Peddling Papers

One of my favorite recollections from a time that formed many of my current habits was as a teenager in high school.  My best friend, Dick Sage, had a morning paper route for the Buffalo Courier Express.  We lived in Dunkirk, NY, about 40 miles southwest of Buffalo.  Dick would have me fill in for him when his family went on vacation and I would peddle his papers those mornings.  This was a 7 day a week morning paper, with a very large edition on Sunday.  Peddling papers had a different meaning to us. We were not peddling as in selling, we were peddling our bikes.  Dick’s route was across town, about 2 miles from his house, and about 1 mile from mine.  Neither of us lived in that neighborhood.  When a route in Dick’s neighborhood became available, Dick asked me if I would be interested in taking over his route, which I was, and I did.  Then we began the competition.

There was a man on “my” route who worked at the Ford stamping plant in Buffalo and had to leave to drive to Buffalo every day at 0500.  The paper at that time cost 10 cents a day and 25 cents on Sunday.  This was 85 cents a week.  We collected from most people on a monthly basis, so for 4 weeks it was $3.40 for people who took the paper every day.  Not everyone did – some people just took it Sundays.  Some took it only on the weekends.  Some even took it weekends and holidays.  And some, like the Ford man, took it every day.  The Ford man was very stern, but he told me when I first collected that if his paper was there every morning before he had to leave for work, he would pay $5 for 4 weeks, which was a $1.60 tip each month.  It didn’t matter to me when I delivered the papers, but I wanted that tip.  So I got up every day at 4, right after the papers were dropped off by truck to the paper box in front of our house.  I got my bike and paper bag, went to the box, folded the papers for throwing, put them in my bag, hung my bag around my neck and off I went.  I peddled the mile to the route, and delivered my papers.  I was usually back in bed by 0500.  If the weather was bad, you couldn’t just throw the paper, it had to be protected from the wet, either by putting it between the storm door, or in the mail slot, or some other fashion.  Of course, Sundays were different, and it took at least 3 trips.  I had a wagon and pulled the wagon over to the neighborhood, then made several trips with two bags, one around my neck on either side, until the papers were all delivered.  Sometimes in winter when we’d had a very heavy snowfall, my Dad would let me load the papers in the back seat of the car, and he would drive me around.

Dick and I used to time ourselves and see who could fold and deliver the papers and get back to bed the quickest.  That was the big competition those days. 

I remember looking at the sky and learning some of the constellations at that time.  My favorite memory was that there was a brewery (Koch’s) on my route.  And the smell of the brewer’s yeast and the hops and the malt was strong in the early hours.  Across the street from the brewery was the Bentley & Renckens Dairy, and they were usually pasteurizing milk at that hour.  So that smell was also strong and mingled with the brewing smell.  About two blocks down that street was a Kraft processing plant, where tomatoes were cooked into catsup in the late summer and fall.  All those smells together were unique and I have a vivid recollection of those times.

There was never anyone else around and nothing to fear (except getting wet or slipping on the ice or plowing through the snow).  You tried to be quick and quiet and not wake anyone else up, never letting a door slam and being careful throwing the paper so it didn’t make a loud slap against the house when it hit.

Sometimes I would be short a paper or two if I had new customers.  Then I would get rid of my papers and still have some route left.  I would have to peddle a few more blocks down to Main Street where there was a market that opened early.  I could go in there and buy enough papers to finish my route, and then settle up with my distributor.

When the route in my neighborhood became available, I followed in Dick’s footsteps, and found someone to take over the brewery/dairy/catsup route.  I was able to deliver my route quicker since I didn’t have to peddle “across town” but I missed the smells.

That  paper business was one of my first experiences taking care of my customers and what I learned from it has served me very well my entire life.  It reinforced the customer service I had learned even earlier in “doing lawns” which I had been doing for several years by that time.  Taking good care of customers earned their appreciation and their tips.  I also got good feedback from customers to the newspaper, which allowed me to “win” a very good scholarship from them that helped me get through college.  It also got my photograph in the annual calendar which we took around and “gave” to our customers at Christmas time.  This was our opportunity to collect our Christmas tip, which was another healthy reward for taking care of our customers.  We always made it clear when delivering our calendars in person that we weren’t collecting, we were just delivering the calendar.  Then people would take it and ask us to wait, and they would go inside and come back with what they could afford.  People’s houses always smelled so warm and strange at that time of year, with various smells of cooking or flowers or incense or other things you weren’t used to at home.

Today I enjoy being up and outdoors at that same time of day, only I don’t go back to bed.  I enjoy getting out for a walk early in the dark, and being outside when it changes from “can’t see” to “can see.”  But today, I don’t smell the beer brewing or the milk cooking or the tomatoes stewing.  I usually hear the Jake brakes of trucks rolling down the hill through the village, or the back-up horn of the garbage truck emptying dumpsters at the mall next to our manor.  When I go out to run the roads, I have to be careful to stay on the shoulder, sometimes in the gutter, to not get hit by a driver, who is talking on the cell phone or trying to wake up drinking the McDonald’s coffee on the way to work.