The snow was crunching hard under Gene's feet; it was the middle of the
cruel month of January and he had five more newspapers to deliver
before he could get home for supper. This Friday night was freakishly
cold and the percussive sound from his boots shot out into the clear,
cold night and proclaimed to all living things within their respective
earshots that there was one other stupid life form outside. Even though
Gene had on a stocking cap, he could tell that his hair was frozen; a
fascinating thing to feel but its reality of moist and immediate
melting kept the sight gag of breaking off a chunk of his locks within
his thoughts. It was so cold that any time he attempted to think about
anything other than the next step, doorway or paper placement, his mind
would literally start locking up. It was so cold that all thoughts
turned everything inward, even thoughts of eventual escape.
His paper route was about three square miles and done within forty minutes on a pleasant summer evening; he had learned the art of paper folding well and repetition allowed it to reside within his skill set and a vast majority of his customers had no issue of picking up a tossed paper within five feet of the door. On the summer nights, he would lean back, cock his arm and toss one strike after another as he barely broke stride up and down the town's shady streets. However, winter brought several cruel new demands including the collective customer insistence of placing the paper between their storm door and the front door. The little alcove allowed for minimal exposure for the customers and protected the paper from all known elements. This request, while reasonable and understood, tacked on significant time for Gene's route and literally in the dead of winter, time and convenience was on no one's side; especially the paper boy.
February also was the month that allowed the pleasant memories of holiday tips fade fast. Gene began to see the extra dollars in collection envelopes right after Christmas with handshakes and pats on the back. He was a good carrier and the appreciation manifested itself with several impressive collection cycles. However, two months earlier seemed like years past when Gene finally slid the final paper into the final door slot. He flexed his toes and quickly headed down the middle of the street to walk home. The middle of the street, while sounding a bit dangerous on a cold winter evening was the only safe place in town. The snowdrifts had been beaten away by consistent car traffic and a few lame attempts at municipal plowing. Compounding his safeness, the clear night not only amplified his boot noise, it would warn him by at least six blocks of an incoming car's movement.
While always somewhat cautious for a teenager his age, his own thoughts were to get home as soon as possible to have supper, get into some dry pajamas and not worry about the evening delivery needs of the local paper for at least seventy-one hours. Walking from one main street to another, Gene headed home in a direct route and kept his arms swinging, his head covered and his toes in flex motion to assure the maximum blood flow during this time outside. He had picked up a few tips from the outgoing paper carrier a year ago and as a result, he was somewhat glad he had gotten the route right after Christmas. The old carrier, Sandy, had stuck it out as long as he could during the holiday tips but other commitments including the discovery of girls and some non-important demands of his time allowed Gene to pick up at least one-third of Sandy's earned tips. But Sandy was so happy to be moving on, he shared his winter survival trips with his new apprentice out of sheer joy of being replaced. He didn't feel compelled to give Gene a higher proportion of his winter holiday tips but on this evening, he still got some credit from Gene in hindsight.
Sandy said, "First, you always wear a hat in the winter. I don't care how stupid it looks, your ears will get frostbite and your hair will freeze without a hat. Do you understand?"
"I sure do Sandy. When it is cold, I will always wear a hat."
"Wear mittens if you can; your fingers will stay warmer if they are all bunched together in a chopper versus being wrapped individually. Do you understand?"
"I got it Sandy. I have an old pair of choppers with wool linings and I will wear them."
"And keep moving your toes, your fingers, your arms...don't hunch up and try to get through the cold. You have to keep the blood pumping."
"Thanks, Sandy. I will remember that. Anything else?"
"That's it for now but I am not kidding about the hat."
Gene learned a few more lessons from Sandy, including the little known fact of going to the bathroom in the dead of winter. Sandy swore and Gene believed the heat generated to keep a full bladder at body temperature was wasteful and if the circumstances presented themselves, a paperboy was duty bound to do what needed to be done. Gene was pondering this and other survival tips when he saw the lights of his house in the distance. Instead of warming him, the finite distance seemed to exacerbate the chill and forced Gene to walk more upright and dramatic. By the time he opened the kitchen door, he was only minutes away from no molecular movement and as the warm air kitchen greeted him, his glasses fogged over and added one more indignity of temporary blindness to his situation.
