"I am the same age as the Empire State Building, although not quite as heavy," began the letter from Edward Goody, of Rockville. Right away, I knew I was dealing with a clever, incisive fellow.
He had a clever, incisive question: How much is enough when it comes time to tip your newspaper carrier?
When he was a tot, "newspapers were delivered by 10-year-olds with bicycles or wagons with steel-rimmed wheels," Edward recalls, accurately. "The kids were up before dawn, and covered 30 to 60 houses before going to school."
Perhaps most important, these deliverers tucked papers safely (and dryly) "between the inner and outer doors," Edward said. "Not to tip would have been a cardinal sin."
Today, however, "our papers are fired from the window of a moving vehicle, much in the same way that a destroyer lays depth charges. They usually land in the gutter at the bottom of the driveway" -- sometimes wet, sometimes torn. Edward says it's a "less personal" system, and in many ways a less satisfying one.
Still, he tips, in one lump, in December. He typically gives 10 percent of his bill for the year. But Edward doesn't know if he is tipping the proper amount.
Half his friends "say that I am Ebeneezer Scrooge. The other half say that I am squandering money on some bloated capitalist who probably sends his chauffeur to deliver my paper." Edward asks me to pull on my striped shirt and play referee.
I'm happy to do it, Edward, because you're giving me a chance to root, root, root for some of the most dedicated people around.
If that sentence just made you choke on your toast, rest assured: You aren't about to read a piece of rank homerism. The people who deliver this newspaper are not birds of a feather, because they are not Washington Post employees. They are private contractors. Most of them work for themselves. None of them makes a mint.
They don't get expense accounts and vacations. They don't get to sleep until half of the "Today" show is done. The only benefit they are sure to get is the chance to scoff at Bob Levey's sorry excuse for a column a few hours sooner than everyone else.
Weather? They brave all of it. Weight? They don't complain when a pre-Christmas paper weighs as much as a Christmas turkey.
And if you think carriers just do their jobs and scurry home, you're sadly mistaken. I hear all the time from police who've been tipped to crimes in progress by the gang in the trucks. I even wrote once about a carrier who rescued a jogger who had suffered a heart attack.
So, obviously, I think carriers deserve tips -- at least as much as Edward gives, and probably more. But why listen to a bloated typist when he's about to put you in touch with carriers themselves?
I consulted three whom I've known over the centuries. We agreed that I wouldn't name them, since it might look as if they were using me to feather their nests. Suffice it to say that these guys have been flinging Posts onto local lawns for 87 years among them.
They say their tips average about 5 percent of what they bill for the papers themselves. That strikes them as about right, and about what they expect, "although, of course, we'd love a lot more," said one fellow, who works a route in Fairfax County.
One man said the problem is that carriers don't see customers the way they once did.
"I have been driving the same route [in Montgomery County] for 20 years," this man told me, "and the only customers I've ever seen are the pre-dawn joggers."
This carrier says he'd "like to think that people will tip me because I get up so early in the morning, and because I'm there every day, including Christmas morning." But he knows that "tips based on pity are tips that ain't gonna happen."
How about tips based on above-and-beyond- the-call? The next time your paper reaches your door in the middle of an ice storm, or the next time a squirrel romps off with the comics and you get a replacement within 20 minutes, how about writing yourself a note?
Suggested text: If I tip the waiter and the hairdresser and the babysitter and the kid who shovels my snow, how can I do less for the newspaper carrier?
Thanks to Helen West for another in our series of clever sayings spotted on church bulletin boards.
Helen saw an especially cute one outside St. Bernadette's, a Roman Catholic church in Silver Spring. The church sits within a couple of miles of the University of Maryland. Helen noticed the saying just after the fall term began.
"WELCOME BACK STUDENTS," it said. "GOD HELP YOU."
Gabriella Marshall says her daughter went to a local Taco Bell and ordered the specialty of the house. She asked the counterperson for "minimal lettuce."
The man said he was sorry, but they only carry iceberg.
Scott M. Burroughs defines suburbia as a place where they tear out the trees and then name streets after them.