out the child-exploitation. “Pfft. Whatever,” I would have said, had a do-gooder Marxist suggested as much to me then. I had been well-conned by my corporate executive grandfather into believing unions were the devil.
Among my customers I experienced scores of adults brimming with pathos, in the throes of terrible loneliness and dissatisfaction; unable to keep a lid on their myriad perversions despite the presence of an impressionable, innocent child like me at their door. I became well acquainted with the breadth and variety of adult, untreated mental instability prevalent in the 80’s long before any of my peers, who would have been familiar only with their parents’ lunacy. I didn’t apprehend much, but was struck by the intuition something creepy was afoot with my lot of customers. It left me with an impression of adulthood as fraught with harrowing, destabilizing trauma; a prospect I found intriguing.
After a year I bought out the paper routes of 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. I was an entrepreneur; a master of my own destiny. I was liberated from the gut-wrenching ritual of asking my poor, single mother for money she didn’t have; of watching a cascade of self-recrimination seize her body as she witnessed my disappointment, or contempt, for her inadequacy as a provider. I imagined I was saving her the guilt of being unable to provide any frills for her kids. It was the least I could do 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.
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.
My customers were relieved to have me over the previous paperboys, who I learned were extremely unreliable. 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 peculiar, hollow 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 relations.
The size of my route meant I had to be strategic with collections. There were several lonely widows for whom I was their only social life, which was a little sad but also a horrible drain on operational efficiency. If I knocked on too many of their doors I could never reach enough other customers to pay my weekly bill. Though I was a shrewd businessman, I didn’t have the heart to blow off Mildred when she told stories of her dead husband, or raved about her seventeen grandchildren, none of whom stacked up to sweet little me, she insisted (handing me another shortbread cookie).
I was battling a reputation as a sweet, affable, well-spoken little brown boy. I realize now I must have seemed to them an extraordinary oddity; an exotic, civilized little Mowgli in the flesh. These grannies had come to the twilight of their lives in the whitest city in Canada, having seen up close perhaps only a handful of real, live coloured folk. To them, I must have seemed an irresistible novelty; an artifact from the jungles of South America, Africa, Detroit, or Chicago. They had only seen one of me in the pictures. Yet there I was, at their door, eloquently requesting they provide payment for services rendered, instead of demanding it at knifepoint, or dancing like Sambos, or playing basketball, as they’d been programmed to believe were the three things people who looked like me did for money.
My novelty and affability meant I had a pack of grey-haired stalkers on my hands. On collection night, I could hear them frantically dashing through their apartments in their walkers, putting the finishing touches on a batch of fresh banana loaf or cookies, perching their door open a crack so I could smell it. The lure to woo me from my attempt at an honest evening’s work was always unfairly baited. My attempts to tiptoe past their door to the fire escape were often fruitless; they could smell my effervescent youth as I drew within a few paces of the building, and I could smell those bloody succulent muffins a mile away.
I was like a mouse, an offering of sweets the favoured tune of these septuagenarian pied pipers. Before I knew it, I was watching Family Feud with Mrs. McDougall in her housecoat and baggy stockings, my face covered in icing and butter tart; a delicious mess but still not enough to resuscitate my nostrils, which had been incinerated by the powerful radiance of Ben-Gay. I had to stick my sticky fingers in my ears to protect them from the volume of her television, set louder than a stack of Marshall amps at a Judas Priest concert.
Aside from lonely widows, 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 set off a flurry of waves shimmering throughout her lacy gown; the breeze of her gait lifting it to reveal glimpses of alabaster flesh beneath.
I’d given her a newspaper on time every day; she’d given my imagination a chapter straight out 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 teenage masturbatory bliss for years to come as I imagined countless iterations of what could have transpired had I been just a little older; 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.” It was an axiom disproven repeatedly, and in spectacular fashion, by several of my male customers.
Obviously, the first tack was to get people to pay the honest way. I’d show up at their homes at all times to keep everyone off guard: evenings, weekends, weekdays when I was home sick, days where I’d decide I would get to school late after collecting in the morning, and holidays. The delinquent customers pathetically pretended not to be home. I could smell their dinner and hear them watching television programs ready-made for deadbeats pining for a different life, 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 he was taking a sixth dump of the day because he lived on a diet of pizza pops and soda; that he was jerking off to smut magazines, having found no woman self-deprecating enough to date losers who bilk innocent children of their hard-earned money. In my pre-adolescent fury, I kicked their 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 and taught me the fine art of how to persecute delinquent customers. When I met him, I could tell he had a massive chip on his shoulder, which I assumed was because he’d moved ten times in his thirteen years. It didn’t take me long to realize Randy didn’t have friends because he was a colossal asshole.
