Paper Route Blues - Racine Journal Times

Updated: Sep 4

The Actual Paper Route

I grew up in Lake Park, a subdivision of about 400 homes in Mount Pleasant, just south of Racine, Wisconsin. It was a working class neighborhood and was separated to the east by Lake Michigan, to the west by Highway 32 and the former North Western train line (currently the Union Pacific line) and to the north by the former J. I. Case factory (heavy equipment) factory.


It was a fairly safe community besides a few young people (they were called hoodlums in the early 70's) sometimes causing minor disturbances roaming the streets looking for something to do. There were a few bullies to contend with but they mainly left me alone as they knew I had a job to do. In terms of paper routes, there were 5 routes that were somewhat equally divided. The paper I delivered was the Racine Journal Times, with no Internet or social media, over 90 percent of Lake Park received most of their daily news from the RJT.

Sheridan Road divided part of Lake Park so most paper boys would deliver on several blocks and then cross Sheridan to deliver the rest. Four routes were quite condensed so that their delivery encompassed only 3 blocks of space.


I was the unlucky one who had a much longer route. Perhaps being the tallest paper boy at the time in Lake Park led my route manage to think with the longest legs, I could cover the most ground per step. Getting back to my actual route, it was about 4 city blocks from home and the majority of my route occurred within 3 - 4 main blocks. However, I was the only paper boy who had a long stretch of homes that all former and current paper boys called the "Last 10 Houses". The good news, I had less than a dozen papers to deliver so the weight was never an issue but the bad news (besides these homes pulling me farther away from home), each of these homes were roughly on an acre or so. That meant an extra three thousand steps to delivery these last few newspapers. I could bicycle for half the year and for the other half, I would daydream and be content spending time in my own "day-dream world" while walking up and down these long driveways. My father had an incredible work ethic and being "old school," I never had the nerve to ask him for a lift. Besides, it was my responsibility to get the job done on my own.


I can’t say "Last 10 Houses" were any more lucrative than the rest of the route. It fact, many of these customers paid directly to the RJT which was bitter sweet. It was sweet as weekly collecting was not needed as much, however, less opportunities to obtain a weekly tip of a dime or two. Because not all of these homes paid directly to the office meant I still had to traverse this route an 8th time to collect. Because collecting began on Thursday, I'd try to collect from them as I delivered that day's newspaper but with their work and home schedules meant some were missed during my first try so another trip was needed on the weekend.


I worked this route in the early 1970's which meant I had to be careful keeping the papers dry. We didn't have clear or orange plastic covers to protect the newspaper from the elements -- that was my job to keep the news dry as some writers and editors had to keep the news wry. Snow bothered me less as a few frozen flakes didn't ruin a paper unlike a Spring shower.


The Heavy Day

On Sunday’s, the paper was usually 125 pages (with all those weekly ads) and multiply that by 78 customers -- it was a load to bear. Imagine 6 inches of snow on a blustery Sunday morning as I was slumped over carrying all that weight and meticulous counting the steps before the weight became manageable. My orange canvas paper bags had Racine Journal Times printed across each side and for heavy loads, such as Sundays, I'd carry two bags, on opposite sides of my hips as the straps were strewn across opposite shoulders to help balance the weight. The one advantage to Winter delivery meant that my heavy jacket helped soften the weight of these bags on my shoulders.

Collecting

In those days, I wore black rimmed glasses to address my nearsightedness. Once you spent any amount of time outside in the winter going from house to house to collect the weekly fee, my glasses would steam up once I was invited in someone's home. Balancing my collection book to tearing off the tiny receipt for each customer to balancing change, the last obstacle I needed was struggling to see clearly during the transaction. I didn't even mention smaller dogs running around the front room trying to get a sniff or something more sinister at me.


Most customers would pay weekly or bi-weekly. I understood customers who would eventually pay, knowing for whatever reason, they didn't always have the money on a regular basis. My motto in those days was to trust customers to eventually pay for the product that was delivered to them in a consistent and reliable manner.


What I wasn't prepared for was those customers who enjoyed the daily deliver of the newspaper but when it came time to paying, it became a challenging ordeal. Luckily, there were only a few of these customers who would tell you to come back next week, week after week and after 6 - 8 weeks, I'd have a decision to make. Should I cancel their subscription at some point or hold out hope that eventually they would pay what was owed to me?


There were several times I'd reach out to my route manager for some advice. His input and income depended on having as many weekly subscriptions as possible so often he'd recommend that I continue their subscription in the hopes of eventually collecting. However, his weekly income was not tied to whether they paid me or not. In other words, if I cancelled after 8 weeks, I'd probably never collect that amount which was around $7 each week. If I held out hope they'd eventually pay, that typically didn't work out as I was enabling them to continue receiving the newspaper without responsibility.

This job as a teenager gave me plenty of time to think introspectively. I'd sometimes think, what kind of individual would stiff a paperboy? What have they done to harm you when they deliver your paper on time in a good condition? What kind of lesson are you teaching an honest paper delivery boy who's just trying to earn a few extra dollars to help save for college?


In retrospect, I’d not let any customer go pass 4 weeks. I would have left them a note after 3 weeks saying they had 1 more week to pay their bill before I canceled their subscription. I'd also include in the note that any bill unpaid by any of my customers would come directly out of my pocket and not the pocket of the newspaper company. Indeed, if the bill was not reconciled after 4 weeks, I would cancel their subscription.


