When I was about 10 years old, I had a paper route for more than a year, during which time I mostly delivered newspapers to the somewhat confused people who lived next door to the somewhat angry people who had actually ordered those newspapers. I never quite memorized my route.
I don't think it could be said of the Guelph Daily Mercury that it had an ideological slant. But rather I think I gave it one, which was, “From each according to his means, to each according to my whims,” because, with me among its ranks, what the newspaper had operating for it in those days was less of a newspaper delivery system and more of a newspaper dispersal system.
I was raised on a heating vent in the corner of my parents' kitchen. I'd eat my breakfast there in the morning and return to it straight after school. I was always cold, so a paper route that, as I remember it, I held for an 18-month stretch that ran on some sort of Narnia-esqe December-to-February loop, wasn't the best career move for me. However, my older brother was the Guelph paper route kingpin and he'd buy a box of Smarties for me if I went collecting with him, so I thought I knew the business.
Collecting was the worst part of a paper route because every paper route back then had 10 customers who were never home and 10 customers who never left the house. With the first group, you'd have to go back repeatedly to try to nail them to pay, and the second group would invite you inside. Little old ladies with long, chimy doorbells who, I was sure, hadn't felt sunlight in 30 years would shout far too joyously to their invisible husbands in the den, “The paperboy is here! And he's brought his little sister!” while the snow melted off us and onto their gold-toned linoleum front-hall tiles.
A cloud of smoke would come forth from the den and the lady of the house would press baked goods upon us. I haven't looked into this, but there must have been some sort of belief at the time that date squares, shortbread and certain other pastries absorbed second-hand smoke. These ladies always had dense, smoky-tasting squares and bars on hand and I felt that, housebound as they clearly were (where do the dates come from? I'd wonder), they were using us to smuggle second-hand smoke out of their houses. I think they must have known that those primitive air filters that they called “lovely scones” were going straight under the nearest hedge, then being dusted politely over with snow, as soon as my brother and I were out of sight, but that was part of their plan.
Most nights, just as my family was finishing dinner, the phone would ring and everyone would look over at me on the heating vent, and sigh. Then my mother would answer the phone and say, for example, “Mrs. Hendershott at 73 Dean did not get her newspaper tonight,” and I'd bundle up and walk to the Becker's in the dark, through the snow, and buy a paper from the box out front, cutting into my small profit margin. If the Becker's box was empty, I'd have to try the mile-away Mac's Milk box before heading back to Mrs. Hendershott's place at “73 Dean. 73 Dean. 73 Dean … or at least I think it was 73 Dean.”
“I guess we'd better tip the papergirl … .” That's how I imagine a lot of bewildered conversations began at Christmastime during my paper-route reign. Having a route was all about the Christmas tip. That was the big payoff. Collecting during that season was like an extended Christmas morning: gifts, cards, money, carcinogenic reindeer-shaped cookies were generally received. But then, so were newspapers, and I can't say I fulfilled that part of the bargain.
My attitude was, “If it's not there, try your neighbour's house. You should all talk more anyway.” And yet there my expectant face would be at the doors of my customers' houses – and possibly at the doors of the people who lived next door to my customers as well, peering around the corner and silently making harsh judgments about their sickly, weird-looking Christmas trees and home decor in general.
I imagine I put such a strain on charity and goodwill that the season, choking with these attributes, barely survived. Still, I was tipped very well, and this is to say, I'm sorry and grateful. And Merry Christmas.