Saturday, January 3, 2015

Newspaper memories, from an ex-tree killer

The janitor pushed a trash bin into my office yesterday morning, just as he does every Friday. And, just like every Friday morning, I took his visit as an opportunity for a short break from the file I was underwriting. I removed the earbud from my right ear that was broadcasting a radio talk show and sat it aside.

"How ya doing, Kevin? Any new war stories?," I asked.

Performing maintenance and facilities cleanup duties was just Kevin's "day job", as he was also a Flint Journal newspaper carrier. Kevin knew I had spent a good number of years at the newspaper in the Circulation department, and therefore liked to swap delivery stories.

Kevin also knew that I had the dubious distinction of being the last Circulation Director at the helm of The Flint Journal when it still had a 7-day distribution model. The Journal was founded in 1876, the same year Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president of the United States, and there had been 25 presidents since then. I'm not sure how many Circulation chiefs there have been, only that I somehow was the one at the wheel when it hit the iceberg. But I've already told you about that. See the various links at the end of this blog entry if you need a refresher. I was talking about Kevin's stories...

Sometimes his story would be the stereotypical "dog versus delivery man", and Kevin has been known to repeat his favorite one with equal fervor every time. Caught unawares outside of his car in the middle of a darkened pre-dawn street, our hero was confronted by three large pit bulls intent on making him their breakfast snack. The pit bulls were kept at bay and eventually discouraged into retreat by a steady stream of liquid pain dispensed from Kevin's pepper spray. It was a close call, as Kevin tells it, as the last dog turned and ran at the precise moment the pepper spray can was exhausted. "I now carry an extra can," said Kevin. 

Sometimes he will complain about how late the semi was with the papers at the DC, or his latest "slip and fall" on an icy porch step. Or he will tell me how big the Thanksgiving edition was this year, and how many hours it took him to deliver his entire route while driving in his father-in-laws old pickup that got "2 gallons to the mile". Or about the ridiculous quantity of ad pacs (or 'market-places' or whatever they call those free flyers distributed to the non subscribers) and how many extras he received every week.

All these stories are familiar to me and remind me of my own similar experiences over the years. I usually am able to put these memories on and wear them like a pair of comfortable old jeans.

Yesterday's news, however, only made me sad.

Kevin told me about his latest batch of "stops" he received that morning. His daily draw is now a little under 600, down from just over 900 just 3 years ago. Quite a plunge, albeit anecdotal, I can't help but wonder just how much longer this print newspaper patient can last on life support.

It's hard to believe, but in 2005 The Flint Journal was publishing newspapers every day and averaging 85,000 daily and over 100,000 on Sunday. Today, just 10 years later, the newspaper only provides home delivery four days per week, making Flint the fifth-largest city in the United States without a daily newspaper. As far as the current circulation numbers, they are roughly half of those daily and Sunday numbers from 2005.

I still think about my old co-workers often, and can't help but smile at some of those memories and good times we shared. I recently had the pleasure of attending a poker game with some of the boys last month, where we swapped some of the old stories between hands. Like the time when several District Managers and myself piled into the luxurious confines of Mitch's personal limo he owned in order to deliver a north-end route for a carrier contest winner. I think it was one of Pratt's carriers who had won, and I remember more than a couple addresses for "new contest starts" appearing on the list, yet finding nothing more than growing weeds in a vacant lot where the new subscriber was supposed to be living. Man, did we ever have a great run (and even some laughs).

VIDEO: An actual voicemail message from one of Pratt's longtime adult carriers in the act of dumping his route.

"I want you to love me forever. It is raining out there. I can't get the papers done..."

One of the "joys" of being a District Manager was the occasional surprise down route requiring your personal attention.

Before you ask the obvious, my job required my presence in the projects. I kept that faux-$20 in my desk to remind myself the cost of being gullible. When my job required delivering an open route in the projects, I learned to take a couple extra packs of smokes with me. I would paste an idiotic smile on my face and pass out single cigarettes to anyone who looked at me cross-eyed as I hurriedly made the rounds. Hey, it worked!

Those were some of the lessons I learned the hard way. I'm from Flint... so RESPECT, yo!

