14 Sep 2014
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The Past Keeps Rolling: Tales of a Paperboy

As an 11-year-old paperboy, Gerry Boylan learned that men and women sometimes answer the doorbell half-dressed, tried to pay bills with canned corn and much more.

The Past Keeps Rolling: Tales of a Paperboy The Past Keeps Rolling: Tales of a Paperboy The Past Keeps Rolling: Tales of a Paperboy The Past Keeps Rolling: Tales of a Paperboy

While our specific task as "Tales of Royal Oak" columnists is to feature all things quirky, interesting and worth a smile about our fair city, we strive to find themes that appeal to our readers from here to there and everywhere.

Certainly seemed to strike a universal chord as did first jobs and  experiences.  Because we are also not above shameless repetition, let’s keep it going.

My actual very first job was typical for so many of us: I was a newspaper boy. I smiled at reader Sue Whitney’s comment that she had to use her brother as a stand-in to get a route because girls weren’t accepted into the fraternity. Not fair at all and my grin was trying to imagine how a girl in the Detroit News paper station would have changed our behavior. 

As I remember it, paper routes were in high demand for kids with a finite number of Detroit News, Free Press and Daily Tribune routes available.  Each had their pros and cons: The Free Press demanded a commitment to very early mornings, but after that your day was wide open. The News didn’t require being an early bird, but you had to hustle to complete the route after school if you played a sport. The Tribune paid less, but you didn’t have Saturday deliveries and the paper was much thinner and easier to pitch from a bike.

I was 11 years old when my neighbor Billy Owens told me he was going to quit his News route and I should come in and talk to his manager Mr. Lee.  The Detroit News newsboy “station” was on the north side of Fourth Street between Troy and Knowles.  It was a nondescript, windowless, cement block building approximately 25 x 20 feet in size nestled close to the alley.

My first station visit was my interview with Mr. Lee. After I left my bike next to the two dozen other bicycles strewn outside the station, I entered through one large steel door into a world unto its own. I can still see the 20 or so boys in T-shirts and patched jeans waiting for their papers, stuffing inserts, rolling papers for an easy porch toss and loading them into the double canvas saddlebags that fit over a bike’s back fender or the single bags with sash that fit over the handlebars.

There was only one adult in the under-lit room, so it was easy to identify Mr. Lee. He looked like he was right out of the movie On the Waterfront with thin hair slicked back and a pack of Marlboros tucked into his shirt sleeve.  Thinking back, he was probably in his late 20s but he was so much bigger than any of the 10- to 13-year-old paperboys. He cut a very imposing presence. 

He had to be a tough guy because his employees were kids who easily could have been cast in Newsies or Bowery Boys. My interview was brief. 

“Who recommended you?”

“Billy Owens”

“Are you a thief?"

“No.”

“You start tomorrow.”

Thus began my introduction into the fraternity of newsboys. We worked seven days a week, rain or shine, through frigid February and beastly August.  All the highs and lows were shared in that tiny, square cement block hut with up to 40 boys packed in waiting for their papers.  Oh man, there were some real characters in our station. Tough kids, whiny kids, troubled kids, just about every kind of kid with every one of us on the brink of, or already in, puberty.

No wonder Mr. Lee looked like a man ready to blow a gasket at any minute.

I hung out with Brian Bowring and Peter Donahue. Brian and I were pals from playing baseball at and Peter was a year ahead of me at . Peter was very bright had a rapier wit and no one was spared its sting, not even Mr. Lee. That drollness acted as sort of a deflecto-shield that I stood behind to protect me from some of the more aggressive delinquents at the station. Interestingly, Peter went on to become a Catholic priest and is the president of Villanova University.

(Peter came home to Royal Oak this past weekend to perform the wedding of Megan Moore, daughter of high school friends Mike and Jackie Moore, at St. Mary’s. In my head I’m warbling The Lion King song, "The Circle of Life"  Royal Oak style!)

I found being a paperboy to be in the top five formative experiences of my life. As an 11-year-old I was expected to set my alarm on Sunday morning at 5:30 a.m., ride my rickety bike through the snow to the station, pick up my 142 Sunday papers (when papers were really papers, stuffed with three pounds of ads), sling them on my bike and pray my bald tires didn’t slip on the train track splaying me and the papers across an icy Fourth Street.

Not only did we deliver the product, but then we had to collect from a very wide cross section of folks to pay our weekly bill. The collection process exposed me to a very interesting cross section of south Royal Oak residents and yep, exposed could be taken literally in some cases.  As a fifth-grader, I had no idea that some men and women answered the doorbell in only half of their pajamas, clinging to a cigarette, beer or both as they handed me my 75 cents plus tip. I found that the less dressed a person was, the better they tipped. I learned that some customers tried to pay their bill with canned corn, silverware and assorted household items. I learned how to be a chief credit officer and cajole, yell or even well up a few tears to get a bill paid. I did accept a bushel basket of returnable bottles from a cranky elderly man.

The most challenging location was a nursing home on Washington next to Dr. Wake’s pediatric office. I had four customers in the home and all were in various states of disrepair. I hand-delivered each paper and it never took less than 10 minutes of conversation or having my wrist or hand held tightly as the coins were put deliberately into my hand. While I can still smell the disinfectant like it was yesterday, I was glad I wasn’t a total jerk with those people.

Even though I blew most of my profits eating hamburgers and bowling, all in all it was an illuminating job that in hindsight prepared me for the unexpected. In today’s world, it’s another job our kids and grandchildren will never know existed and a lost opportunity to learn how to grow up. The irony is not lost on me that this column is posted on an online new site. 

In some ways, our nostalgic journey together is as much a lament of what’s been lost to today’s children as it is a warm walk down memory lane.  But the world turns round and round and we’ll just have to find new ways for our young people to grow up outside the shadow of the adult umbrella.

Hey, it’s Monday: Let’s go!

Postscript:

I visited the site of the old Detroit News station after I wrote this article and found it is now part of the . You can see from the pictures that the only part left of the drab building is the back door.

I talked with Jesse Cory, who explained to me his gallery business and a new, hot business called 1x Run, which is a cutting edge art business producing limited edition-time released art.  I'm coming back to learn more and report on it. I can safely say that most of the teenage boy angst that resided in that building has been replaced by an exciting art dynamic. 

Who said nostalgia has to be old and stuffy?!

Gerry Boylan is the author of two books, Getting There, a novel, and Gerry Tales, a collection of short stories. Both books are available at Amazon.com, and for download for Kindle and Nook at Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com. You can also pick up both books at the Yellow Door Art Market in Berkley.

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