Labor’s Love Lost

100_0242As those of us who work for a living know, many days lead one to wish that we might have been heiresses and could simply bag the whole thing, but then, what, exactly, would we do?  Work doesn’t just give us the means to live, but it also provides structure to our lives, a sense of accomplishment, and if nothing else, lots of funny stories to tell later.  At a time when working people have been systematically devalued for years, and lately feel lucky to have any job, Labor Day feels bittersweet.  (That, and it rained all weekend here…)

My entry into the labor force occurred at age twelve, when I asked my mother if I could get a paper route, delivering the Oregonian.  (The Journal, the afternoon paper at the time, didn’t pay as well, so I wanted to go straight to the big leagues….)  While she eagerly praised my enterprising spirit, she fretted that it might be dangerous for a kid to be out in the predawn darkness each day.  ”You can if you do it with your brother,” she decided, in about fifteen seconds.  I quickly consulted the brother in question, just shy of a year my junior, and, seeing visions of expensive toys dancing in his head, he agreed.  To our surprise (at the time) we were immediately hired, and given a route about five blocks away, where we would deliver about eighty papers in a two by six block area, for the princely sum of $80 per month.  But just like in those get rich quick commercials, the actual work to be performed was deliberately left rather nebulous.  Our first clue that this might be more work than we thought was the subscriber list; it seemed every fourth customer expected the paper to be deposited in some special place; inside a screen door, down the driveway, behind a gate, whatever.  Who new that five bucks a month bought such service?  Walking through the area, we noticed that because it bordered a park, several of the streets were dead ends, requiring lots of redundant travel, and there was no way to do it in a neat circle because the route was so narrow and long.  Oh, well, we’d figure it out.  We were almost excited when we set our alarm clock, envisioning the money rolling in.

When that alarm blared in what seemed like the middle of the night, cold reality hit us in our bleary-eyed faces at 4:30 am in the form of a towering mountain  of newsprint on our porch.  The pitiful bags they gave us could never carry them all, because in those days, the papers were so large that even on Mondays eighty of them was a four-foot stack.  Worse, not only had we forgotten most of what we’d learned in our daylight reconnaissance mission casing the route, but by the time we’d delivered all the papers, making multiple trips, it was getting close to 6:30, when customers were officially allowed to start complaining.  And complain they did.  Surly old geezers and curlered harridans lay in wait to angrily berate us by the end of the route, so we vowed to make some logistic changes, including stealing a grocery cart, for day two.  Things went more smoothly after that.  Soon, we could do the whole route in about 45 minutes, after twenty minutes or so of folding and rubber-banding, (which we did sparingly because we had to pay for the rubber bands…) and the only complaints we got from then on were from deliberate “mistakes” to customers we thought deserved them.  ”Paper on roof,” etc.  We also discovered that the panels at the bottom of those aluminum screen doors so popular in the 70′s would make such a deliciously resounding boom when hit just right that I think we had to pay for one or two that we popped out, but otherwise, we were generally beloved by customers and boss, and went on to build up to a veritable empire of two routes that surrounded our house, cutting down on travel.

For three years, we dragged our blackened “paper route clothes” out of the bottom drawers, pulled them on, and trudged out in the (most often) rain, sharing the wonders of the Free Press with our neighbors, while our loyal dog stayed in the general area, chasing cats and eating garbage, unless it was too rainy, and then he’d go back home and bark to be let in, to the considerable chagrin of the neighbors and my mother.  We soon had a fleet of grocery carts for our endeavor; different sizes for different days, one crudely outfitted by me with bent oil pan in place of the wheels, which cruised through the snow nicely.  Still, as the years wore on, I counted down the days until I could get a work permit at 15, so I could get a fancy job, perhaps bussing tables, especially when Christmas morning to us meant three six-foot stacks of papers and a cheap box of mints, which we were apparently supposed to share, and presents afterward when everyone else got up.

The best thing about the paper route, in retrospect, and the reason why I would recommend one for every kid, was that it put future work in perspective; even the crappiest job would seem glamorous and well-paid after that.  That, and you even get a day off every once in a while.

Happy Labor Day….


  1. dirigo says:

    It’s hard to imagine throwing the online version of The Oregonian on someone’s roof, but I’ll bet you could figure out a way.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    Nowadays the print edition doesn’t have enough heft to throw that far… it would just sort of waft.

  3. Well, I never had a paper route, but I did start out at 13, putting people’s trash barrels out before school and taking them in after school at a 20 unit apartment building. I also worked weekends cleaning newly-vacated apartments. (Some unpleasant revelations there, I can tell you.)

    The worst job I ever had, though, was working through Manpower at a graphite factory in Memphis. My job was to run the machine which filled ready-mix concrete bags. Don’t ask me why a graphite factory was also making ready-mix concrete — I have no idea.

    Anyway, it was like working on ice skates, and the hand grips that were all over the place didn’t help much. They were far too slippery. The nadir, though, came at the end of the day. Even though there were showers in the place, I always wound up at the bus stop — I didn’t have a car — looking like a cross between Al Jolson and a raccoon.

    Is it any wonder I wound up becoming a librarian?

    • cocktailhag says:

      When I finally achieved my goal of being a busboy, I first worked in an Irish restaurant where I had to wear a kilt and sing. Fortunately, the place closed down and I was able to parley my experience into a fancier gig at the Thunderbird, a luxurious 70′s “Motor Inn” in the waterfront, gliding amongst the cocktailhags in the semidarkness in my billowy polyester pirate shirt and vinyl apron.

      • Well, considering your moniker, it would seem that not all of love’s labor in that loveless decade was lost.

