Newsboys on the Loose!

newsboy

Blogging buddy Phil Brown recently did a piece on his days as a paperboy up in Ontario, Canada. I thought it was a great slice of (North) Americana. Phil gave me permission to do my own Norman Rockwell-styled dip into yesteryear, so here is my throwback tale of stomping over hill and dale in north-central Ohio, U.S.A. (the other side of Lake Erie from Phil) delivering non-electronic newspapers (such newspapers being folded sheets of 54-inch web-width, wood-pulp newsprint paper with printed ink that informs about current events. They lacked audiovisual accompaniment, pop-up ads, and “click bait”).

Here’s my story:

Joe Hamrick and I were shooting baskets in Joe’s driveway in the fall of 1969 when the station wagon pulled alongside the curb. She was a middle-aged woman who said her name was “Frances.”

“Would you boys be interested in delivering newspapers?” she asked us.

“Yeah!” we gasped, as if we’d been chosen to start the Indy 500.

A few months before, while our family lived in Detroit, I had a taste of being a newsboy when I filled in for Jon Longo for two weeks delivering the Detroit Free Press. Had to rise before the cock crowed, then pedal my Schwinn Stingray from house to house in frosty darkness, the melody of a Stroh’s Beer commercial dancing between my ears. It was a new experience, my first sincere responsibility. I owed it to Jon to do a good job. After we moved back to Ohio, I got a check and a nice note in the mail…so I guess I came through for him.

bike

Red Schwinn Stingray, with high-rise handlebars and banana seat (mine was a 5-speed)

Anyway, not long after meeting Frances, I discovered Joe wasn’t as enthusiastic as he initially seemed, because he backed out even before we started. (Much later, I heard he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.) So…it was my route.

We lived on Vicksburg Drive, but the route was several streets away. It covered Cliffside Drive and Morrison Avenue. “Cliffside” gives you an idea of the terrain. Both streets sloped at least 45 degrees. Couldn’t pedal my Stingray up those hills.

Frances would drive her station wagon to the bottom of Cliffside and leave several tightly packed bundles of papers in the grass, waiting for me. I’d mosey over from Vicksburg and use a small pair of wire cutters to open the packs. Then I’d stack as many papers as possible into my burlap tote bag, sling the load over my bony 11-year-old shoulder, and trudge from house to house. Then return to the corner and stuff more papers in. I allowed each shoulder to take a turn. Several turns.

As I write this, the heady aroma of burlap and newsprint paper comes back to me.

Some subscribers wanted their paper inside the screen door. Others wanted it under the doormat. I had to remember who these people were. If I goofed up, I might encounter a frowning man wagging a fat finger at me. My favorite customers, obviously, were those laid-back folks who didn’t care where I placed their paper. I think these people later supported McGovern.

There were the usual dog encounters. Maybe it was during this period that I developed a dislike of Boston terriers. The teeth marks from “Chief” are branded into my ass flesh.

Even more irksome than surly dogs, though, was the weather. I hated delivering in the rain. And I’m sure my customers hated receiving soggy paper. (In those days, we didn’t seal everything in plastic.) Then, when fall turned to winter, I had to deal with Lake Erie-effect snow. Try to picture a freckled kid weighted down with thick Sunday newspapers—enhanced by slick, colored ads and comics—trudging up and down two small mountains in eight inches of wet snow.

Could I have foreseen summiting Mount Whitney 49 years later?

station wagon

1969 Mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon

Dogs, hills, weather…what else? Oh yeah: collecting. Like most 11-year-olds, I was shy around adults, so ringing doorbells for money could be excruciating. I usually waited until the last minute to do this, such as Sunday afternoon or evening. Most folks were home, eating a formal dinner, and the door usually opened. But for many it was a rude interruption.

“Could you come back in an hour?” some would ask with unconcealed irritation. “We’re eating dinner now.”

“Okay,” I’d reply, as dots of perspiration formed. Often, on Sunday night, I didn’t get home until long after dark.

