WHILE SCANNING the want ads, my eye falls on one for phone book deliverers. Though ordinarily my work is more cerebral, my four kids are on a school vacation break. Delivering phone books, I reason, can be done with kids in tow.
A telephone interviewer verifies that I am over 18, have a driver's license and car insurance. Then I go out to the Landover warehouse of Direct Distributing Associates, no connection with Ma Bell.
All new recruits must watch an orientation film covering such fine points as how to knock on doors, greet subscribers and mark delivery sheets correctly. A closeup of a mailbox crossed with a giant red "X" warns that phone books are NEVER -- under pain of a $300 fine -- to be placed in, on, under, around or near a mailbox.
Each delivery route offers a flat "scientifically determined" pay rate curiously unrelated to the number of books involved. There is also a mileage allowance and 20 percent bonus for completion within three days. No matter what, our trainer earnestly assures us, we won't get less than $3.35 per hour.
Phone books are issued from the Landover location threetimes a year, starting in mid-January with Maryland directories, mid-April for the District and mid-September for Virginia. Each run lasts four or five weeks, with D.C. scheduled to finish up sometime in May.
The shock absorbers groan as our station wagon is overloaded with bundles of freshly minted pages bearing the motto "Go by the Book." We inch slowly out of the parking lot with my children lying spread-eagle on top of phone directories, since the seats are full. We agree to start first thing in the morning.
Our first deliveries are along the South Capitol Street industrial corridor where chained dogs, alarms and locked gates with "Keep Out" signs make us feel like intruders. One place which fascinates my daughters is Wrenchwoman, a car repair garage "manned" entirely by women. Hitting gay nightspots in the same vicinity, I keep the kids in the car to shield them from the explicit photos adorning such establishments. Double-parking while lugging my cargo to obscure addresses forges in me an eternal kinship with mailmen and all other delivery persons.
At a multiple-story public housing project lacking working elevators, I rebuff the children who swarm around, religiously observing the rule that no one may assist the distributor. I then eat humble pie when I must turn to them for help in locating apartments whose numbers have been obliterated. My own kids, gagging on the scent of urine, stay outside, making friends along the way.
As I puff upstairs with four sets of books on my head at a time, the need for a grocery cart becomes obvious. But pulling a heavily laden cart up six flights is no mean feat either.
When I come home, muscles I didn't even know I had start hurting. Wednesday
I'm off early, this time without my kids, who are already getting tired of the whole thing. At a rundown apartment house, the self-appointed doorkeeper -- clutching a tin can spittoon -- opens with deliberate delay each time I knock. Counting out precisely in advance, I decide to bring all the books inside the front foyer to parcel out from there. The only obstacle is the reluctant doorman, who grunts and spits into the can each time he opens the door for me.
I'm finally finishing up on the top floor when a tenant pokes out her head and innocently requests an extra set of books. The rule is to provide same willingly and cheerfully whenever asked. So, without missing a beat, I trot right down to the car, pass back through the grumpy doorman, sprint upstairs and hand over the extra books with a sweet smile and perspiration on my face. "Bless you," the woman says, and that's nice.
Elderly people, some sipping beer, and young mothers holding babies on their hips stand in open doorways impatient for my arrival. A shriveled, mustached woman, whose pup romps in a front yard littered with chicken bones and rusty skates, clasps my hand and rhapsodizes quaveringly about phone book deliveries past and present, drawing from them profound lessons on human nature and existence. Still other clients are mere disembodied hands, stretched out wordlessly through chained door openings. Thursday
We've finished our route, entitling us to the bonus. My two younger kids return with me to the warehouse to hand in my sheets on the first route and get a new one. But first I am compelled to sit by while a phone interviewer spot-checks with people on my list to see if they really got their books.
To my chagrin, the elderly lady whose hand held mine so fervently doesn't even remember I was there. Another customer complains that I must have breached his security system by scaling an 8-foot chain link fence, when all I actually did was slip the books through a narrow slit.
Still, I have passed muster. My check will be in next week's mail from St. Louis headquarters.
Though the bloom has definitely worn off this job, the kids and I vow to continue until we earn at least enough for new bikes. So we load up again, this time even filling the car's overhead rack. Friday
Today, we begin at a residence for senior citizens. Very time consuming to wait as each comes to the door with cane or wheelchair. But they are so happy to see us and chat with the children.
Along the Anacostia River, we discover a fresh, secret world of unpretentious boat clubs and marinas where people live year round among water and trees just on the edge of Anacostia and Southeast Washington.
I suppress a fleeting urge to deep six a few phone books while searching out the Naughty Lady on Pier 2, Slip 7 of the Washington Yacht Club with a steady drizzle falling. Predictably, the plastic bags provided as raincovers are too small. Still, duty wins out.