My favorite newspaper memories, however, involve the time spent prior to being hired full time at The Journal and delivering the neighborhood route with my brothers in the 70's. Route 1102E. Lockhead, Dell, McKinley, and Shawnee streets in Flint's south end. A route we had in the family for maybe 12 or more straight years, and passed down from Rick, to Greg, to me then to Donnie (pictured here). After our Sunday morning deliveries, we would rush home to watch whatever Abbott and Costello movie re-run being broadcast that week.

Pictured below is my dad gently hinting to Donnie to scrap the scrabble game and that he might want to consider doing the weekly collections, crutches or no.

My dad was always there to support us, or to physically pull us out of bed (or the top bunk) for the Sunday morning deliveries. As much as I dreaded those moments at the time, I'd give anything to relive just one of those Sundays.

Links to other of my newspaper blogs:
Confessions of a Tree Killer

A Paperboy's Tale Of Unrequited Love
The newspaper implosion continues
Phone call bookends from father and son
The Pledge of Allegiance Convenience

What used to be Black and White and Read all over, and Spoiled after just a few hours if not consumed?


  1. I delivered papers with my brothers for years. We had bicycles with a special rack to hold the paper bags we draped over our shoulders.

    The local paper didn't allow throwing, so we delivered each paper, and placed it in a special box, or under a brick on the front porch. Rainy days required wrapping each paper in a plastic bag, which added more time and sometimes angry customers, if the paper was late.

    The local rag we used to deliver is pathetic compared to what it once was. The large building it occupied is now closed, and part of the urban blight of the downtown area.

    In a way, it's saddening, but in another, it's a sign of progress. Where we were only allowed pieces of information in the past, it's now available at the end of our fingers; and the once selective source of information is now forced to adjust, or disappear.

  2. Jess, our house was almost directly in the middle of our route, which was comprised of relatively modest city lots, and 9 out of 10 houses received the daily paper. I also had porch or newspaper box deliveries, so my bike would have been counter productive. I bet you have more than a few good memories of delivering with your brothers, as I do.

    Other memories I have from my time with the paper have to do with some of the individuals I managed. Some of the names I can recall, others long since dissipated from recollection. There was one young black teenager who delivered approximately 60 papers per day for me in a semi-rough neighborhood. He was very soft spoken, yet polite, and he always had his weekly bill money ready for me on our Tuesday pick up day. We would sit on his porch and count it out, while I asked him about his route and whether he had any collection problems or other issues I could help him with. He rarely admitted to any problems and was usually self sufficient. He kept his route for several years, right up through high school, while routes on either side of his turned over numerous times per year. I often wonder what happened to him, but have resolved myself into believing this young man made something noble for himself. Don't get me wrong, I had more than a few "crash and burns" along the way, but it is this young man and others like him who were responsible, honest and hard working, against peer pressure and all odds, who persevered and took care of business whom I choose to remember. That's one of the reasons I disagree with your last point. I believe we've lost too much. Sure, the medium, quantity, accessibility and price is better, but I'd rather be ankle deep in Perrier than neck deep in bull dookie.

  3. I used to do drops on Sundays.
    Drug stores, Catholic Church steps, etc.
    I pulled that $20 trick once.
    I found a corner of a $20 at my work station at GM and glued it to the corner of a one and asked Money Joe (the guy who ran all the numbers runners in the plant) down the line for change.
    He fell for it.
    Then I asked for the $20 back and he was perplexed when he couldn't find it. He had a good laugh, and didn't have my legs broken!

  4. Uh oh! Ed, the trickster, scamming Money Joe out of his illegal numbers game loot! The Edmeister! Glad you returned it and kept your health! I never retrieved my money. I made change out of the window of my car from my big bag of route cash. I knew something was wrong immediately, when this individual sprinted away. I gave chase for about 60 seconds but gave up when I realized #1 I wasn't catching them, and #2 I was in a very dangerous area. Lesson learned.

  5. I reminisced about the old days with a friend recently. We both did multiple paper routes for many years while we were teenagers. By the time his son is old enough to have a paper route (10 years or so), print newspapers will no longer exist.

    I ran into Mark Zbiciak this summer and Barry Pratt just a few weeks back. I often think that FJ, back then, was about as good as it gets for a working environment. The fact that so many people were able to land on their feet after such a terrible last few years, speaks volumes.

  6. Jared, I believe you're right. That was as good as it gets. I got to visit with Zeeb and some of his loose change at the card game. I asked about Barry. Glad to know he's still around and shooting fowl no doubt. Good to hear from you too.