Once, the Rosslands from Michigan visited us. I still remember being slumped on our couch, cursing that I had to go out and collect. While getting ready to leave, Mr. Rossland walked over and said “Peter, when I was your age, I had to walk five miles every day before school to deliver newspapers.”

I couldn’t fathom this Abe Lincoln-like feat. I do remember my parents smiling in the background after Rossland made his remark. It was a long time before I realized that adults thought it was great fun delivering this white lie to kids.

I had a few special customers. At the bottom of Cliffside, last house on the right, lived the Grassels. They had four kids, and the oldest, Doug, was rhythm guitarist in the Ohio Express. This was a “bubblegum” pop band that had a worldwide hit in the 1960s with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” (Yes, there actually were song titles like that back then.) Joe and I sometimes heard them practice while doing cannonballs at nearby Walnut Hills Pool.

ohio express

“Ohio Express.” Doug Grassel is the John Lennon lookalike on far left.

Although I never saw Doug—maybe he was always on tour—Mrs. Grassel was really nice. She always invited me in, probably so I could see the framed photos of the band she’d arranged in the foyer.  Bug-eyed, I’d scan the ruffled shirts and long hair while she scoured the house for the $1.50 she owed me. Years later, after I became a rock ‘n’ roll animal, I learned that “Ohio Express” wasn’t their real name, and they didn’t sing or play on any of “their” hit songs. They just fronted tunes that several hotshot New York suits wrote and sang in order to cash in on a fad. Another childhood bubbleburst.

And then there were the Malones. Ah, yes, daughters Pam and Cindy. I still dream of Cindy, with her creamy, amber hair and pale jeans that clung to smooth thighs like painted watercolor. Here’s the standard conversation after she opened the door:

“Can I help you?”
“Uh…hi.”
“Hi.”
“Hi…um…(gulp)…I’m here to collect.”
“Collect what?”
“Uh…dues for the News Journal.”
“Oh. How much do we owe?”
“Uh…let me see…” (nervous fumbling)
“Okay, take your time.”

This woman was like the goddess Venus to me. If only she’d have invited me inside and indoctrinated me into the ways of things. It would have headed off a lot of stress in the coming years.

Cindy was a co-ed at Kent State. I’m assuming she was there on May 4, 1970. Every time I see that famous photograph, I think of her, and what a rotten fricking world this can be.

Near the Malones lived the Hofstadters. Tom Hofstadter had the paper route before I did. He was a year older, raced a mini-bike (small motorcycle), and if I remember, was a rabble-rouser…which is maybe why Frances took the route away from him. Tom’s younger brother Mike was better behaved. Like me, he collected Topps football cards. Toward the end of my delivery career, Sunday evenings were spent crouched in Mike’s hallway with dozens of cards spread out. We bartered for probably an hour, with a bad moon rising outside the kitchen window while I should have been collecting newspaper money, not football cards.

barney

Topps 1970 card of Detroit Lions cornerback and Hall of Famer, Lem Barney. My dad got his autograph for me while on business in Detroit.

“Got some extra Tom Keatings, Hoyle Grangers, and Jim Tyrers,” I would inform Mike with expectation. “Need any?”

“No, already got those guys. They’re a dime a dozen.”

The real gold were the wide receivers: “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Otis Taylor, and both Gene Washingtons (49ers and Vikings). Today, I have all these cards and more, though I’m still looking for a near-mint Tom Dempsey. He was the Saints kicker who nailed a then-record 63-yard field goal…with half a foot.

Our Topps trading must have influenced him, because Mike was a longtime TV sports anchor in Columbus, Ohio. A few years ago, I visited the old hometown and asked Mrs. Hamrick (Joe’s 80-year-old mother) about Mike. She told me he’d married a (quote) “very black” African-American woman, then taken a job at a small station in a small Amish-Mennonite town in rural Pennsylvania. A bold move, Michael.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiers in Hooterville.

***

My paper route ended some time in spring or early summer 1970. The wear, tear, and miserable Sundays—excepting the Hofstadter hallway—became too much. Although not a “real” job, delivering newspapers in 1969-70 was my first paying one. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for an entire collection of near-mint Topps cards.

