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Wages: The Paper Route

Chapter 2: How to quit when you can't get fired.

John Armstrong 23 Aug

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[This is the second of 14 excerpts, running Tuesdays and Thursdays, from John Armstrong's memoir of the working life: Wages.]

My mother phoned the local route manager and he came by one night after dinner to sign me up and give me my canvas bag -- a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie, brown slacks bagging at the knees and ass, scuffed shoes and a hockey team jacket. He looked like one of the lesser breed of substitute teachers. Now 15, I was old enough to consider that his life was surely a bitter disappointment. After all, he was in charge of a pack of school-kids delivering papers. When he was my age, he no doubt wanted to be an astronaut or a race-car driver when he grew up. This was probably not on the list at all.

But he could take a little pleasure in making the lives of others worse. There were no after-school routes available, but there was one morning route he could put me in. There went another dream into the shitter. I'd imagined rolling off the school bus, picking up my bike and spending an unhurried hour or so flinging papers and then home for dinner. I'd tagged along with friends on their routes and it seemed painless enough, although the paper-shack captains who took delivery of the bundles from the delivery-truck drivers were brutes corrupted by power. They drank beer and smoked at the shack, passed around dirty magazines and generally lorded it over the carriers.

This was their kingdom, such as it was. If you had any sense, you kept your mouth shut, collected your papers and got out of there as soon as possible, taking whatever indignities were visited on you without fuss. Occasionally, some kid would snap and talk back. Then he was doomed. He was the sacrificial victim for as long as he could stand it -- cigarette butts flicked at his head while he counted out the papers for his route, bike sabotaged or stolen while he was inside the shack, held down on the floorboards while the captains took turns farting on his head. The other carriers would turn on him, too. Better him than them, and he was already dead. But that was the way of things -- older kids abused you and you abused the younger ones in turn. It was all part of the Great Tapestry, and you took your Indian burn and someone blowing his nose in your hair with mute acceptance, and took notes.

But that was for the afternoon routes, in town proper. My route was a great T running north up our street, east from the next corner -- which in our neighbourhood was a good mile away -- down another mile or so, then back again and west from the same intersection another mile, back again to that too-familiar corner and then down our street, doing the houses on that side, over the crossroads below our house and down the mile-and-then-some stretch of steep hill to Zero Avenue, so named because beyond it was the golf course and the river, then the American border. Then, finally, back up the hill and the houses and farms on the east side of the street until I was home....

Hell's green acres

The afternoon carriers could leave their papers in the roadside mailboxes for pickup when the customer came home from work. But the morning paper had to be delivered to the doorstep, so they could reach out in their bathrobes for it. This was the country and the houses were set back as far from the road as possible, all on huge lots, like castles in the distance. I had 40 to 50 customers, which was nothing on a route delivering to houses and apartment buildings in town, but out here it was spread over hell's own acreage. The farms were even larger plots and once you were on the property you had a fair bit of pedalling just to get to the house, down a twisting gravel or dirt road past barns and outbuildings to the actual residence.

The paper had to be on the doorstep by seven a.m., and in winter it was pitch black, my pathetic pedal-dynamo headlight illuminating nothing ahead -- I might as well have struck a match -- and the dark closing in on all sides. In the rain it was worse, the wind howling in the trees, the mud and water of the dirt driveways and puddles soaking what wasn't already drenched by the clouds overhead. And woe betide if someone's paper got a drop of water on it, or was a minute late. By the time I got home there would be a nasty warning from the route manager, himself just off the phone with an angry circulation department that had taken the call from Mrs. Hogshite or whoever.

And after all this, then try to get paid. At month's end you made the same circuit, knocking on the doors, receipt book in hand and resignation in your heart; they never had the money on them, or the husband wasn't home, or wild goats had eaten the chequebook. Could I come back tomorrow, or later tonight? Oh, of course I could -- maybe I could sleep on the lawn since I would have to be up in the same neck of the woods only a few hours later to deliver some more papers you weren't going to pay me for. I'll leave it under the mat for you for tomorrow morning, they said, and I knew they were lying....

The dread of sleep

I became acquainted with two aspects of the working life that never changed. I had once welcomed bed, the clean sheets and the cool pillow, the bedside light and something to read until my eyes began to close. Now I dreaded it and stalled sleep off for as long as I could. Your last waking thoughts were the horrid realization that when you next opened your eyes it would be to the sound of the alarm clock and time to shoulder the bag once more and head for the door, the cold vinyl shock of the bike's seat against your jeans as you hurried to the drop-box to get your wares.

Sleep was the enemy and so was time. In happier days my mother woke me with a call from the doorway and toast and tea on the table. It was a leisurely time, the kitchen radio on, the furnace rumbling the vents, an unhurried shit and a stroll back down the hall to get dressed for the day. No more -- now I was on the road before I was fully awake and already under the gun. It was five a.m., a ridiculous hour to be doing anything, no one else was awake, the only lights in the world the intermittent glow from a barn or a farmer's porch, and I was already late and racing the clock. The route took at least two hours and the school bus left my corner at a little before eight....

