Delaware beach resorts, which stretch for 22 miles from Lewes to Fenwick, are what The Post circulation people call "the country division." It is probably the only place in The Post's vast circulation area where they never get any complaints about home delivery, because there isn't any. You get your newspaper either from one of those ugly coin-operated machines, which chain themselves to each other for mutual security, or from one of the widely dispersed food emporiums on the peninsula.
The confrontation occurred on my first day at the beach when a quarter and a nickel made absolutely no impression on that little green monster -- neither on the gate-release mechanism nor on the money-return button. It squatted there, outside the little coffee shop, mute and unyielding, not at all self-conscious about looking like an ugly duckling alongside the smart blue-and-white rack of The New York Times and like a poor relative next to the haughty and fastidious aristocrat that offers USA Today.
A woman who appeared at the door of the little restaurant was of no help. She had nothing to do with those machines; they were permitted there only to draw people like me to her spiced crabs and coffee. In frustration, my eye fixed on a flat rock. The obvious thought was rather attractive until I noticed the grill owner still had me in her sights. The specter of the headline "Post Ombudsman Held for Breaking and Entering" was enough to send me down the highway to the next cluster of newspaper vending machines. There, poised in front of the green machine, stood a man of some dignity, wearing cutoffs and sandals, but looking as though he had just shed spats, striped pants and an attache' case. I told him of my unfortunate experience with a sister machine down the road. "No problem," he said amiably. "I'll put my 30 cents in and we'll take out two Posts. A bit irregular, but just." He inserted his quarter and a nickel; they met the same fate as my coins.
It was then that I revealed my association with The Post and offered to buy him -- may God and publisher Donald Graham forgive me -- a Washington Times or any other available paper in that little mechanized complex. He politely refused. "I always start my day with The Post," he said. "There's a place two miles down the road where I'll have another go at it."
A van suddenly pulled up, loaded with stacks of The Post. It was John Robinson, who has long been the local agent for The Post. "Helps when you put the nickel in first," he said. "I don't know why -- maybe it's the salt air." He inserted some coins, and of course they worked like a charm. He cheerfully handed us each a paper and asked if we had any refunds coming to us. "My name and phone number is right there on the machine," he said, "if you ever have any more trouble. Some agents have answering machines -- which makes sense, but it also makes people mad. My wife Coppie always answers the phone, and we try to keep people happy."
When I began to ply him with other questions, he said to hop in the van and make myself comfortable on the piles of Posts while he made his rounds to make sure the machines were well stocked. Some ran out early, others were overstocked. There was no way to figure it, day to day.
As we made our way up Rte. 1, he explained that every morning at 2:30, seven days a week, he and his son meet a tractor-trailer at Ocean Pines (a town 20 miles inland), which hauls in The Post from downtown Washington. By dawn, every one of those little green coin gobblers has its quota of Posts. In the next hour or two, he checks to make sure all is well. On Sundays in the summertime, this is no small task -- more than 6,000 Posts, which had better contain all the inserts and funnies or there would be hell to pay.
People who read The Post on his beat in the winter seem to care mostly about the Sports section and Style. "That's where all the good stuff is," he said. "Some of the folks who read the front news section during those bleak months call it the 'The Daily Worker.' They tell me The Post is too liberal, but they won't read anything else." There are pockets of resistance in his territory, mostly people who live in mobile homes and spend all their time surf-casting. "They think a newspaper is just something to wrap fish in," he said.
At the end of his rounds, John Robinson delivered me to my cabin. The next morning, at dawn, I heard a light thump at my front door. There, tucked between the screen and the door, was a folded newspaper, the only home-delivered copy of The Post on the Delaware coast