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Funny- I found my first story about my paper route

September 4, 2012

It was just after 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a crisp, cool but sunny fall day. Just having started fifth grade a week earlier I knew some days would be colder than others, after all this was Fall in Maine, and we could expect that most days it would be chilly after school. My responsibilities did not end with the ringing of the Forest Street Elementary School Bell, and I was watching for my younger brother Joey, who would be joining me on the sidewalk of Main Street any minute. It always seemed like I got there first and had to wait for him, he was a little slower at doing everything than me and usually had to be coaxed into most things. I passed the time by glancing from the edges of the granite curb along the sidewalk up to the comings and goings of the kids and their parents, and the after school hub bub of kids coming and going, a few got picked up by a parent , but that was unusual in 1969. Most kids walked to school no matter what the weather, and my brother and I were no different. Our family owned one car, a red 66 Chevy wagon, that rattled in the back, and our dad Joe Sr. took that to work every day. A couple of times each week in the summer Mom would “keep the car” by loading us all in and driving dad to work. By all I mean me, my brother Joe and our baby sister, Belinda, mom called her Bindie girl, we called her just plain Bin. Bin was five years old with long brown curly hair and bangs, really a sweet sister, who made friends easily, and not much trouble for me. We always loved those rides with mom because she’d ask us if we wanted to go to see the cows. Me and Joe loved farms and cows and especially horses. There were farms about a half mile from where we lived, about the same distance as our school was, but in the opposite direction. Joey and I loved to watch the cows pee out gallons, and we laughed every time, I think Mom liked to take us just to hear us laugh, and because she knew it was so much fun. Mom liked to take us on adventures and rides like that, and she always would say I love my boys.
Finally my brother would come walking around the corner; sort of reluctantly he knew that he had responsibilities and that some how he had been recruited to help with a paper route. Joey was what I’d call a stubby looking kid, not over weight but just squat and square of build, he had a crew cut, Mom and Dad made him get, Mom thought he had the head for it, I told Mom that I wouldn’t be caught dead with a haircut like that, I was the fresh one, who sometimes talked back, and ducked a back hand, Joey didn’t ever put up much a fight with our parents. He had horned rimmed glasses, and usually a scab or scrape from some mishap on his forehead somewhere. Once Joey and I met up out front we would walk together towards Matthew’s Store a trip that took about 5 minutes. We’d pass two variety stores a drug store, a bank and a gas station along the way. My dad called this a one horse town; only later on in life did I realize what he meant.
“What took you so long” I would ask Joey, “I want to get going”. I had a lot better things to do than wait for him. Joey would say that his teacher had to help him on with his jacket or shoes ,or boots if it was winter, always something, it didn’t really matter that much when he was finally out here and we were on our way. Kids like me that had paper routes saved for mini bikes and wanted to get done with delivering and home to ride them. Joey Juner, that’s what mom called him, was paid 2.50 per week, a quarter of what I got to help with Seavey St. and deliver on weekdays after school. It got dark early and I needed the help to get done in before the sun went down. The route was divided into a Y shape with each of us taking a street, me Rochester him Seavey, and meeting up to finish, each of us finishing up by delivering one side of Rochester, that’s the street we lived on. We already knew every neighbor on our end, but having a paper route made us aware of every family along the way as well.
We didn’t just get this route; paper routes were very hard to come by, especially ones that finished close to home, I had to earn it by being our neighbor Charlie Cotes helper for a whole year. I started out in Joey’s current spot, Charlie would meet me at Matthews Store, he was older already in junior high and got out of school earlier and would always be there waiting for me. We’d start by dividing up the papers loading them into bags loaned to us by the Portland Press Herald, and I would do Seavey St. Charlie Cote was a nice kid, tall and thin, unkempt brown hair that he continually brushed to the side, he kept his head at an angle to help keep the bangs out of his eyes, he was soft spoken and kind, and I think he was glad to have the help. It saved him walking the length of one street and then back tracking to do the other half of Rochester. Charlie paid me 2.50, that’s where that figure came from, the one exception was that I had to show up at the Cote house on Sunday morning to help with deliveries. His kid sister was in my class, and his dad would ride us all on the tailgate of their station wagon, so we had nothing to carry so the delivering was easy.