It was certainly "lesson's learned I took away being a paper boy. Also, I'd instruct my successor to not repeat my mistakes and "off the record" point to those suspect homes on the route as potential challenges. Of course this advice would not bring the money back owed to me but I felt a responsibility to educate others as to not repeat what I had experienced.


For those that never paid, I assumed they were never paper boys and had never experienced being "stiffed" by customers. In my limited view at the time I struggled to imagine someone who had gone through this on their own then turn around and do this to other paper boys.


One other comment here from a philosophical perspective, perhaps those "delinquent customers" felt cheated by their employer or felt their employer may have taken advantaged of them in some way. In other words, they were mad at something or someone and projected that onto the paper boy, taking advantage of my consideration and innocence.


Tipping

Tipping was optional but earning a flat rate of $7 - 8 per week, I appreciated all tips even the tips that involved customers would tell me to deliver the paper on time. When I first began, the weekly cost for a 7-day newspaper was 75 cents so some generous customers would give me a dollar and thank me for my service. This was appreciated and a quarter tip in '73 warmed my heart. However, when the paper increased to 80 cents, my tips shrunk 5 cents to 20. Once the price increased to 80 cents, customers wouldn't give me a dollar and 5 cents. That just didn't make any sense. Regardless, there were about dozen or so customers who were very generous and I never forgot to thank them for their kindness.


Every so often, I'd have a few customers complain when I was tardy delivering the paper, I'd kindly mention to them that I was typically the first paper boy at the delivery stand and was at the mercy of when the delivery trucks rolled around. Anyway, this job of a paper boy reminded me of waitress work where they receive a very low wage and rely on tips to earn a little extra money.


One more comment about tipping, while a teenager, my parents never had much money but could understand and relate to the challenging of delivering papers, milk or mail for a living. My folks would ensure the delivery people received a little extra and communicate their appreciation in doing a good job. Also, on warm summer days, my mom would sometimes bring out beer for the garbage men. Not one of them ever refused her kind gesture over the years. Getting back to setting an example, the model set by my parents has stayed with me to this day as I'm conscious of their work and try to reward delivery people and those that work in the restaurant and hotel industries with a little financial gift.


Dogs

Canines were sometimes a challenge, especially in those yards with fences. Often, I'd bang into parts of the fence before opening the gate to ensure none of those furry creatures were outside. A more challenging task when dealing with dogs occurred in warmer weather when many front doors were open so you'd open the screen door and place it into their home. Many dogs in those days were scolded and reprimanded by newspapers, so guess what, I was the villain delivering an object that may be used against them. Of course, they didn't know any better so the quicker the better when opening and closing the storm door.


Sometimes, the storm door would be locked so I'd slip the paper under the door map on the front porch. If raining or very windy, I'd knock on the door to see if I could place in a more secure place.

Interesting Stories

I had one bar on my route so I'd walk straight through the bar and deliver it to the head cashier area. I'd see the regulars there including some of my neighbors and often was invited to stay for a beer or two on the house. It didn't seem to matter to anyone in the bar at the time I was only 16 years old and had a job to do. During the summer, I'd hear some of the patrons say to one another what a beautiful day it was in Lake Park, (the bar some 150 feet from Lake Michigan) all the while they sat slumped over on their bar stools drinking cheap beer and many smoking heaters in a dark and dingy bar. Anyway, perhaps I should have made them my last customer on the route and enjoyed some free refreshments.


One day, as I was delivering to the Blom household on Derby Ave, I saw my cousin who I hadn't seen in years. He had returned from Vietnam and was dating the daughter of my customer. That was quite surprisingly to see him after such a long time and learn he was dating a lovely young women who eventually became his wife.


One time, on the "Last 10 Houses" a large dog was loose and wouldn't leave me alone. He'd bark at me and follow closely after me so I tried to do my good deed. I knew where he belonged so I knocked on the door repeatedly but no answer. With both cars in the driveway and many house lights on, I knew they had to be home so I tried one last time. With no answer I walked away on their long driveway as a man who appeared to be naked poked his head out of the upstairs window and said, "What's up?" I told him about his dog being loose. At this point, I felt terrible about disrupting his pleasurable moments but at the same time, wanted someone to deal with that pesky dog.

I’m not proud to say this but I had a little vindictiveness with just a few customers. These customers were demanding, hard to deal with, and never pleased with when the paper was delivered, in other words, if I were King of the Racine Journal Times at that moment, I would have fired them. Not being the King, I had to deal with them and once I reached a "boiling point" decided to take action. I would slightly expose their newspaper in a little water but only to the point they may only get through the first half of an article before the paper appeared damp. I had to be strategic here, in other words, I couldn't deliver a partially wet newspaper on a sunny day in July. But if our weather was a constant drizzle in October, I'd add a little more drizzle to their paper, just once -- to try to get the message across. Again, discretion was needed as the last thing I wanted was a bad reputation by my route supervisor.


The only other deviant act I might do to challenging customers is occasionally remove a page or two from the business section or sport's page. Make it seem that the printing press didn't print part of a critical section of the paper. It was necessary to do it discretely so it didn't appear the paper boy had mangled the paper before delivery.


Nature Calling

At the end of the route and a good three quarter of a mile from home with not much in between, there was a several hundred pine trees growing in symmetrical rows. Often, and after walking so far, nature would call. One may imagine the amount of creativity needed to finish the job in an efficient matter.



About Me
Join My Mailing List
For Blog Post Updates

I'm a photographer, observer, writer, traveler with a unique perspective on life, travel, work, customer service & the print medium.