Essay: Lessons From the Paper Route

Oct 18, 2016

Essayist Jim Spangler spent much of his working life at and around newspapers, during which he met people from many walks of life. But it was as a small town Iowa teenager, working a paper route, that he says he learned some of his first lessons about profit, people, and prejudice:

When I hung up my newspaper bag for the last time 58-years-ago, the Clinton (IA) Herald, my home town daily, was delivered and paid for by every single one of the 68 families on my route. Everyone except Old Ed (black '49 Chrysler). 

Like so many boys of my vintage, that paper route was my first venture into high finance. I bought the papers wholesale and sold them retail with a weekly profit of about nine dollars. Except at Christmas when the tips rolled in. Many customers would give me a buck, 30 cents for the paper and the rest for my tip. A few high rollers would pay the 30 cents and then give me a dollar. And then there was Mrs. Myers ('55 Caddy two-door green) who tipped five dollars and the 30 cents. Her paper went inside the screen door every day and I'd ring the doorbell to tell her the Herald had arrived.

As I mentally walk my paper route of 58-years-ago, I can't remember many of the names, but I can recall the cars. 

Mr. 53 Ford (four-door blue and white) waited on his back porch for me every afternoon. He nailed all his old license plates to the back of hi garage and he never gave me a tip. Spent too much on nails, I guess. 

Mr. 56 Lincoln (dark blue four-door) was a school principal someplace and I assumed he knew my principal. He got his paper tucked into a dry corner of his porch, rain or shine. And I didn't cut across his grass like I did everybody else's. 

My little Iowa town was not immune from the real world, however, it took the reflection of more than a few years for me to realize it. 

There was an old man ('50 Studebaker two-door with a wraparound rear window) who, in good weather, would sit on a white metal chair in his front yard. He always wanted to talk as I made my rounds. "You sure you're not a Jew," he would often ask, and with the word Jew, he would crunch up his face. "No, I'm a Methodist," I'd respond and try to hurry past him. Young boys do not understand much about either loneliness or prejudice, but now I realize he suffered from both. 

We also had a German D.P. couple on the route (late '40s Dodge panel truck, black). He was a house painter and his wife had the reddest hair this side of a Clairol commercial. D.P. stands for displaces person, and Dad said he was in the German army before he was captured by the Americans in WWII. Because of their background they were, to some degree, the neighborhood celebrities, this is spite of the fact he was an enemy combatant little more than a decade earlier. It did not strike me until much later that, while they had been accepted so fully into our little Iowa town, others, not white and not from Europe, often report a different experience. Mr. 50 Studebaker in his prejudice is not alone. 

People paid the 30 cents fro the paper by the week so I'd collect half the route on Thursday and the other half on Friday, or "fish day" as my Catholic buddy called it. The best time to find people at home was suppertime and back then Catholic families, and there were a lot of them on my route, couldn't eat meat on Friday so many of them served fish. Mom didn't like fish and very seldom fixed it. It's a good thing we were Methodists.

And last there was Old Ed ('49 Chrysler, black). He was the only one on my route not taking the paper and I was determined to make him a subscriber. I'd throw a free paper on his porch for a few days, then ring his doorbell and ask for his business. He would say no, and he wasn't very nice about it, and I'd try again in three months or so with the same result. He would never subscribe but I could see him through his picture window, sitting on a brown leather chair, reading every one of my free newspapers.

Over a 40 year newspaper career after college and a stint in the Marines, I'd often know people who reminded me so much of my newspaper route customers. I was blessed to occasionally work with five dollar tippers like Mrs. Myers. There were a lot of the one dollar variety. And, thankfully, only a few who, like Old Ed, would only read the free papers. 

Essayist Jim Spangler is a retired newspaperman who lives in Brookfield.