My brother Joe only delivered Sunday if he felt like it, and that was the difference, sort of like a raise from what I had got to be a helper. Usually my little sister would come along to do the route on Sunday morning; she would wake up really early and ask if she could come. I’d get out our blue wagon and ride her along with me. She was a lot of fun to bring and good company, in summer we’d visit the laundry mat across the street from Matthews’s store where we picked up the papers. The laundry had a soda machine for summer and a hot chocolate machine for winter. Bins reward for coming along was her choice of either. I’d put a dime in and the cup would drop and then the best crushed ice I’ve ever tasted, the kind that really brings out the flavor of the drink. Cold is the most delicious temperature for a soda. After the ice we’d wait for the stream of soda to fill the small cup, there was no such thing as super size in the late 60’s, when the cup was full, I’d hand it to Bin. We both enjoyed chewing the finely crushed ice mixed with a few sips of soda. We drank it regular, with the sugar, the only people who drank diet soda were moms, who drank diet Pepsi, and I had tried diet soda once but hated the after taste of the saccharine. Bin road in the wagon and would ask, “Can I bring this one”, I’d say bring this paper to this house or that, always on the same side of the street as the wagon, while I’d run to the other side.
Like Charlie, I carried all the burden of collecting money, and dealing with customers, and the paper company, all the things that my brother at eight years old had no grasp of anyway. They’d send a man to the house once per week to settle up; usually mom did most of the talking, since she kept the books. At ten years old the task seemed daunting, so mom would give me a piece of paper and pencil and tell me to just write the names down of everyone who paid. She took care of all the details later and would make me a list of who still owed. Believe it or not in the small Mill Town that we lived a lot of the customers would say that they didn’t have the dollar ten, and for me to come back another time. That meant several extra trips by bicycle usually on the way to the store to pick up the funds that were due. I’d pull up to the walk way park my bike and then walk up to the door and knock. The best time would be just before or around supper time. Usually the dad would be home, sitting in a t-shirt with a beer cracked open, I’d say collecting, they knew why I was there but that was polite when you’re asking someone for money. The response would be I don’t have it today can you come back, tomorrow or next week. See 70 percent of the folks in town worked for the mill or for a store or company that served it. The mill bought the library, paid for our school Christmas parties, the fourth of July fireworks and all that, but they only paid the workers once per month. So folks bought in bulk and used to joke that there was too much month at the end of the money. Collecting was no easy task and some people could get behind by six weeks before they finally paid up, a bonanza though because it felt like a windfall, and would be a good boost to my finances. No matter what the excuse, collections had to be made and at least equal the amount owed to the Newspaper Company. They sent their man out every week to settle up. Our representative was a nice man named Mr. Kenniston, who would stretch to smell my Moms lilacs in the vase she kept in the center of the table. He’s say oh Sylvia those smell so nice. My mom thought he was a very gentle sort of man and enjoyed his visits and would offer coffee and conversation. We took the lilacs for granted cause during the right time of year our whole house would smell of fragrance from our neighbor Eleanor’s lilac bushes which ran the length of the lot line between our houses which were separated by just 10 feet. My dad thought it was funny how close the homes were and we would laugh as he would joke that we could reach out the window for them to pass the salt or mustard or something like that. To make a little extra money once in a while I would tell Mr. Kenniston that we had to buy a couple of papers at Matthews store and that we would need to be reimbursed. He’d count out fifteen cents for each one claimed short and pass us the coins, sometimes it was actually true, but this was what all the kids with paper routes talked about doing. We all got together weekly because of our one benefit which was a YMCA Membership, we could go swimming in the middle of winter, this was a big deal. One of the moms would drive us in to Portland to the Y and we would swim for an hour. The water was really cold and smelled of heavy chlorine but we had fun. There was the occasional mishap, like the day that lefty lost both his front teeth. Lefty was the shortest guy in the neighborhood but he was a really tough kid that didn’t take any crap. He was industrious; He’d earned a ten speed bicycle and a motor bike from his paper route. His older brother Ted and I used to shovel snow in the winter to make a little extra cash, he and lefty couldn’t get along long enough to team up so I did it. One night at the Y pool lefty jumped in and landed front teeth first on top of a kids head. He came up out of the water all bloody with a hole in his smile big enough to drive a truck through. The space those teeth left looked four times larger than the teeth themselves once they were out of his mouth. Ted and Lefty and their younger sister Mary Anne lived just down on Forest St, the street I walked on to get to school. We spent a lot of time playing hide and seek and board games like monopoly over at their house. Their dad lived in Kentucky and their mom worked as a waitress at Sportsman’s Bar and Grill, and made all their clothes by hand. She made jackets for winter, took extra sewing on the side and was really nice. That didn’t mean she didn’t holler when she needed to. One time when we were playing hide and seek, my grandfather pulled into the driveway to tell me that he was visiting my mom. I didn’t realize it was him at that second as Lefty made the observation, that’s the guy my mom sews for, when I looked and saw it was my grandfather my face went flush and I was really embarrassed. I said my grandfather, and he then realized the error, what a relief. A kid could get embarrassed over the littlest thing, even just a classmate seeing you at an odd time or riding with your parents. I’ve ducked down on trips back from the store as we drove past certain houses if kids we knew were playing in the street. That embarrassment wore off the closer we were to home, in our immediate neighborhood we didn’t care who saw us pulling into the yard. My mom could be in rollers or her robe and we could care less. Have her in a kerchief at the store and that was a different story. I’d always ask my dad before our food came, at a restaurant on the rarest of occasions when we would eat out, if he had remembered to bring his wallet. I would be mortified if he forgot his money and we had to wash dishes or something like that.
