THE KID WAS WEARING a sweatshirt with a hood over his head, and he held his collection book in his hand. He looked up at me as I came to the door, saying he was collecting for the newspaper. I was in a foul mood, little thunderstorms going off in my head and I was sure that kid had just been around collecting maybe two days ago, so I was stern as I reached for the money. I wasn't really paying attention when the kid said this would would be his last collection. Then he cried.
The face poked out from the hood of the sweatshirt and his cheeks seemed to puff and the tears came down his face. I was stunned. What had brought this on?
"You're losing your route?" I asked.
He shook his head yes.
He tried to explain he really did. It was one of those moments you remember from childhood, a moment when you know you're too old to cry, nearly 10 in this case, but the tears come anyway. The vestigial child in you has taken over and you are crying, and then you cry even more because you already crying. A person who remembers being a kid would understand, but this person before me was still a kid and he was in no condition to explain anything. So I put my arm around his shoulder and we walked down to where his father was sitting on the stoop. His father always makes the collections with him.
Now is the time to interrupt this narrative to say that at various times in my life I have had some pretty strong fantasies. When I was in the Army, I dreamed I would come back to Ft. Dix as a general or maybe as President. I would come down from the sky in a helicopter and everyone would run out and salute like crazy and the commanding general would come running up, little clouds of dust at his heels, and he would ask why I was there.
"Bring me Sgt. Gonzales," I would say. "I understand he's been mistreating his men."
That's one. The other one had to do with being a paperboy. My fantasy was that someday I would tell the world what it is like to be a paperboy. I would blow the whistle, rat on the system, explode the myth. This business about owning your own business at a young age. This business about it being as American as apple pie - a piece of the flag and all that. It is nothing of the sort. It is - pause, pause - child labor.
Mark Crane. Mark Crane. The name means nothing to you.I know. He was the son of my mother's friend, one year older than I - a nice boy, a good boy, the kind of boy mothers love and children hate. I hated Mark Crane. I hated him even more when he became a paperboy. It meant, a surely as day followed night, that I would have to become paperboy, and in short order I did. I reported to the shack and there got the lecture. I was about to own my own business. I was going to be a capitalist. Down from the walls stared Dwight Eisenhower, Matthew Ridgway, Roy Campanella. Underneath their pictures were the words, "I was a paperboy." The lesson was clear: In war or baseball, the two things that really mattered paperboyism was a prerequisite for success. I enlisted.
Up in the morning, out on the job, work like a devil for my pay. Go down to the shack, insert the comics, the shopping sections, the other sections. Put the papers into the bag and then lift the bag onto the bike, wrapping the straps around the handlebars in that special way. Get the balance right. Let's go.
It is early morning but already the sun is hot. You work up a sweat and then you go into the cave-like lobbies of apartment houses where you get chilled. Hot then cold. Throw the paper. Watch the dogs. Avoid the traffic.
Now it is collection day, and you are told by a group of adults who own the world, who have cars and houses and take vacations, that they don't have any change or, worse yet, nothing smaller than a 50. "Can you change a 50 kid?" They are always one step above you. You look up. "What's a 50?"
Then in August the Great Hurricane comes. It comes on Thursday, which is the day of the shopping insert and you think about not going to work - about calling in and merely pointing out that a hurricane is coming. No. The posters. Would Ike or Ridgway with his hand grenades hanging from his suspenders or Campy have been stopped by a hurricane. You go.You get your papers. It is raining harder now. The wind has picked up. You round a corner. A gust of wind hits you. The bike goes under you and the papers go into a puddle. In a second, they're rags. That Thursday you learn about life. No one pays you for the papers you have delivered, but the company bills you for them. At the age of 11, your father informs you, it is all over - washed up, finished, chapter 11, bankrupt. In your mind you see the posters on the wall. Ike, Ridgway, Campanella are looking down on you. They are frowning.
So now there is this kid crying out on the porch and I think how I'm going to expose creeping paperboyism and fathers like the one on the stoop - the Mark Crane of this piece, the heavy who forced this kid to deliver papers.It's all the old man's fault. I'm sure. I'm seething. He's just sitting there, waiting for his kid. We walk up and I ask what's happened. The father explains that the routes are being consolidated. He blames no one. It's business. Still . . . He looks over to his son.
"We taught the boy that if he works for his money, people will always respect him for it." My indignation vanishes. Who can argue with that? The boy brings himself under control and moves to his father for a hug. I go into the house. In my head I see them again, Smiling, proud.
Ike, Ridgway, Campanella.