The newspaper office was in the basement under Dr. Heimansohn’s dentist office, at the corner of Main and Washington. A newspaper truck would come from downtown Indianapolis, the driver tossing out bundles of papers that we would fold and place in canvas bags we rented from The Indianapolis News. We were trapped in a cycle of indentured servitude, earning just enough money each week to pay our bag rental fee.
My first stop was the Hotel Jones, cleverly named for its owner, Mrs. Jones. It wasn’t a hotel, as you imagine when you hear the word, but more of an old folks’ home—although the old folks had to be in pretty good shape to live there, because all of the rooms were up 20 steps. I counted each step every day, ascending them to lay the paper on the radiator at the top of the stairs. I encountered Mrs. Jones more than 700 times and never once saw her smile. The Hotel Jones was a block north of the jail, and it says something about the place that most people would have preferred staying at the jail with Sheriff Carmichael.
There was one television at the Hotel Jones, in the front room overlooking the town square. The old men would cluster around it, smoking, turning nicotine-yellow—first at their fingertips, then puffing away until their entire bodies were the color of butterscotch candy. But death by smoking didn’t always come quickly enough, so some residents took to flinging themselves down the stairs to escape life at the Hotel Jones.
This was back before assisted living centers had been dreamed up, when old people would drive around in a fog of dementia, disappearing for days at a time until they were found in New York City. Many of them were my customers, and the newspapers often would accumulate on their front porches. They must be in New York, I would think to myself, hoping they were enjoying their time away.
I had two rich customers, both of whom were lousy tippers. Five years later, when Ronald Reagan began extolling the virtues of the trickle-down economy, I knew he was full of it. If rich people could be counted on to do anything, it was to keep their money. Still, what the job lacked in pay, it made up for in prestige. Along with Walter Cronkite, I was responsible for keeping 26 families in Danville abreast of the latest news. On most days, I beat Cronkite to the punch, delivering reports while he was still dabbing on makeup.
“What’s happening in the world today?” my customers would ask.
And I would give my account, spinning it to suit my biases, like Fox News. On slow days, I invented stories out of whole cloth about nude tribes discovered in faraway lands, arousing the prurient interests of my customers, many of whom hadn’t been aroused in decades.
My favorite subscribers were Charles and Mary Clark on Blake Street. The Clarks didn’t have much money to spare, but always made sure to tip me each Thursday when I collected my payment.
“Hi, Mrs. Clark. I’m collecting today. It’ll be 65 cents,” I’d say.
She would rummage through her purse, pull out a dollar bill, and tell me to keep the change. That’s a 53.8461538 percent tip, not to put too fine a point on it. I would thank her profusely, then stop by Logan’s Mobil on the way home to buy a Coke and candy bar, which eventually gave me diabetes. The milk of human kindness can be a bitter brew.
I probably shouldn’t say who my least favorite customer was, but since he’s dead, it won’t hurt to tell you it was Sheriff Carmichael. He yelled at me every Thursday when I rang his doorbell to collect the money he owed. The sound of the doorbell irritated him. So naturally I would jam a toothpick into it, making it ring nonstop, causing Carmichael to chase me down Washington Street. The prisoners watched from the side yard, cheering me on as I ran. I’ve had a soft spot for convicts ever since.
My experience working as a paperboy all those years ago still pays dividends. Just recently, when people got bent out of shape about Bruce Jenner going over to the pink team as Caitlyn, I took it in stride, having already been exposed to such things. One of my customers was an elderly man who wore dresses. He was trying to pass as a female, a conversion made all the more difficult because of his moustache and work boots. The first time I saw him in a dress, I was taken aback and didn’t say anything. But after a while, I became accustomed to his appearance and began pointing out articles in the fashion section he might find useful. Within a few months, he had shaved his moustache, traded his work boots for pumps, and was dating a widower down the street.
Sometimes people ask me what I would do if I could have any job in the world. When I was a paperboy, I wanted to be president, but that was before I realized I’d have to talk with members of Congress on a regular basis. Now I would be happy to be a paperboy again, pedaling my Schwinn Typhoon from house to house, chatting with my customers, offering a fashion tip or two, spreading vital news to the uninformed.
There was a simple nobility to carrying the newspaper, providing my customers with a link to the larger world. For some of them, I was the only person they saw all week. At the time, I didn’t realize their loneliness. If I had it to do over again, I would linger and chat, maybe spread a wild rumor or two. We don’t talk face to face nearly enough these days, a problem that could be easily solved by a paperboy with a fondness for gossip.