by Robert Giles
I sell the morning papers sir my name is Jimmy Brown ... Everybody knows that I'm the newsboy of the town
From the song “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”*
“Well, if it isn’t Jimmy Brown, the newsboy. Anyone got a dollar?”
On top of the hill in Byersdale lived a family that loved hillbilly music. I delivered their paper. When I rang the bell to collect, they always had the phonograph going – Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Carter Family.
The paper route was handed down through my family. My sister was the first of us to deliver the Sun-Telegraph. No one called her “Jimmy Brown”. Mr. Shimrak over at the Isaly store used to tease her by calling her “Abe Lincoln”.
It took a certain amount of “grit” or “gumption” for a young girl to manage a paper route in 1956. My sister had more than her share of those qualities.
Mr. Shimrak must have been impressed. He gave Linda a job in his store, the first of a succession of Giles kids to clerk for the Shimraks. The clerkship at Isaly’s became a family tradition, just like delivering the newspaper.
I learned the newspaper delivery business helping my older brothers. My turn came when I was twelve or thirteen.
If I remember correctly, the “Sun-Telly” was an afternoon paper like the “Press”. About the time I inherited the route, it was bought out by the “Post-Gazette”, a morning paper, and became for a short while the “Post-Gazette & Sun-Telegraph”. This was too much of a mouth-full, and soon the “Sun-Telegraph” name was history.
One thing did not change – the “Post-Gazette” was and always would be a morning paper. I had to learn to get up every morning by 5:30 am.
I’m not sure now how it came about but we also delivered the “Press” on Sunday mornings.
I slept in a bedroom with three other brothers. So as not to wake up everyone, my mother would set the alarm clock in her room and come and rouse me. After a while I got into an “early to bed and early to rise” routine and did not need an alarm clock.
I had a knack for being able to sleep through all the inevitable horseplay that arises when four young boys are confined to a small room.
Once I was shaken awake by two older brothers.
“Bobby, you slept in. Mr. McBroom left your papers on the front porch a long time ago. You better get up.”
In a panic, I got dressed and ran down the steps and out onto the front porch. Where were the papers? The porch was empty.
I came back inside and glanced at the clock. It was one o’clock in the morning. Mr. McBroom wasn’t due for another four hours.
Another time my brothers put my hand in a bucket of water while I was in a deep sleep. They wanted to test something one of them had read – that the water would induce in the subject a need to get up and urinate.
I did not disappoint them. On my way back from the bathroom, I heard the sound of brotherly laughter.
The economics of the newspaper delivery business were not good. I suppose that is the reason that children got the job. The newspaper girl or boy got maybe a fraction of a cent on each weekday delivery – several cents on the more costly Sunday edition.
I was old enough to do the math. I had around fifty customers so I made about $3.75 per week – about $30.00 in today’s dollars - provided I could collect all the money I was owed. If I failed to collect from just one customer, my profits were reduced by the entire amount I didn’t collect, or a little more than 25 percent. I had to pay the route man whether I collected from all my customers or not.
Of course back then the word “deadbeat” wasn’t in my vocabulary. I was as naive as any other kid in his early teens. Adults were intimidating. If they said they didn’t have a dollar in the house and couldn’t pay me, who was I to argue?
I had a collection card for every customer. There were little squares with dates on them that you tore off and gave a customer when he paid. (The receipt system was later supplanted by an even more unsatisfactory way of keeping accounts – punch cards. The customer had a card, the paperboy another. The boy punched both cards to acknowledge payment.)
Imagine how eager people were to keep their punch card on hand for the paperboy - not very. If they couldn’t find a dollar, they certainly couldn’t find a punch card.
Some people went for a month or two without paying. “Mr. Cooper, you owe me $8.00.”
“What, that can’t be!”
“Well, here is your collection card and you can see I haven’t punched it for eight weeks.”
He would then argue that I had forgotten to punch the card. (Or maybe I had glued the chads back in the holes.) With someone like that, my only recourse was to cease delivery, refuse service.
I had much more luck collecting from the wives. There were some exceptions, but most had scruples about taking advantage of children.
One lady I won’t name had me pick up a carton of Pall Malls at Isaly’s on collection day. She always gave me a dime for my trouble and let me look at her tropical fish tanks while she scrounged for the cigarette money.
