Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota

My First Foray Into The Land Of Employment

My First Foray Into The Land Of Employment

At the beginning of sixth grade, I succumbed to the allure of the working world. The local newspaper, the Argus Leader was in the neighborhood recruiting gullible young boys like myself to be route carriers. My eyes were filled with dollar signs, which clouded any vision that might allow me to see the copious amounts of effort required to fulfill the duties of a paper boy.

I remember my parents wisely trying to dissuade me from taking on a paper route. It was a 7 day a week, 52 weeks per year commitment, which is quite a bit for a sixth grader to take on. The papers were supposed to be on people's doorsteps by 6:30 AM, which would mean having to get up at 5 AM every morning. Collection of subscription fees were done on a monthly basis by the carriers. Despite their opposition, they allowed me to make the decision and I became a carrier for the Argus Leader.

I soon discovered that my parents were correct: there was a lot more being a paper boy than I had anticipated. The papers were dropped off on the corner next to my house around 4:30 AM. I would have to go out and retrieve the stack. I would bring them inside, roll them up, rubber band them and put them in my bag. If all went well I was given enough papers to cover my route. If not, I would have to call the paper and have my district manager bring me however many papers I was short.

On Wednesdays and Sundays, the papers were extra heavy. It would be all I could do to lift the bag once I had them folded. On these days I would load our old wagon with the papers, which eliminated the effort to carry the papers but slowed me down significantly.

Thankfully I only had about 35 houses on my route. More or less I would go four blocks down one side of my street, and then come back on the opposite side of the street. At each cross street I would have to go down and hit a few houses. On a normal day I could deliver all of the papers in about 20 minutes. On heavy days, it would take me about twice as long.

A couple of times I attempted the stereotypical method of paper delivery, and rode my bicycle. I quickly realized that while it looked good on paper (pun somewhat intentional) it wasn't practical in the real world. Many of the subscribers had a specific location they wanted the paper placed. Some had special orange plastic Argus Leader boxes mounted underneath their mailbox in which I was to place the paper. A few wanted the paper inside their front porch which required me to open the screen door. The requirements of these subscribers meant that I had to constantly park and dismount, which quickly ate up any time savings of riding the bike.

More than once I remember a bad throw sending a paper onto a subscriber's roof. One day I sent two in a row onto the same house. I wasn't that accurate of a thrower. When I would trash a paper, the last subscriber on the route wouldn't get a newspaper that day. That subscriber usually was my parents.

If it was raining, I was supposed to slide the papers into orange plastic bags so they wouldn't get wet while sitting on the doorsteps. Curiously enough, I was required to purchase my supplies from the Argus Leader which included rubber bands and plastic bags. A box of bags cost 75 cents and would give me just enough bags for each house on my route. Curiously enough, 75 cents is about how much money I made per day of newspaper delivery. That meant if I followed proper procedures, each day it rained I would basically work for free. I was no math whiz, but I could figure out the inequity of this proposition. Therefore, my papers rarely ever got bagged. Customer's papers often got soaked.

The way the system worked at that time was that I became more or less a subcontractor for the paper. At the end of the month I would receive a bill for the number of papers that had been delivered to my corner. I would then collect subscription fees from my customers, out of which I would pay this bill. After paying for the papers and my supplies, any money left over was my salary.

I don't think a single month went by where I received a correct bill for the number of papers I was delivered. I was always overcharged. Thankfully my mother voluntarily took on the task of auditing the bill, and doing the necessary footwork to get the bill corrected.

One week per month I would spend evenings making my rounds, knocking on doors and collecting the subscription fees. Once a customer paid, I would tear off a "receipt" tab for that month from their page in my subscriber book. Of course, there never was a time when people were home at every house on my route so it usually took me three or four nights to do collections.

A bonus (for the Argus Leader) in the way they did their billing was that if a customer stiffed me it would come out of my profit and not the paper's. The honest ones would tell me up front that they didn't have the money that month. I would let them slide and they would pay me double the next month. Then there were the customers who mysteriously wouldn't be home for weeks on end.

One particular elderly couple on my route was the Fullers. They had the distinction of being the thorns in my paperboy side. Collecting from them became a nightmare every month. Usually I would find them pathetically drunk, and suffer verbal abuse from them as I tried to collect the money owed to me. In their drunken stupors they would berate me for the content found in the newspaper itself, as if a sixth grade boy has any influence in that area.

There was one stretch where they had stiffed me several months in a row. Seeing as I was paying for their paper out of my own pocket, I finally came to the logical conclusion that until they started paying again, those papers were mine. So I stopped delivering to them. They responded by calling the Argus Leader and complaining that I wasn't delivering their paper.

