Kids with paper routes didn’t make it past the eighties. And probably odd guys like The Grouch didn’t help matters…
I don’t have high hopes for my first encounter at the Pearly Gates…
“Let’s see…Walsh…Walsh…” as St. Pete examines his pearl-handled clipboard. ”You’re not Kevin Walsh, are you?”
“Not the one from Clawson?”
He shakes his head and grabs the lever. ”You had to go there, didn’t you?”
Knowing exactly what he’s referring to, I feel the floor suddenly give way.
This evening, at the age of 48, I was a little nervous looking down these stairs, through the apartment lobby window, snapping a quick photo with my phone.
That’s where The Grouch lay in wait every morning for four years of my life, just under the stairs on the left, like a troll–365 days a year.
On warm muggy nights like this evening, I wonder how I made it through my childhood without air-conditioning. When my wife and I bought our 1929 house, the first floor windows were painted shut. It was either get new windows, air-conditioning–or a quick divorce. Neither of us do very well with the humid sheets, floors and table tops. Maybe it’s too many memories of sticking to the back of my seat in early June at Baker Elementary School.
But tonight I decided to go for a bike ride a few miles away to my hometown of Clawson and then I remembered how I solved the hot-humid evenings. I just kept riding my bike. It’s the childhood equivalent of driving the golf cart around in circles pretending you’re still looking for your ball–just to keep a breeze going.
So driving toward memory lane, I approached the scene of my longest-tenured job before my teaching gig–my paper route.
There really aren’t any woods or gardens in Woodland Gardens, but it sounds nice–just don’t think about it too much. It’s like Bay Harbor Golf Course up by Petoskey–sort of redundant, like Pond Lake or Grass Fairway.
It was a dream come true, however, for a lazy 14 year-old who didn’t want to do the most necessary thing in paper-routing:
1. Ride your bike all over the neighborhood with a huge paper-bag on your handlebars causing serious steerage issues on icy sidewalks.
2. Collect $1.40 per week from people who don’t want to pay you. (My favorite line was from the guy who gave me $1.50. ”Buy yourself a Coke.” ”Where?” I replied before he asked for his dime back.)
Ivan Frisbee was the Detroit Free Press circulation manager who ran his platoon of boys like a well-oiled collapsing bridge. He drove a large red Cadillac whose shocks were terrible from hauling around the warm bundles of papers at 4:30 AM. He was a chain-smoker who worked with Mr. Blanda, another chain-smoker, in the office on 14 Mile Road. It’s now an abandoned coffee shop/Mafia front (we suspect!).
Mr. Frisbee was pretty funny, in a crusty kind of way. But Blanda had the strangest habit of saying your name 25 times in three minutes. ”Hi Kevin. How’s it going, Kevin. We had a call that you were late, Kevin. Can you try to get there earlier, Kevin?”
Mr. Frisbee called me about six months after I quit the neighborhood route that Mark Middlewood had before me. (I still keep in touch with Mark and we still refer to this weird little world.)
“Kevin. Do you want a route with 100 customers, all indoor apartments and you don’t have to collect?” People in apartments are impossible to collect from so the were going to just pay by checks in the mail. I thought it over for 40 seconds then agreed. The tips would be gone, but a steady $40 per week was worth it–particularly if I didn’t have to keep ringing doorbells.
The only down-side was that I wouldn’t get to use that cool change dispenser that the gas-station guys used to wear…
My sister Katie joined me in the venture and we would hang on to that route through high school and the night before we left for college–Katie a year behind me. Lucia, our exchange student from Italy, took over. (You can still mention The Grouch to her in Verona and you’ll get shivers.)
I hadn’t been on that route on my bike since 1983–pretty remarkable since I live two miles away. So I went through the paths of those 1.500 mornings today.
The yellow rectangle on the right is where the dumpster was and that’s where Frisbee would drop off the bundles. They were always “hot off the presses” and on a 4 degree day in January it was a welcome cure for frostbite.
On rainy days, he’d drop them off to the left side by the 1960’s mod-lobby–that still looks pretty mod.
But I couldn’t go in and soak up the Mike Brady-like decor. The doors are all secure now. But at the time you could walk into any of these lobbies without much fear of bad-guys–except me.
This lobby is also where, like Don McLean in “American Pie” I saw bad news on the doorstep on December 8, 1980 when I clipped open the bundle, read the headline and saw this final picture of John Lennon before the man on his right shot him later that evening.
Another spot on this route that I often think about was the most disgusting algae-filled pool that you never want to see…
But they have apparently hired a new service.
All the apartments are in convenient horseshoes of buildings that made it extremely easy to step inside the door and toss the papers down a flight, or reach between the railings and put it on the third floor without much effort.
There’s a fine art to flinging a Sunday edition, crammed with comics and circulars, and having it float down on a perfect plane to land smoothly just in front of the door jam. And conversely, there’s nothing uglier than that same edition catching an updraft and in an explosion of color, then spending five minutes putting it back together. Katie would be waiting patently outside, knowing exactly what happened.
We could cover 100 customers in 24 minutes on a good day, once I got my driver’s license. And that record was set when we slept in until 7am and needed to make school at 8:10–body odor and ink-stained hands be-damned for the kid sitting next to me in first hour.
But the last horseshoe belonged to The Grouch. That was his cave, on the bottom right side of the door.
I’d do my best to sneak up to that door on those late mornings, but he was always watching for me through his ground-level window.
I’d creep toward the door and open it as noiselessly as possible. He was our only customer in the building. I’m not even sure anyone else lived there. Perhaps he’d eaten them.
“You’re late again” was his constant growl. ”When I was your age…” (really, he said that) “I was done with my paper route by 5 am.”
But the creepiest part about The Grouch, beside his boxers and dirty t-shirt, was that he would hide under the stairwell–not to physically pounce upon me, I still like to think. (I suppose these guys didn’t exactly help the notion of children performing these jobs. Within five years, most paper routes in our neighborhood were taken over by laid-off auto workers in their station wagons–each with five routes.)
I’d see him out of the corner of my eye as I glided the paper down the stairs before I’d turn to leave–praying that the paper wouldn’t unfold mid-flight.
For four years he’d hide there. Sometimes he’d speak, other times he’d lurk. The times he did speak, even if I did get there at 5 am, he’d complain.
The one morning that still hangs with me, however, was a day that I actually could be late and nobody would complain. I remember looking at the lawn outside of his door when it was covered with snow on Christmas morning. Our footsteps were the only thing messing up the greeting card serenity…
…our footsteps and then “Why the hell are you so late?”
Really? Christmas morning. You’re going there–you bitter old man?
Without even pausing, except for dramatic effect, I looked down and said, “My grandpa died.”
I didn’t add that it had happened in 1977.
The Grouch figured it had to have been a long enough pause to pass as politeness before he scowled. ”I’ll let it slide this time. But don’t let it happen again!”
It didn’t even work. And I know that’s the last thing I’ll hear from St. Peter on my way down the chute.
But maybe I’ll land on top of The Grouch.