Today we celebrate Newspaper Carrier Day. It's the anniversary of the date in 1833 when the New York Sun ran this urgent advertisement: "To the Unemployed a number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper." Ten-year-old Barney Flaherty responded to the ad, pioneering the frontier of U.S. newspaper delivery.
Bold, young Barney probably never imagined that he was throwing open the window of opportunity for scads of enterprising boys and girls, those hard-working souls who, over the last century and a half, have slogged through rain and snow to chuck the daily news onto America's front porch. There was a time when all newspaper carriers seemed to pop out of that Norman Rockwellian mold: fresh-faced kids on bikes toting canvas sacks stuffed with papers. Nowadays a lot of those kids have been replaced by strange interlopers in rusted-out sedans, shadowy folks who sling the paper into your shrubbery's upper branches while zooming by at interstate speed. Still, more people than ever want their newspapers delivered: According to the Newspaper Association of America, a recent survey by the Audit Bureau of Circulation shows daily distribution on the rise.
And in the age of the information superhighway, it still takes a newspaper carrier -- an actual human being -- to deliver the paper to your home. Online papers will never replace their printed counterparts, because there's something so uniquely enjoyable about shuffling outside at sunrise, yawning and scratching yourself, to retrieve the newspaper from the great outdoors. Flopping open the front section. Snapping the pages to make them stand at attention. Getting ink all over your fingers.
The hard-copy newspaper meets a human need for palpable contact that cannot be sated by the online experience. Even nowadays, when most of us have free access to online papers from everywhere, we still pay for the local daily to land on our doorstep every morning. It's a bargain indulgence at a few cents a pop, and one of life's little reassurances that help us hold annihilation at bay. The world didn't end while I was sleeping, you say, sucking in the dawn's new air, because here is my morning newspaper.
Like almost every middle-class kid who grew up in the suburbs, I had a paper route. I delivered the old Alexandria Gazette, back when it was a weekday afternoon paper. Actually, I split the route with my three sisters; we would quarter up the papers and fan into the neighborhood on foot. If the weather was bad, thunderstormy or snowing, Mom would drive us around together and we'd tag-team the whole route, all four of us bolting in and out of the car through every available portal, as Mom navigated the Oldsmobile along the slushy streets.
At the end of the month, we had to collect payment from the subscribers on our route. I didn't like collecting. I thought there was something vaguely indecent about a sweaty boy demanding odd sums of money from unsuspecting housewives startled out of their afternoon naps. And this was years before I saw "A Streetcar Named Desire," in which the young paper carrier comes collecting and runs smack into nutty old Blanche Dubois. "Come here," coos Blanche, batting her peek-a-boo eyes. "I want to kiss you just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth."
Not all psychotic Southern belles have a thing for paperboys, and it wasn't just such a risque encounter I was dreading when I went door to door with my collection book. I hated collecting because I hated some of the customers on my route. There were all sorts of weirdos and undesirables. Bad-tempered neighbors who treated you like a panhandler. Tightwads who paid in dimes and pennies. Persnickety retirees who screamed at you for walking on their grass.
You had to collect to get paid, though, so I collected. And once in a while, around the holidays usually, the most dreaded customer on the route, the one you really hated -- that warty old woman, that gnomish ex-principal with the malicious poodle -- would shatter your preconceived notions with a gift: a tin of fresh-baked cookies, 10 bucks tucked into a Christmas card.
It was my first real job, that paper route, and I'm glad my mom and dad weren't the type of parents who throw money at their kids instead of letting them go out and earn it themselves. Because the paper route taught me something about the rewards of honest work. It also taught me something about the alternative rewards of shirking your duties, which I learned by stuffing my leftover papers down the storm drain instead of returning them to the distributor.
But let's not get into that today; it's Newspaper Carrier Day. It's a day to pay tribute to the suburban version of the rooster's cock-a-doodle-doo -- the whump, whump, whump of newspapers landing on our lawns and front stoops. It's a day to say thanks to our newspaper carriers, those faithful few who drag themselves out of bed every morning at such a vile hour, combing our dark neighborhoods to bring us our daily fix of facts and innuendo. What would we do without them? What would we read with our Wheaties? CAPTION: Newspaper Carrier Day: It's time to pay tribute to those who bring us our daily fix of facts.