My district manager showed up and chewed me out for not giving them a paper each morning. I tried to explain that they hadn't paid, so I stopped delivering. This was none of the DM's concern however. His only concern was that his boss didn't hear about any complaints from the paperboys within his jurisdiction. So I reluctantly resumed delivery to the Fullers residence once again.

My father, after finding out about the verbal abuse and lack of payment I was receiving from the Fullers, decided to intervene. He went down to their house one evening and talked with them. I wasn't invited to go along, so I don't know what was said. What I do know, was that after my dad came home he told me to go collect from them again. I was paid in full for all arrears, and while I wouldn't describe the transaction as pleasant, it was at least civil.

From that day on I never had another issue with receiving payment from them. There was one day when I came to collect and found a note on their door that my payment was on the step. I looked down, and sure enough there was a row of quarters lined up. Upon trying to pick them up I was to discover that they had been glued down. So, I had to run home and return with a hammer and screwdriver to pop them loose. At least I got paid.

On Wednesday afternoons, there was an additional edition of the paper printed. This was a "light" edition that contained a couple pages of articles, but mostly held copies of the Wednesday advertisements and the classified section. I was supposed to deliver this edition to each house on my route that was not a subscriber to the paper.

I reluctantly delivered this paper for the first few months, while the weather was nice. Once the weather turned cold, however, I came to the realization that because I was delivering these papers to non-subscribers who weren't paying to receive them, that also meant that they most likely wouldn't call to complain if they stopped showing up. So I stopped delivering them.

As I suspected, I never received any complaints about people not receiving this "special" edition of the paper. However the papers would still appear on the corner outside my house and I had to do something to get rid of them.

A wise person trying to skirt his way out of work would take the stack of papers down to the neighborhood park on the corner, and throw them in the trash barrel. That's what a wise person would do.

Me, however, being an unwise person, decided that it was easier to stash them around the side of the house by the air conditioner. With it being winter and the snow getting deep, nobody ever walked over to that side of the house anyway.

This plan worked well until springtime when the snow melted. One Saturday afternoon my dad was doing some seasonal yard work when he ventured around to that side of the house and found my stash of undelivered papers. He was not happy at all.

My brother fondly remembers the chewing out I received on that day. In his words, "I've only heard dad curse once in my entire life, and you were the one to provoke him to do it!"

So I started delivering the special edition paper again. At least I got out of it for about five months.

I remember one Sunday morning I was halfway through delivering my papers when a whole bunch of fire trucks went zooming by (a flock of fire trucks?) I looked down 18th street and saw a house on fire on the northeast corner of 18th and Grange Avenue. A burning building was certainly more interesting than delivering papers, so I put my delivery on hold and ran down to watch the fire.

It was a big one. The flames went way into the sky. By the time the fire department arrived, it was obvious there was no saving anything. The best they could do was keeping it from spreading to surrounding houses.

At one point in time a kid named Jim had lived in the house, but he had moved away several years prior. I didn't know the people who lived there now, if anyone. The house was pretty run down and there was talk among those watching the fire that perhaps it had been arson so the home owner could collect on the insurance. I never got confirmation as to whether or not this was true.

Apparently I had watched the fire for longer than I had realized, as the people on the second half of my route had called to complain they hadn't received a Sunday paper. My district manager tracked me down at the fire and told me to get moving. He actually was pretty casual about the whole thing, probably understanding that a huge fire would be more fascinating to about anyone as compared to delivering papers.

As my parents knew would happen, the never-ending daily routine of delivering the paper began to wear on me. I had gotten into the bad habit of ignoring my alarm and sleeping until my dad would come downstairs and make me get up. I grew complacent about having the papers on people's front steps by 6:30 AM. Pretty soon I had slipped to 7 AM, and after awhile 7:30. I would receive the occasionally complaint, but it wasn't enough to correct my punctuality.

After nearly a year I had come to the realization that I was doing a lot of work delivering the paper each day, delivering the special edition on Wednesdays and doing collections each month. On a good month, I would clear between $28 to $30. Roughly a dollar per day. Not much money per hour of labor, even in 1980 money.

Even though my hourly wage was pathetically low, $30 a month was more money than I had ever made before. I remember buying my first tape recorder (a milestone in my life), saving up and buying my first decent bicycle and for the first time being able to buy people Christmas presents with my own money. There certainly were benefits to being employed.

After a time, however, I began to have some minor health issues. I don't remember what they were specifically, but I remember my mom taking me to the doctor and after examining me came to the conclusion that I was fatigued. A year of getting up early and shorting myself sleep was taking its toll on a growing body.

My parents made the decision that I should quit delivering the paper. I didn't fight the decision, as I had grown weary of the venture. I didn't enjoy it anymore, and the effort required wasn't worth the compensation. After a year of delivering the news, I made a startling conclusion: I was a terrible paperboy.

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This page last updated on 07/11/2018