Most who know the Edmund K. Saunders of today – the neurotic, self-doubting, blathering, middle-aged schmuck who could lose money in a bank vault – might find it hard to believe that I was once a scion of industry. My fortunes were made on the heels of a paper route conglomerate which, in a few short years I’d grown from a pittance of an operation that afforded several trips to the candy store a week, to one that could fatten the bellies and rot the teeth of all my friends and I as often as our hearts desired. At the age of eleven, I no longer had to rely on my wage-slave mother for subsistence; no longer was hindered by the word “no” to appease my cravings for instant gratification. My existential contentment was not diminished by the chronic emptiness of my mother’s besieged wallet.
I had become a self-made business magnate; one who could afford all the luxuries a pre-adolescent child could fathom: amazing record collection, candy, chips, soda, movies, toys, and fair weather friends. If I wanted an extra-large pizza I bought an extra large pizza without anyone raining on my parade about how it was going to spoil my dinner or clog my arteries, especially if it became an unshakeable habit. I’d buy my own damn dinner and pay for an angioplasty goddammit. More often than not, I ate that pizza without sharing because I was rich, awkward, and did not have that many friends, to be honest. I could buy friends if I had the inclination. It was a little lonely at the top, truth be told – just as lonely as it is at the bottom, where I currently languish.
Riley Jackson, one of my best mates at the time, was an army-brat whose father was shipping out to Germany; then the front line of the Cold War. Corporal Jackson’s job: spit-shine the tanks and personnel carriers lined ominously on NATO’s eastern flank. If the possibility of our Western fire-power didn’t scare the shit out of the Reds, Riley’s God-fearing, devil-smiting Irish mother definitely would. One look at Mrs. Jackson standing in her apron self-righteously shaking her broomstick in the air yelling in her shrill, hair-splitting voice, “You bleedin’ heathens have got the devil in ye,” and the Soviets would have deemed the goal of obliterating the Western imperialists not worth the headache if it meant having to re-educate the likes of her.
Riley offered me his lucrative paper route before he left Canada for the land of Hitler and lederhosen, which is what my grandmother, unable to let WWII bygones be bygones, called Germany. I said ‘jah wolt’ without a moment’s hesitation. Thus I began my propitious ascent to magnate-hood, an existence where I would not have given a hoot if you told me ‘magnate-hood’ is not really a word; when I knew instinctively that being rich was more worthwhile than being literate.
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 to dial someone’s number, particularly if it had eights and nines in it, 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 the “managers”, for all the management acumen they possessed, consisted of ex-cons, side-gigging school crossing guards, or Vietnam draft dodgers who believed the CIA was hunting them down for psychological experiments hatched 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 the arrangement involved the unacceptable risk of a child being victimized was a nit-picky bump in the hedonistic fast-lane travelled by the legions of our easy-living, self-indulgent Baby Boomer parents.
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. “I’m a powerless dupe you say? Funny, I got eighteen green Queen Elizabeths [the colour and face on the $20 bill] in my wallet that says I’m doing fine,” is what I would have said had a pamphleteering Marxist suggested I and my pre-pubescent comrades unionize to demand a more ethically defensible working arrangement. I had been well-conned by my corporate executive grandfather into believing unions were a force of evil only slightly less diabolical than Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s then-Prime Minister.
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. 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.
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 if he didn’t help out. I considered it a great act of benevolence for even extending the option. I also plied him with as much of the junk food he loved to keep him happy, which didn’t cut into profits because his tastes were cheap and low-end; reined in as they were by my mother’s meagre means.
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. All the same, I was thrilled to know there was a species of female vastly unlike my flabby, lumpy, stubby mother. It filled me with eager anticipation for the future.
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; forgettable artifacts from the halcyon days of television such as 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 art of persecuting delinquent customers. Randy had a massive chip on his shoulder, because he’d moved ten times in his thirteen years and no longer cared to make new friends only to have to leave them again. With nothing to be gained from affability Randy was the perfect embodiment of unfettered misanthropy, and I knew he could teach me how to roughen up my nice kid edges. The grannies were wearing me down and I needed to find an acceptable, shrewd way to say, “Back off Doris, I’ve got a business to run here.” Randy was my mentor and, despite his toxic sociopathy, I forced myself to be his friend, though he made it really, really hard.
I’d walk with Randy on his paper route, and he taught me how to be a snide, cunning little prick, yet one who people adored. He was a master in the art of ingratiating himself to customers with blatant insults delivered with snark and wit. They tipped him for making them laugh at his sheer, unfettered audacity. His showing up to jeer them was the key to their lasting happiness, it seemed.
Thanks to Randy, I learned how to be a vengeful deviant to laggard customers and charming shrew to those with soft, gullible hearts. He 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. 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 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 of the stack I was to deliver. If none happened to be sufficiently unreadable, I’d lay one or two on the street until a car or three drove over it. These would be set aside for the delinquent accounts.
I’d remove the comics and sports sections from the bums’ paper because, let’s face it, the only “news” these morons cared about was whether Lucy finally decided to let Charlie Brown kick the football after seventeen years or if the local sports team continued its ritual self-sabotage by trading away its best player for “future prospects”. 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 black 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, coming from a paranoid, previously alien-abducted draft-dodger, 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 certain I was one of those people for whom the song “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” was originally 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, cutting my hourly wage to that of less than a child in a Dickens novel, when adjusted for inflation.
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.
These are fond remiscences from 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 easily murdered me instead of paying their bill. The memories leave 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.