His mother looked at him; fogged glasses, arms extended to not come into contact with his frozen sleeves (Sandy would have not been happy to see that), pants collecting snow in all the created crevasses and a general look of frozen pessimism. She walked over and assisted Gene with his hat, scarf, gloves and coat. He took on the physical elements of a hot fudge sundae with parts of his body still in the deep freeze while other regions were reporting blasts of hot air for the first time in a long time. He took a few steps but remained shivering with only a small amount of movement engaged fully. He had never been so cold in his life and so happy to be back in the friendly confines of his home. He had no responsibilities on his agenda for the next few days; it was the weekend and since he was delivered the evening paper, he could stand down until Monday evening but his mind was still unable to think ahead more than a few minutes until the chill subsided. His mother took another look at him but only due to curiosity's sake...he looked exhausted and still was suffering from residual chills so she told him to go upstairs and put on his pajamas and come right down and sit in his father's recliner. Gene did what he was told and left the remnants of his winter campaign in a soggy pile in the middle of his bedroom.
He was perched in the middle of the chair and fought off the waves of remaining chill. The corduroy recliner was soft and big and as he waited in the chair, he realized he had no earthly idea why he was there. Just then, his mother walked over to him and dumped a large pile of fresh-from-the-dryer clothes over his head. The avalanche of warm, unfolded clothes enveloped him and almost immediately brought him back to life. He burrowed into the clothes and inhaled the smell of unorganized warmth. His mother smiled and said she would return in a few minutes and to stay in that chair and not move. While he defrosted and took inventory of his plight, a majority of readings from around his body were finally reporting in as non-cold.
"I will be right back in a few minutes, stay in that chair and do not move."
About five minutes later, she returned with a wooden tray with hot butted toast and a deep bowl of soup. The soup was brothy with a very minimal vegetables or meat representation; it was warm and not too hot of a temperature, encouraged an aggressive consumption style. Gene could literally pour the soup down his throat if he had wished but he enjoyed taking a series of long pulls of south directly out of the bowl without engaging the spoon. It only took a few minutes since entering the house but for the first time in his memory, Gene was at peace within his warm laundry cocoon and his warm soup belly. While he continue to thaw out, he calculated his hourly rate and realized if he was old enough to get a real job, he would double income with ease.
As a paperboy, he was a member of a non-traditional distribution solution only utilized by the newspaper industry. When faced with lagging home sales, newspaper companies started to rely on young men (and a few enterprising young women) who were physically able to deliver papers but still too young to get a more glamorous job in food service or general retail. Today, adults will cover ten times the areas ten children used to manage and with payment systems all automated, the second and less desirable aspect of being a paper carrier, collecting, was also taken off the table for the adults. However, in 1969, Gene was one of an army of young men that woke up early and distributed the large pile of papers waiting for him on his doorstep.
Finally, Gene got out of the chair and slowly refolded, as best he could, the now room temperature cocoon. He brought the full laundry basket upstairs and distributed the piles as best he could and returned the basket to the basement, next to the chute. He walked upstairs again and found his mother, who was sitting the kitchen reading a book. She looked up and smiled, he had come back from the icy nether regions of some barren cold corner of Hell and was no worse for wear.
He smiled at her and said, "Thanks for the soup and the warm clothes."
"How are you sweetie?"
"Right now, I am perfect."
Gene spent the rest of the night recovering from the cold. Many non-Northerners have no comprehension of the cold, just as many Northerners have a comparable ignorance about oppressive heat. These types of temperature extremes generate both local myths and regional lore about the specific culture and temperature which resides within. The cold which Gene experienced was nothing unique for that time of the year as these types of cold, mind-numbing experiences are rights of passage from young and naive almost frozen young man to cynical and rapidly aging old man. Nonetheless, Gene finally left his warm cocoon to prepare for bed. He placed his dishes in the sink, folded all the laundry which had remained draped around him and wandered off to bed. In those days, the television only showed three to four channels and video games were yet to be invented so Gene got under his covers and began reading a book. The residual warm was within him; whether it be the soup, the recovery methods or the survival instinct in general, he was safe.
