As the coronavirus pandemic continues, I see the greatest loss this country has suffered in the past 70 years is a general decline in the work ethic among many of its citizens.
Like other attributes Americans have come to cherish, the work ethic’s gradual demise has probably been brought about by those lessons learned, or in this case, not learned in childhood. This was vividly called to my attention recently when I saw a grown, actually somewhat elderly, man in an automobile delivering my paper in those wee, dark hours I remember so well in my newspaper delivery-boy days.
What happened to the preteenager, pumping a one-speed bike and yawning profusely as he tossed the morning paper in the general vicinity of someone’s front porch? Perhaps today’s young stalwarts only cavort on mountain bikes, later in the day when the mood suits them.
As to the advantages of delivering newspapers early on in one’s life they are many. First, it sets a habit of responding to the clang of an alarm clock somewhere around 4:00 a.m. Whomever coined the phrase, “The early bird gets the worm” must certainly have been a newspaper boy sometime or other. That none of us has an appetite for worms, per se, doesn’t matter.
Most young entrepreneurs who are folding and tossing papers are in it for the money. As a training ground in discipline, customer relations, handling of money, bill collecting and complaint satisfaction, there are few careers to challenge newspaper delivery.
One of the “perks”, and there are several, of delivering newspapers is your parents never have to pay for a paper. Other pluses include trading extra papers to the milkman for a carton of the good stuff, swapping a paper for some day-old doughnuts at the bakery, and meeting an entirely new segment of society that either rises before dawn or works all night.
Adding to the excitement of the job is being on hand when the giant presses roll, the ink-stained pressman alternately cursing and making adjustments, and the finished product spewing out the end, still a little damp and smelling of the pungent ink.
I don’t think there are many men who pursue newspaper careers who did not start out as newspaper boys. The late Ty Cobb and I used to chat about this phenomenon on many occasions. The thrill of getting the daily news first, the bang and clatter of the pressroom, and the equal din of the bygone newsrooms all blended together to create an aura of uniqueness and accomplishment.
For my paper route delivering the Ft. Lauderdale News, I would wake up each morning at 4 o’clock (except for Sundays because that’s when the Miami Herald was delivered), and ride to the newspaper office, fold 120 papers, load them up on the basket of my Roadmaster, then I would start pedaling at 5 a.m.
My first stop was the bakery to trade a paper for a day-old doughnut. Along my route, I would exchange a paper with the milkman for a chocolate milk. My World War II era newspaper route was 22 miles long, which is equidistant to the length of the McCarran Loop circling within Reno and Sparks. I figured during the two years I pedaled it, I covered some 10,000 miles, wore out numerous bike tires, and folded and tossed some 75,000 papers.
I had the coveted “beach route”—coveted because the wealthy subscribers always tipped well. I began my route on Las Olas Boulevard, then I pedaled the causeways and bridges until I finished on 17th Street. One house was on an island that required pedaling up and down seven bridges to get to it. I would return home at 7:15 a.m. just in time to eat breakfast and pedal five blocks to school.
The late Reno notable Link Piazzo, whose delivery-boy adventures predated mine by a decade, remembered making the grand total of $14 per month on a Journal route of 28 customers. Always possessed of a strong arm, he once tossed a paper through a customer’s bedroom window, having it land on the recipient’s chest. Repair of the window blew his profit that month.
Another local product, the late Senator Bill Raggio, developed the strong lungs and mellifluous voice he possessed by hawking publications all over downtown Reno every Sunday, while pulling his little wagon behind. Later, during his adult career, when people suggested he “go peddle his papers” his response was, “I’ve already done that!”
Harry Spencer is a 75-year resident of Nevada and a freelance writer living in Reno.