Despite that, Randy was a fascinating creature, who I knew could teach me how to roughen up my nice kid edges a little bit. The grannies were wearing me down and I needed to find a nice, shrewd way to say, “Back off Doris, I’ve got a business to run here.” So I’d walk with him on his paper route, and not only did he teach me how to be an ass without looking like I was being an ass, but also how to bat my lashes so the nice customers would open their wallets with tips.
Randy was always practicing his Tae Kwon Do on me, always shadow boxing or shadow kicking me in the face. I was grateful he was years away from being the Tae Kwan Do guru he thought he was, landing kicks to my chest, which I could endure, or falling on his ass clumsily as he missed my face. In self-defense, I’d kick him in the balls “by accident” when he least expected it, insisting my lack of skill sent my foot way off target, between his legs. “Oh are we not doing the ninja thing now?” I’d ask, fake-chagrined, insisting I really wanted him to sharpen his ninja skills. Thanks to Randy, I learned how to be a vengeful deviant to laggard customers and dodge mysterious flying objects coming at my head out of nowhere.
Randy taught me the fine points of buttering up a customer as cheap as Scrooge, or as gnarly as Genghis Khan. He gave a master class in persuasion – or rather, emotional extortion – by appealing to humanity’s tendency to extend aimless sympathy to children, especially at Christmas. I was, after all, a little black “love child” to a white, single mother. ‘Oh, the shame’ (*sob, sob, tip, tip*). It’s not a point of pride exactly, but Randy was a very charismatic guy; mimicking him seemed like the right thing to do for a ten year-old. I imagine he made his fortunes by selling convection toaster ovens or shammies on The Shopping Channel before the internet came along and ruined everything.
I gave the bums whose accounts were several weeks in arrears a chance to be stand-up guys. I wrote my visits on slips of paper and slid them under their door. They were always passive-aggressively pleasant. “COLLECTING. AGAIN. CALL MY MOM WHEN YOU’RE HOME 204-475-…” Looking back now, these people must have thought their paperboy was either the son of a mobster loan-shark or an up-and-coming Amway salesman.
Many evenings it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I coursing the townhouse complex in the shadows, yearning to sneak up on unsuspecting home-dwellers before they could hide. Even as a child I thought the Witnesses were earnest, deluded morons, but I felt a fraternity with them – we were confreres in the art of nudging sinners and heathens toward a more wholesome path. In our separate ways, our tireless efforts extended absolution to those with checkered pasts; selflessly expanded their options to right their delinquent accounts with our respective Bosses.
When collecting at all hours failed I’d change tactics by launching a shock and awe campaign to drive them mad. I’d give them the most mangled paper at the bottom of the pile. If there happened not to be one, I’d lay one or two on the street until a car drove over it, designating those for the bums. I’d remove 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 to unleash it to infuriating effect. I’d leave creepy, angry notes in their mailbox. It didn’t really strike me until years later how obvious it would have been to any half-witted adult – of which these delinquents definitely were – that their ‘secret’ tormentor 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 one of the Aphrodites on my route 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. Thankfully, it never happened.
I told my manager all I’d done to collect the fees from the deadbeats. He said the paper would cancel the account. I said, “No you won’t. I’ll get the money, you’ll see.” He laughed and said I was the wiliest bastard, son-of-a-bitch of a delivery boy he’d ever met. A great compliment, but I would have appreciated a raise even more. And yes, I got the money. Every. Time.
My penchant for collecting delinquent accounts, my superior customer relations, my cadre of grannies and of course, my perfect record of zero complaints (other than from the dirtbags who purposely got the driven-over papers, which my manager knew about beforehand), I had the art of earning money 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 one of those people for whom the song “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” was inspired.
It messed with my head. “Who needs school when you could make money so easily?” I thought. Life seemed easy. Adults like my mom and all her lower middle class friends constantly struggling to make ends meet seemed 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 tenuous existence never factored into my shrewd assessment.
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 where there were mostly detached homes. A paper route of comparable size would have taken me six hours to complete in our new neighbourhood.
Not that it mattered. Soon, the afternoon daily I delivered would become a morning paper. I had just become 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 wet dreams kept me up all night. My years as a newspaper delivery baron would be behind me for good.
Thankfully, 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 got a new job at non child-exploiting wages and, once again, in no time I had cash in the bank, a mint car, money for beer, parties, and a formidable wardrobe. This trend lasted until early adulthood. Beyond that, bills, divorce, and unrelenting self-recrimination for poor life decisions began to steal the headwinds from my pioneering sails.
I smile at the halcyon days of my youth, when I was a scion of industry, an exploited child, and a relentless harasser of deadbeats who could have murdered me. The reminiscence leaves me a little wistful for the energy and naivete that propelled me toward early success. It was a time when I was not so often my own biggest obstacle, emotionally. That would come later in life. Back then, my mind was relatively free, which allowed the creativity and inventiveness to flourish as the circumstances required. By goodness, with that freedom, things really worked for me. They truly did.