The next morning Gene woke up and looked out the window at the frozen neighborhood. In the sunlight, the view was not as foreboding but all signs pointed to frigid tundra with no upside for any reluctant pedestrians. The combination of an ultra bright sun and crisp cloudless sky resulted in immediate torture to anyone who had to venture outside. There was no man-made or naturally helpful wind breaks; it was like being on the frozen side of the sun. He made a mental note to have only good excuses to leave the house and as he weighed the options of visiting friends or hunkering down at home, it looked like an easy decision was waiting for him. He dressed warmly and went downstairs for breakfast; his choice was, as usual, cold cereal. The residual warm soup belly from last night was still paying mental dividends so there was no reason to forgo the known crunchy comfort of his breakfast ritual. He put the cereal into one of the smaller mixing bowl and sat down to read the back of cereal box as he had always had done.
"Good morning, sleepyhead" said his mother when she walked past him with another basket of freshly folded laundry. "Do you need another warm-up?"
"No thanks," said Gene. "I have officially thawed out."
"What are you going to do today?"
"I have some homework and I have to organize my collection money because Al will be here after lunch."
One of the weekly or bi-weekly rituals for paper carriers, now thankfully outmoded, is truing up their collections with their liabilities. In a sense, the paper carrier is financially responsible for the entire paper route. For example, if the price of the newspaper is twenty-five cents and Gene delivers sixty papers each week day, he should be able to collect seventy-five dollars (.25 multiplied by five delivery days by sixty papers). On Saturday, the carrier boss stops at the house and presents a bill to Gene for sixty dollars (cost of the paper plus a standard built in margin) and Gene pays the bill and whatever is left is his profit. The cruel beauty of this arrangement is that the carrier is responsible for their own receivables and only through persistence demonstrated by many individual trips to confront a late payer will the carrier succeed. The newspaper company gets their money immediately (except for checks: the carrier was luckily vindicated on that form of payment) and up front and the carrier is on their own to change down the deadbeats. Gene only had a few marginal payers and a majority of the reasons centered around forgetfulness and opposite work shifts. He had heard about carriers going to customer's places of work and confronting the jerks in front of their co-workers and he didn't have any sympathy for them. Late payers ate away at the carrier's margin and it only compounded if they were jerks. Carriers took it upon themselves to canceling service which usually raised holy hell at the paper. Moving newspapers was the only concern of the distribution folks and while they sided officially with the carriers, getting payments was an accounting thing, not a distribution concern.
After breakfast, Gene pulled out his small wooden chest he had made in industrial arts class and gathered up his monies and was pleased to see that all his customers had been paid up. The small perforrated tickets had all aligned nicely in his book; when a single non-payer had existed, it ruined the visual symmetry of the stacked invoiced and stuck out like a sore, festering thumb. Gene obviously wanted his money but he also took a special pride in seeing the ticket ridge all in alignment. There were some great customers which paid for month's in advance or every once in awhile, someone who had contacted the paper and got on a formal payment plan. Those were exceptions at that time but Gene always appreciated the customer than didn't jerk him around. Freezing his ass off in the dead of winter to deliver a twenty-five cent paper was difficult enough; not paying him promptly and consistently was just chickenshit.
Al pulled into the driveway and Gene ran out with the money and met Al at the car. Gene had a nice warm aura about him and this was going to be a fast transaction. Al smiled and knew what he was doing; Gene was one of his better carriers; no complaints, no failed deliveries, no nothing.
"Here you go, Al. Sixty dollars: two checks and the rest big bills."
"Thanks, kid. I appreciate you not giving me a big bag of quarters."
"No problem Al. I would cash those checks as soon as you can."
"Understood. See you next week."
"Aren't you freezing Gene."
"I have a nice soup belly going. I will be okay."
"Whatever, kid. See you later."
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