Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Conversations - May: In League With the Gainful

In the days before singing waiters, I was a sixth-grader in Sonora, California, with a weekly root-beer-and-comic-book habit to support, especially with the advent of summer. Memory doesn't serve on how I arrived at my first run at the world of employment, but it's likely to have been my mother's suggestion. Money was tight then; my father had moved to a yet smaller town, and wasn't going to be providing much, and the income from my mother's secretarial job put us in the dry milk and beef kidneys set, and allowed little elective spending on clothes or auto repair.

In any case, the predictable idea of a paper route came up. In the sixties, it was very common for boys to mow lawns or have paper routes, and girls to babysit, for pocket money to buy magazines or treats or clothes. And our neighborhood was "downtown", gold country style, and didn't really have cars parked in driveways, so car washing or lawn mowing was somewhat less obvious. (My brother had fared pretty well there as a gas station assistant, for his grease monkey cred was unassailable.) So I made my way a few doors down to the offices of the Union Democrat, Sonora's evening daily, where as it happened, a seventh grader was itching to get out from under his route. We were to meet on a given Friday after school to review the route.

I met him right after the stack of papers was delivered, and we began folding and banding them, adding them to one of the double sacks used both as panniers and for street sales around the country. Then he had me follow his bike on mine as he traversed his side of the hills of Sonora. It took about forty minutes, as I recall, partly because there were some uncollected payments, but I can't remember whether he was successful in getting them.

When we were done, he took off before I quite realized that we may, in fact, have completed my apprenticeship. I was horrified to realize that I would have to deliver Monday, and he would not be available to clarify the twists and turns, subscribers and nonsubscribers, particularly of the neighborhoods I had seen for the first time that day.

I don't remember what kind of documentation was associated with the route, but I retain the impression that all that was available was what he told me, and you were notified on the fly of those who had begun subscribing or dropped. I remember that I tried on Monday to talk to him, then someone at the paper, about a map, or a list, in the scant fifteen minutes or so that preceded the necessary start time after school, but no help was available. I folded, stuffed, rode, and delivered, with no assurance whatever that there was even 50% accuracy in the direction of my tosses.

And, of course, it was on Tuesday that I learned of the exception mechanism, yellow tags which were put in a mail slot in the office for each delivery boy. My slot was an infestation of yellow, an embarassment of non-vindication, an indictment of my lack of readiness and memory. And, inevitably, the harbinger of the end of my first job. I can't remember if I rode the route alone more than once before the end, and in fact I don't even remember what the terms on the way there were - were errors deducted from your take somehow? I sort of don't think so, because it seems like you were getting back front money you paid to get the papers to deliver when you went to collect. And did they get rid of me, or did I realize that it was a hopelessly losing proposition? All of those details are a blur - but not the sense of humiliation, which would turn out to be a repeating theme.

(to be continued)

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