Some mornings the panic and the hurry went straight to my bowels and I was seized by sudden and unmistakable cramping, and the bike went skidding onto its side as I made for the closest hedge, dropping my pants as I ran, advertising insert in my hands for a quick jungle wipe. Time was of the essence, but you couldn't hurry a fear shit -- it had its own schedule and came in a series of explosions. Just when you thought that was it, another wrenched its way up from your guts, and if you quit too soon, you'd only wind up stopping to do it again somewhere down the road. There you were, bizarrely contorted so as not to shit into the pants around your ankles, ass stuck as far out into the breeze as possible and eyes peeled for early risers who might poke their head out the front door. You could only wait it out and use the time for reflection on how things had gotten to this state.

Then you hurried even more to make up for lost time, a newspaper-delivering demon, and by the time you made it back to your own house, you were in a real state of mania, bike abandoned on the walk and door flung open to check the clock. It was already time to leave for the bus and Christ help you if you needed to change into dry clothes. Back out the door and a mad dash for the corner, a piece of toast in your hand, homework or lunch or both forgotten on the kitchen table.

There was a valuable lesson here. It was becoming apparent that all work was awful, but each job was uniquely horrible, like a snowflake....

Drunks for the fleecing

In [my school-bus chum] Blake's opinion, the paper route was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of. He and his cousin had been robbing crab traps in the bay at night until the cousin fell in and drowned. He was wearing hip waders and they filled up with water, dragging him under. It was weeks before they found the body. That ended the crab business, but Blake landed on his feet. Bad luck seemed to follow his relatives like a stray dog, but Blake himself sailed through it all. One of the guys he sold the crabs to had a brother who worked at the golf course and through him Blake got on as a caddy. It was a sweet life, he said.

"You get $5 a round and the drunker they get, the better they tip you. The caddy has to sign the scorecard, so if they're betting and your guy wants to cheat, he has to pay you to go along."

He was making $20 to $30 a day in the summer for walking around carrying a bag of clubs and helping one asshole screw another one. An eager fellow could caddy four or five rounds a day; on the weekends you could work from six in the morning until 10 at night. It was a goldmine and he could get me in if I could just survive until spring.

Quitting a job was not something my parents understood. To them it was something done only by the lowest orders. It went hand in hand with drugs, communism and homosexuality, and quitting your job was surely done only to devote more time to such perversions. There was no excuse for it and when you stood in front of the throne on the day of judgement there would be none God would accept. They believed in a literal reading of the Bible and I was taught that "When you die you stand in front of God and all the angels, and all the people who have ever lived, and watch a movie of everything you did in life...."

Between work and heaven

Heaven, in fact, sounded pretty grim. An eternity of watching other people's lives replayed, down to the last fart and cough, to a soundtrack of harp music. At any rate, masturbation alone had damned me to the hottest fires -- what would a few more sins contribute to the sentence? It was like adding library fines onto the charges against someone already condemned to hang.

Not that I ever said so: my personal philosophy didn't matter a damn. You got a job and you kept it, until you died or the company fired you.... In their experience, everything other than a bad job was too good to be true and so by definition didn't exist, or was at the least criminal. The working life and the example of their own parents had warped them to the extent they couldn't imagine anything other than a rotten deal; if a situation was truly lousy, then it must be solid, honourable employment.

When someone down at the legion bar retired and got a watch or a plaque commemorating his decades of service, he was the object of reverence.... The other end of this was that none of them seemed to last more than a year or two after they were retired, and this, too, was held up as evidence of their virtue. "Once he left the glue factory he had nothing to live for," the survivors said, and heads would nod solemnly in agreement. They were all as mad as dancing mice.

There was only one way out for me. If I couldn't quit the paper route, I would need to be fired, and I set out to become the worst paper carrier in the history of the world. If someone wanted the paper only on Friday for the TV schedule then they got it every day but. I left papers as far from the house as possible; some days I carried the whole works only as far as the first culvert and stuffed them in the drain pipe. I caught hell daily from the route manager but no matter how angry he got or what threats he issued, I still didn't hear the magic words. It dawned on me that if he fired me, I would need to be replaced, and what were the chances of that? Where would he find another kid as stupid as I was? Then it came to me that he would have to do it himself until he found one and I knew I was doomed. He could never fire me.

But even if the main plan was a failure, I had set things in motion. Part of the scheme included playing sick, or disabling the bike the night before, anything that meant my stepfather had to drive me on the route. As much as he preached the gospel of hard work and suffering -- and he was raised in the Plymouth Brethren sect, a crew that found quite a lot of the New Testament a little too happy-go-lucky for their taste -- he was no great fan of being woken an hour or so in advance of his own alarm to ferry me on my rounds. Having me shake his shoulder in the early hours two or three times a week was the finishing touch, and by the time I broached the subject of caddying, he was all for it. He was a golfer himself, and while he could never afford to play the course, at least his son could work there.

In Chapter 3, on Tuesday, John learns how to carry clubs and work over a customer.  [Tyee]

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