THE NEWSPAPER DELIVERY BOY
The low November sky was a dark frown as the driving rain and sleet lashed his face with tiny, icy stingers. He leaned forward, head down, trying to pull it into his shoulders like a turtle seeking refuge within its shell. The black knit hat that he wore was soggy and no longer offered protection from the storm. The half-filled sack of increasingly wet newspapers pulled heavily at his neck. He was as miserable as he had ever been in his life. Why, he asked himself, had he been so eager to be a newspaper boy?
It all started when Chester, the man who owned the delivery service, came to his home to collect. He was a man of medium height and build, around forty. His salt and pepper hair, his round glasses, and the long overcoat he wore, along with his quiet demeanor, gave him an almost priestly appearance.
He was listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio when his mother called him over. Chester was looking for a new paperboy, and he wondered if her son would be interested. He was when he learned that he could earn $4 a week for delivering papers along a route in the early morning and late afternoon. His daily around the house, non-paying job was drying the dishes. On Saturdays his mother paid him $1 to help her with general cleaning. Four dollars would be a fortune. When the boy said he would like the job, his mother told Chester they would talk about it.
He was not hopeful. His mother’s initial reluctance to him taking the job was not promising. She had once put a strong, final, without question end to a suggestion he once made about becoming a shoeshine boy. No son of hers would shine shoes on any corner anytime soon. That’s what poor people did.
She was, of necessity, the de facto enforcer around the house because, at that time, his father was working twelve hours a day, six days a week in a dye house. Before long the textile industry would move south to non-union states leaving in the wake of its departure ghostly, rusting, gap-toothed factories strung like so many tarnished pearls along the dirty string of the Passaic River. When he came home from work, his father wanted nothing more than a hot meal and some time to relax before bed.
He never learned why his mother said yes. She had doubts because of his age. He was only eleven. Perhaps it was because he didn’t plead or wheedle. Perhaps it was because he said he could buy the books he loved to read, and she construed that to be a sign of incipient maturity. In any case, she gave her consent. He hoped it would be with a hug and a kiss, but that was not her way.
His apprenticeship started Monday morning before school when he reported to Chester’s base of operations; a crowded, corner sweet shop on Summer Street where all that day’s papers were stacked in piles by publisher ready to be broken down for each individual route. His mentor, Mike, the boy who currently had the routes, was a chubby sixteen year old with a mass of unkempt curly hair that grew around his head like a brown crown. Together, they would sort out the different newspapers that made up the route, stuff them in a large canvas bag, and set off on Mike’s bike. The boy sat on the main bar of the bike between the seat and the handlebars, a tight fit against Mike’s ample stomach. The routes followed an almost perfect grid of streets in a blue collar section of town. Most of the houses were two-family structures, home to families that believed that the “American dream” was obtainable.
Since they delivered five different publications, he would have to commit to memory not only which house got a paper but also which paper. To test the boy’s memory, Mike would sometimes ask him which paper was next while purposely beginning to pull out the wrong one from a sack hanging from his shoulder. He got caught a few times, but in two weeks he had the routes memorized. Because he did not have a bike, when he finally was on his own, he walked the routes, and that is how he came to find himself, that early evening, standing on the corner of Martin Street and Twentieth Avenue tired, soaking wet and pondering a course of action. If he turned left, he had a long, painful, wet slog back to Chester’s. If he said the hell with the rest of the papers, took a right, and walked a block and a half, he would be home. The rest of the people on the route would not get their papers. It was only one night. They would survive. He would simply tell Chester that he didn’t know what happened. He would lie and say he had delivered the papers.
He paused in front of his home. His family rented the second floor of a two family house. It was an old building heated by coal delivered into a cellar bin by a metal chute attached to a coal truck. In a strong wind the house seemed to wheeze like an asthmatic and creak arthritically, but it was warm. As long as his father banked the furnace, the cast iron radiators in their apartment blazed. He climbed the long flight of stairs up to the wide porch finally protected from the rain by the overhang of the second floor flat. He stood in front of the double doors for a moment peering through one of their long, narrow windows. When he was sure no one was in the hallway, he slowly entered. To the right was a hallway leading to the first floor apartment. To the left was the staircase that led to his parents’ flat. Close to the door a cast iron radiator produced tropical heat. He moved so close to it to warm himself that he could smell the singe of his woolen jacket against it. He remained there for a few seconds reluctant to release himself from its embrace.