My first experience with customer service came with the delivery of papers along our route. The first stop was on the third floor over Matthews Store. Matthews, sat on the corner of Seavey St and Main, it was like a grocery store in miniature, larger than the two variety stores in town, but much smaller than the market where my mom shopped for our weekly groceries. The building was like a four unit apartment house on top of a store which took up the whole first floor. The entrance to Matthews was on Main Street in the front. This first delivery started on the apartment entrance on Seavey Street at the side of the building. The toughest by far, and a dreaded ordeal that happened every day, once it was done, save from out running a few dogs, the rest of the route was a price of cake. To begin the first delivery, you opened one side of a double door on the side of the building, climbed a steep wide staircase, about twenty worn wooden steps, walked past the Champagnes apartment which began immediately after the last step, on the second floor. You turned the corner and walked down a long darkened hallway with a dirty curtain covered window at the far end. Following that you turned and walked up a shorter stairway of 8 or 9 steps to a pitch dark hallway. As quickly as possible you reached around in the dark for the string that pulled on the 40 watt bulb hanging loosely from the ceiling. If you missed the string you fumbled around nervously to find it. If you managed to get the light with the first try, that wasn’t much better. It was still scary; you took the paper and tried to slide it down the hallway floor Frisbee style to the doorway at the end. Sometimes the paper stayed intact, other times the ads and sections would come apart and fly all over the place. We didn’t hang around long enough to find out. Once the deed was done, you took two quick steps and a jump down the remaining stairs to the first stairway, ran down the long upstairs hallway back tracking the way you came in, turned the corner by the Champaign’s, and broke several world speed records descending the last long steep stairway gathering your first real breath halfway down. One hand sliding along on the railing, with feet barely touching the stairs, you flew down the staircase, making actual contact with only every third step, hitting and opening the bottom door with a boom, out to the now brightly lit street, squinting for a moment against the sun. I didn’t own a pair of sunglasses until years later. That was one time delivering to Mrs. Burrow’s apartment, and that had to be done daily during the week; luckily she did not take the Sunday. Joey did his job and most days did not balk at delivering the first paper, as I had always done as Charlie’s helper, what he would not do, or very seldom without serious coaxing was to collect there. Collecting meant going through all the same steps as delivering with the added problem of having to walk the last hallway, knock on the door, stand there, at an outside door that was inside, and just wait. Wait alone, for that voice, to come to the door. “Who is it”, the crackling voice would say, “Collecting”, came the answer. “Wait a minute”, I’d hear the shuffling of feet and a walker, the door would open and the oldest woman in the world, besides my Auntie Melchers Mother Nana would come to the door. “You messed up all my papers and I had to pick them all up.” I’m sorry, I’ll speak to my brother about that, I’d say in a surprisingly normal voice, trembling inside that I might be eaten in a stew, I stayed put. Mrs. Burrows would count out the money and I would hear “See that you do better”, what she actually would say, while counting out seventy cents, was try to do better, I don’t like having to gather the paper all up. Finally collection in hand, we would turn and step lively and make haste to the outside. Some customers were never happy, since then in later life I have met many people who unlike Mrs. Burrows, who was kind and definitely had a point, make it a religion to never be satisfied with your first try at anything.


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