I hated it but I knew that suffering this route was the price I would have to pay until someone else gave up one of the better routes, the ones in the areas where you were actually given tips from the customers. The customers on this route didn’t tip, ever.
This paper route, my first one, was in an area that was considered a poor part of town. It wasn’t that the area was that bad just that it had a reputation of being bad and I wasn’t too sure where that reputation had come from. All I knew was that no one else wanted this route and it was always given to the new starts.
“Start at the bottom and work your way up. Pay your dues.” Said the boss. “Keep at it and you’ll get one of the better routes, eventually.”
Every night after school I delivered the newspapers, walking along the long crescent stretch of tenement blocks that seemed to go on for at least a mile. Small flats piled one on top of the other, five high. In these tenement blocks you were only a foot up, down and sideways from your neighbour. This was the outskirts of town and if you walked behind the tenements you would see only fields stretching out into the distance. Five nights a week I would walk up and down the dark stairwells, smelling the cooking from behind the doors, hearing people shouting at each other, babies crying, dogs barking, televisions blaring, every night the same.
Mondays to Thursdays weren’t too bad, I didn’t have to see the customers but I dreaded Fridays because on a Friday I turned from someone who delivered the nightly news into a bill collector. Very few of the fifty or so customers I tried to collect from would answer their door when I arrived on a Friday night. A handful paid their bills on time and others would tell me to come back next week, they would pay double next week or triple the week after that but most just simply didn’t answer the door. Some people hadn’t paid their bill in months and of course to the boss it wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t paid, it was my fault that I hadn’t collected.
Once the unpaid bill crept up to three months the boss would say to me, “Get the money this week or tell them they are cut off, no more papers.”
Why didn’t he tell them this? I’m only the person who delivers the news. I knew this area, I knew these people. They were the type to shoot the messenger. I had to pay my dues by trying to collect from people who didn’t want to pay theirs.
It’s true that this paper route was a pain the ass but there were events that added some colour and while I delivered the news I also heard the news.
There was the couple who argued almost every night, “I know you’ve been out drinking, I can smell it on your breath.” Shouted the woman from behind the door.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, this again? That’s from last night. I didn’t brush my teeth today.” The man shouted back, hopelessly pleading innocence.
A week later, as I was pushing the newspaper slowly through the same letterbox, I bumped into the presumed guilty man with the alleged beer breath. He opened the door slowly and quietly. Removing the newspaper softly from the letterbox he whispered to me. “I’ll take that and good luck trying to collect the bill from her kid.”
I watched him walk quickly down the stairs, almost running, newspaper in one hand, suitcase in the other.
I stood at another door and listened as a woman shouted at a man, asking why he had flushed the goldfish down the toilet, to which the man shouted back, “Because I felt like it alright. I just felt like it.”
There was the girl who followed me around every night and would hand me love notes every now and again. I told her that instead of giving me love notes she should get her mother to pay her newspaper bill once in a while. She did of course tell her mother and when I went to collect the bill I was told to keep my big yap shut to her daughter about her financial affairs. She still didn’t pay her bill although she now probably felt justified in not paying due to my indiscretion and I had learnt a valuable lesson in keeping my mouth shut.
And then there was the man with the dog.
It wasn’t his dog, it was a stray dog that used to follow me around occasionally. I never used to let the dog into the tenements but one night it snuck in behind me, probably looking for some warmth. I went up the stairs to deliver newspapers and when I came down a shirtless man was standing at his door looking at the dog.
“Is that your dog?” He asked, not looking in my direction, just staring intently at the dog.
For a moment I hesitated, wondering why he wanted to know and then I answered, “No, not mine.”
The man disappeared behind the door for instant and then returned holding a hammer. He brought the hammer up above his head and then lunged at the dog’s head but that dog was skinny and quick, and the hammer connected only with air and then the concrete floor. The dog sprinted to the tenement door, which I opened and we both ran out of.
Something different happened on that route every night and there were times when sitting bored at my school desk that I actually found myself looking forward to the characters and events that would take place on my nightly visit to that street. But the dog incident stayed with me and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t understand what had made the man want to hurt the dog.
The dog incident was one of the reasons I asked my boss every night if a new route was coming up.
“Soon, soon,” was always the reply, “everyone has to to pay their dues.”
Fridays weren’t just about collecting the bills. Fridays also meant watching the drunks. Friday was pay-day and for the working men it meant a morning at work and an afternoon in the pub before heading home to the wife and kids. Most would just stagger home, eyes glazed with nothing else on their mind except making it to bed but now and again it would happen.
Now and again I would see a drunk guy playing with the cars. They would slowly walk along the pavement, sometimes staggering or weaving but when they came to the road they would straighten up and walk calmly across without looking. Any oncoming cars would be forced to brake suddenly but the drunks didn’t acknowledge what had happened, they would simply keep on walking while the driver swore or shouted or simply sat there behind the wheel, shaking, having almost run someone over.
I wasn’t sure if this was a death wish or a battle of wills between man and something bigger, something unstoppable. Maybe it was a test of manhood or simply a desperate last bid not to go home but in this game, with the drink providing Dutch courage, the drunk guy always won.
Eventually I moved to a paper route in a better area, one that I knew well because I actually lived on the street where I delivered the nightly news. This street had houses with well-maintained gardens in which well-fed dogs with collars chewed on bones and jumped up happily whenever they saw me. People paid their bills on time and I actually made more in tips than my weekly wage.
I had paid my dues and finally had the easy route with the easy money and someone else would be climbing those dark tenement stairs hoping to be next in line for the job I was now doing. My new route was less than a 10 minute walk from my previous one and in all honesty, in all the time I delivered the news on the new route, nothing eventful ever happened.
About the Author: Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal, Roadside Fiction and Orato. br> His first book Leaving London is available on Amazon and other retailers now. br> View My Profile