He stood there trying to formulate a plan. How could he enter the apartment without being seen? He would have to be the beneficiary of some extremely good luck. If his mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner, he might be able to slide quietly into the living room and then into his bedroom without being detected. How he would later explain entering the room without saying hello, as well as the wet sack of undelivered papers, never entered his far from duplicitous, young mind.
Climbing the stairs very slowly, he gingerly put down each foot as though barefoot and testing for a hot surface, reluctant to bring his full weight down too quickly for fear of a creaky complaint from the old staircase. After each step, he paused and listened. He continued in this way until he reached the top of the stairs and stood in front of the door to his parents’ apartment. He took a big breath and held it for several seconds.
He opened the door just enough to hear the television. He listened. The kitchen noises located his mother. He nudged the door open a little more and began sliding in sideways. He stopped abruptly, frozen in place like a convict in a prison break who is caught in the center of a yellow glare of a spotlight with nowhere to run. Because the door opened inward from right to left, the boy hadn’t seen his father sitting in the corner armchair reading his newspaper.
They exchanged looks of mutual surprise. He tried to speak, but somewhere in his brain the train of his thoughts had ground to a halt. Seconds seemed like hours before he could start again, sputtering as he tried to gain traction.
“Pop, what are you doing home?”
“I hurt my shoulder lifting a roll onto the tubing machine so they sent me home early. Aren’t you home early yourself?”
“You still have papers in your sack.”
“It’s raining hard and ….” He could not maintain eye contact. “I… ugh …” By this time his mother, a silent observer, had walked into the living room.
“You do plan to deliver those papers, don’t you?”
“Pop, it’s cold and raining hard. I’m tired. I don’t want to go out again.”
“What about the people who are waiting for their papers? They paid for them. It’s their money that makes up your pay.”
“Chester can take the money out of my pay. I don’t care.”
His father stood up. Except for the hazel eyes, there was nothing physically remarkable about him. He was short with an average build. Everything he did was with great energy and he had a ready smile. Because he had quit school after the fifth grade to go to work, he did not read very well although he had an incongruent aptitude for basic math. Like all the men in his family, he had a great, uncomplaining capacity for work. In the past he had worked part-time at night as a short order cook in a neighborhood diner. On weekends he used to clean up a betting parlor run by the local mob. For a time, he also ran a small time bookie operation in the factory where he worked.
When the boy was younger, sometimes his father, before he went to work at the diner, would place him in front of the radio with a large number of betting slips spread out on the floor in front of him. The father would set the radio to the station that broadcast racing results and instruct him to listen for any of the names on the slips, and if they were called, to put them on the side. He was always asleep by the time his father came home from the diner, but when he awoke in the morning he thought he remembered his father coming into the room and kissing him on the head.
His father stood up and nodded ever so slightly, a gesture that seemed meant only for himself. He walked to the closet, pulled out his coat, put it on, and turned to the boy. “Let’s go.”
It was still raining hard when they reached the point where the boy had interrupted his route. They resumed it from that point, the father walking alongside his son, perhaps a step behind. At each stop the boy took a newspaper from the bag, folded it, and threw it on the porch. At one house, a man who had been waiting for his paper came storming out. He barked, “You’re late. I was waiting for the paper. What happened?”
“Nothing. I just got delayed. Sorry. It won’t happen again, sir,” he said.
They continued walking. “Come on,” his father said. “Let’s go. Only a few more blocks.” Because his father never wore a hat, his hair was soaking wet, and water ran down his face and dripped from his nose.
When the sack was empty, the boy looked up at his father and said, “That’s it, Pop. All the papers are delivered.”
“Good. Let’s go home.”
They walked home in the rain side by side. The father pulled his son into him, leaned over, and kissed the top of his head.
Roy Innocenti is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and was enrolled in a graduate program at Rutgers University. He is a second generation Italian-American who had the good fortune of being born into a three generational household anchored by a beloved maternal grandfather. Much of his work is influenced by that experience as well as growing up in a blue collar section of Paterson, New Jersey.