People would see me lugging the Pall Malls and ask me when I was going to switch to a filtered brand.
Once in a while a customer would pay me with the pennies he had emptied from his pockets and collected in a mason jar. He didn’t like to carry small change but it was OK to pay the paperboy by the pound.
We've got to keep those pennies in circulation.
I carried the papers in a standard canvas newsboy bag with the Post-Gazette logo. Fifty papers were pretty heavy for a twelve-year-old. The shoulder strap bit into my clavicle. I had to walk with my weight shifted to the side away from the sack with one hand underneath the bag to give it support. I didn’t start up the steep Byersdale hillside until I had lightened the load by first delivering to customers on the bottom streets.
The Sunday papers were even heavier. Mr. McBroom didn’t have enough space in his station wagon for all of them so he delivered the “funnies” and the weekly magazines and supplements Saturday night. The rest of the sections came Sunday morning.
I had to sit and put together the two sections before delivery. One of my brothers helped with the Sunday delivery until I got older and stronger.
I found that most of the dogs in Byersdale had some private resentment against the exercise of a free press. With them I was about as popular as the mailman. You had to watch out for those little terriers that came out of nowhere when a customer opened the door.
“He didn’t bite you, did he? He never bites. Ronnie, get back inside … That will only hurt for a little while.”
Way back of the hill was Short Street, the last street before you came to the woods. Short Street was notable for the smell of raw sewage and the large hound that was tied in one of the yards. Every delivery to that neighborhood was an assault on my nose and ears. There he was – the “Hound of the Baskervilles”, baying himself hoarse and straining at his chain.
All that stood between me and death by dog bite was a frail ribbon of rope. I walked a little faster.
Neither snow, sleet, rain nor hail kept me from my appointed rounds. A new snow was fresh and lovely at six o’clock in the morning. The other stuff I was not so keen on. A downpour could strike pretty suddenly.
There were newly-weds starting out in a small house on Essex Avenue. The Mrs. was quite pretty – I was beginning to appreciate that sort of thing. I arrived at the door in a thunderstorm, wet to the bone, to collect.
“Look at you, you’re soaked - where’s your umbrella?”
She invited me in and gave me some towels to dry off. I protested that I would get her sofa all wet but she insisted that I sit down while she made me a cup of hot tea.
Her husband and I chatted a bit. The tea was ready. We all had a cup while we talked about where I lived and went to school.
The rain had slackened, but they loaned me an umbrella to carry, just in case. Off I went.
I can’t remember their names but I do remember that act of kindness, over fifty years later.
Was it worth my while to deliver the newspaper? I had to miss out on several camping trips when I couldn’t get someone to take my route for me. I had to go to bed early and wake up early. I had to work about twelve hours per week. I made just over thirty cents an hour ($2.40 today).
On the other hand, I had money to buy clothes and snacks and presents on Christmas. That was better than nothing.
There was a sort of tacit agreement in our house. Dad would feed us and keep a roof over our heads but we had to do our share. He never gave us a nickel to spend. I always thought he was free of guile but now I see a man with a plan. If his purpose was to teach us to stand on our own two feet, he succeeded.
I never stopped to weigh the pros and cons and reason it all out – mostly I did it because my brothers did it, it was expected of me, and it was a good feeling to have a little money to jingle in my pocket.
On collection day, I often stopped at the little grocery at the top of Anthony Wayne Drive and plunked down my own coin for a dime bag of Snyder’s potato chips and a bottle of ginger beer. I sat on Mrs. Batch’s wooden steps and sipped and ate and studied the sumac berries that grew on the opposite side of the road. Soon the existential gloom would lift and I would descend the hill toward home.
After four years, I sold my route for $25.00 to another Byersdale “Bobby”.
I had turned sixteen. I went and got myself a work “permit”. I was old enough to make real money.
* If you need something to lift your own existential gloom, don’t have a beer and chips – listen to Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s version of “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”. It has enough bounce to levitate you up near the ceiling. I couldn’t find it on YouTube but there are other versions of the song there. (The Flatt and Scruggs version is disappointingly slow.)
Turn up the volume. If it turns out you just can’t stand bluegrass, you may have to try a different color.