        I wish I could say the same for my labor in the graphite factory. It enhanced my respect for Woody Guthrie, and ensured that I’d never be quite comfortable in the middle class, but on the whole it was too strange and terrible even to serve as an object lesson.

        • cocktailhag says:

          I actually loved restaurant work, and it paid better than anything else. The place I worked when I was home summers during college was even fancier than the T-Bird, and I was making $800 a week in tips, which was a lot of money back then.
          I also developed valuable interpersonal skills; learning to “read” people at short notice… knowledge you can’t get from a book.

          • Yeah, I did a bit of restaurant work too, back in the day — started as a dishwasher and ended as a chef’s runner — setting up buffets, manhandling the ice sculptures from the walk-in freezer, carving the roasts to order on the line, etc. It didn’t pay nearly as well as waiting tables (fewer tips) but the cocktail hags loved my patter, and it had all other the social virtues you describe.

          • cocktailhag says:

            It also contributed to my almost OCD love of order. Everything had to be in its place, or you were in a world of hurt at crunch time, and when you had a free second, you wiped down surfaces and tidied up, to keep up appearances. To this day, clients marvel at the neatness of my work area.
            Also, having to be charming and unflappable, even under extreme stress eventually becomes a habit, which also pays big dividends.
            (I carved hams and turkeys at Sunday Brunch when I went to the T-Bird in Eugene, and that skill paid off, too; I’ve been the official carver at holidays ever since.)

  4. timothy3 says:

    I delivered the LA Times (or maybe it was the Examiner) with a friend who drove a decrepit Chevy Malibu with a column shift that belched fumes into the car’s interior. I had a constant headache and that probably explains much of my outlook today–unstable, unsteady, uncertain and almost certainly unworthy.
    But that’s how we made a buck back then.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Carbon monoxide is never good for one’s outlook, T3. But the humble work of delivering newspapers instills an innate sympathy for those less fortunate, which you carry to this day as I do.

  5. rmp says:

    I also had a paper route delivering daily the Grand Forks (ND) Herald, but before that the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune. I have some tales to tell so I think I will do a post when I get a chance. My greatest challenge was collecting the money I was owed. With the Tribune, I won a free trip to Chicago and the Hilton hotel I stayed in ended up being across the street from where I worked my last Air Force job. Going out in a ND blizzard at 5am Sunday morning with a sled and each paper two-inches thick certainly showed me how to face almost any obstacle.

    • cocktailhag says:

      The Oregonian was switching over to billing from collections during our tenure; for the first year or so we had to collect from those who hadn’t paid the bill. It was miserable.
      We had snow and ice storms, but they only ever lasted a few days; had I lived in ND or MN, I might not have made this career move.

  6. Meremark says:

    I rode along a couple times with my brothers delivering The Oregonian. Driving a car. Around the sub-suburbs with a few tangents on roads out of town. It was pre-dawn pretty. It was crispy cold. Car-and-driver delivery routes got more papers, more miles, more ‘adventure,’ maybe more of love than money. So, yeah, there’s that ….

    I had chores and responsibilities around the farm after age 6, in increasing degree of arduousness by age and growth, but the only wages in any of it was unholy heck if I shirked my assignment. There are remembered moments which make fun stories, and vice versa of it, as a rule lined to a lesson or moral in the telling, often involving sowing or reaping, births or deaths, but … aw, shucks, ‘t wasn’t nothin’. Labor is its own reward, as you agree, Hag, just to have something to do if a person is too doltish to discover any other good or self-interest in it … like soul satisfaction. I can omit mention of the usual list of natural features endowed of it — kind, thrifty, clean, reverent, loyal, obedient, honest, happy, bashful, grumpy, doctor, sleepy, sneezy, dopey, avarice, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, pride, lust, lather, rinse, repeat, caprice capiche — for the sake of brevity.

    To get to a quote that fairly well summed it all up, in a flash the first time I heard it, a single line by which I judged the man’s entire character countering everything else I’d heard or knew about him — supposedly Lyndon Baines Johnson said: The best fertilizer a man can put on his land is his footprint. I figure he probably stole it from some old timer who said it first, but I still give him credit for knowing the good stuff worth stealing.

    Anyway, my first real honest-to-God hourly wages started when I was fourteen and the new neighbor walked up, from across the road a quarter-mile down, and hired me, (after asking my dad’s permission; is that quaint or what!), to work in the cemetery there ‘under construction.’ We dug some graves, sure, and buried people, (eventually including my dad), but mostly it was mowing a big big big lawn and landscaping and flowerbed maintaining and bits of the trades, (masonry, plumbing, electrical, carpentry), and, kinda delicate: giving directions to hundreds of grief-traumatized drivers in 3000 lb. vehicles liable to get wandering lost anywhere between entering and exiting — for heavensake no shouting and show some respect for those bereaved imbeciles … probably there were hags among them, I don’t know, eventually there comes at least one of every description and nobody’s ever refused admission for lack of seating space or a ticket. As a unique ‘laborer’ my adolescent sociality had a funny ‘pall’ about it with high school peers, mostly their problem and besides I was nerd to such max that I never even noticed. Later, some of them dropped in on their return from Vietnam. And stayed. But after the first couple-or-so I was gone on to a job in town.

    PayLess courtesy boy. Put that in your journal and joke it.

    • cocktailhag says:

      The cemetery gig sounds cool…. After my grandmother died, I became enamored with Mt Calvary,
      as a favorite place for all sorts of adolescent misbehavior, with a touch of the morbid. (We kept different hours than the mourners, natch….)