In case you’re wondering, I bequeathed my route to Kurt Grassel, Doug’s younger brother. He was a year below me, and didn’t race mini-bikes. Not sure how long he lasted. Or if he joined the Marine Corps.

(Some names here were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me. Also, thanks for the idea, Phil.)

newspapers

22 thoughts on “Newsboys on the Loose!

    • Yes, I think they’ve all changed, in both format and content, unfortunately. The News Journal was always pretty Podunk (and still is). The good news for me, back then, was that the paper was so thin, my shoulders weren’t quite as burdened as they would be delivering a Philadelphia paper!

      Thanks, Neil.

    • Hey “Yeah”…I remember reading the full-page, b&w Philadelphia Inquirer ads that showed up in the New Yorker back in the 50s and 60s. There would be this skinny, suited man, highly excited, gesticulating, yelling, pointing to an immediate disaster or felony in the scene, while everyone around ignored him while they were reading the Inquirer. I didn’t really understand the ads then, but if we were to modernize the scene, all of the bystanders would now be staring at their smartphones while the PI buildings were being torn down, I am sure.

  1. What a fun article. You captured a slice of Americana that no longer exists. Our paper is delivered by someone in a car and is so thin, it could be mistaken for an ad circular. You burst my bubble on Ohio Express. One of my girlfriends and I played 45 records for each other over the phone and that was one of them. I guess it was an early version of down-streaming.

    • That’s cute about you and your girlfriend! (Sounds like stuff my wife did with her friends.) We had another bubblegum band in my town, the Music Explosion (same label as OE), who had a hit with “Little Bit ‘o Soul.” They actually made it to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and came close to the Ed Sullivan Show.

      And you’re right, WL, those paperboy days are sadly over. Good to have folks like Beaver Cleaver and Chip Douglas to remind us, though!

    • Thanks, David! That bike was a lot of fun for tooling around the neighborhood. Around ’73 or so I got a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed (yellow) that helped boost my travel distance.

  2. Hi Peter: you hardly need my permission to recount the rites of boyhood and getting that first job. Not only did you assume the responsibility of delivering the news, but you were able to knock on the doors of beautiful strangers and ask for money, too. Newsboys were a privilege of living in an older generation when people actually had the time and opportunity of reading a daily paper at home. I regret that we haven’t passed on that opportunity to our grandchildren today. How do they experience the challenges of independence and enterprise? A great post, thanks! Here’s mine, too! https://wp.me/p41ooi-13Y

  3. I can relate to much of this. I had a paper route as well and collected football cards. The first series I collected were the same as you talked about there. Good times.

    • Yeah, I think that swooshed banner at the bottom made Topps 1970 distinctive. Good times, indeed. I jumped back into card collecting in the ’90s, when my boy was little, but it was very different. Auctions, conventions, a multitude of different, high-priced cards of one player, and the hobby was more like Big Business. Like so many things, the simple innocence was gone. But Nick and I still had some fun.

      And welcome to the WordPress paperboys club!

      • I collected cards briefly, then stopped. I started again in the 1990s as well, but mostly collected sports memorabilia which I just recently stopped doing. Too much stuff!

  4. How’d I miss this piece. Anyways I found it and did it stir some memories. I never had a “route” buy my friends older brother did and he would give me danger pay to deliver to the nasty houses. I’m talking Stephen King nasty. Plus in my neighborhood “The paper shack” was one tough place. Lots of good stuff around this story. Trading cards etc ..

    • That’s funny about the “danger pay.” I can see a friend’s older brother doing something like that. Joe and I used to tremble at Halloween about “Crazy John’s” house. Story was he’d stabbed his old man. We never got stabbed, fortunately, but then again I’m not sure we ever rang the doorbell.

      • I love that stuff. My friend’s brother was a Joe also. Just add an Italian last name.
        There are two kinds of people in this world Pete, those who like having their bell rang and those who don’t.

    • CBH, so happy to see that the news sparked some memories! Even today I wonder how many PC rules we have broken in our distant past. Enjoy! And thanks.

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