True stories of a kid in the ‘70s
I lay awake waiting for the regular weekend morning thud. Boom!, there it was, time to get up and go to work. My teen years were about to begin with the end of the 1970s around the corner, and I had a job to do. A job I loved. I staggered to the front window of our suburban home perched on a corner lot, peeked out, and there they were, like clockwork, a mound of bundled newspapers with my name on it. My alarm clock went like this. First I hear the roar of a panel van ripping through the neighborhood, listening for the pauses and booms in the distance. I waited until I heard Stans San Jose Mercury News truck get close to our home. The pause, idle, and then boom after boom. The papers arrived and before I could get there Stan was gone as if rockets were mounted to the sides of his panel van.
I thought to myself, am I crazy? There must be thousands of kids up at exactly the same time as me helping with the farm, milking the cows, and riding the tractor with “Pa”. Well, this was my suburbian version. Instead, mine was a bike serving the neighbors I mostly knew. This was the first hint that I was an entrepreneur, I didn’t know it at the time.
I bundled up to face the treacherous fall weather of Northern California, geez it must have been at least high fifties before dawn. I cracked the front door, pushed the screen open, and once again forgot to stop it from slamming, the next boom! of the morning. I glanced back to see if I woke Mom or Dad, no lights so once again I escaped, heck they were probably used to it by now. I stepped down onto the covered porch and peered out towards the mountain of papers. It was late fall and the large trees lining our 1963-era tract home neighborhood were empty of leaves. Instead, the moist yellow leaves were mounded about our front lawn and street. Dealing with these leaves was another chore of mine for a later time and they would haunt me in more ways than one.
The misty fog in the cool air was a regular thing so early in the morning. I always peeked up towards the sky to see if any daylight was upon us and was always blinded by the orange glow of the street light radiating through the mist. You think I would have learned by now, kind of like the screen door thing I couldn’t seem to get a grip on. I was a kid. This streetlight wasn’t always there and I didn’t like it. Rumors held that a neighbor thought it was too dark on our corner and the lamp appeared. I fumbled my way to the corner with more clothes on than my own body weight and proceeded to rifle through the bundles. There were four symbolic stacks, one was mine and the three others were my fellow paperboys, also my friends. My comrades and I would ride out the 70’ and ‘80s together in innocence, and not, which was a crazy time for the world around us. I suppose every kid thinks the same no matter their generation and we are all probably right. It was the world but we were adolescents with high school on the horizon, and I know I was scared. We all survived with one of our buddies doomed for a rough go of life.
It was still dark and a little misty on this Sunday morning. Thank god we only had to do this two days a week so early, the other five days we had the afternoon routes. Hard to believe back in the day the Merc, short for San Jose Mercury News, printed twice a day during the week. There was a morning route and then again in the afternoon. We chose the afternoon route that became a routine for an eternity in a kid’s mind. I think it lasted three years or so. I found my stack, cleared away the wet annoying leaves, and kicked my bundles over to the side, getting myself ready to start folding. The boys began to arrive from different directions, cranking on their pedals through the mist like some kind of movie where a body bursts through the fog, I thought. One lonely stack remained and that was Steve’s, he was always the late one. Sometimes we would all be gone before he even arrived, but he always did.
Sundays were always the big day of the week and the paper was huge, like hucking a Dura-Flame log at houses, that is unless you knew how to run your route. The secret is that The Merc would drop off the “Ads Section” earlier in the week and then a paperboy could decide if he wanted to deliver them earlier than Sunday. I almost always did and often Saturday afternoons. This made my Sunday early route a breeze as the news sections on the weekends were always light. It didn’t always happen and we regretted it every time. If you got lazy and tried to do it all in one day it created a flurry of problems. Since the paper was so large we had to make several trips and some of our routes were a good stretch from the launching pad. Between that and Ad sections literally blowing up in mid-air as you tried to porch the paper, it was a nightmare.
Our routes were in different neighborhoods made up of paid subscribers. This meant we each had a paper count and the higher the count the more money we made. It was a little competition. Stan taught us to count our stacks and compare them to our list to be sure we had enough papers. It was our responsibility and if we were short we paid. To this day I don’t understand that back charging a twelve-year-old kid, I would use this in my favor twenty years later in my own business, now I understood accountability. We each grabbed our bundles held together by plastic baling straps that Stan used to grab and toss out of his truck. There was a trick to the straps. Twist and flip the strap over, pull on the tab and listen for the pop. It became a ritual, every day. On occasions, a small white envelope would be tucked under the plastic strap of a bundle. It could be good news or bad news, but exciting. A quick snap of the envelope from under the strap could make your day, or not.
I reached for my bundles and sure enough, I saw an envelope and thought about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, did I get a golden ticket, this is as close as I got in my world. I was excited, grabbed the envelope, and tore it open. See, if the slip inside was the color green it was called a Start Notice, woohoo a new customer, but if it was red then somebody stopped the paper, there goes my money. Not all was lost. Sometimes red meant a vacation pause, which meant you averted a complete disaster, often the case. Mine was green that day. It was amazing how much that green slip meant to us all. It was survival, growing of our empires, sort of. It was my first taste of getting a new customer. Perhaps the contrasting notices taught us how to handle the rejections, failures, success and how to press on with the job. Who knows, we certainly didn’t pick up on that then. All we wanted was some dough to buy models, not the girl kind, the kind you put together, Star Wars stuff, and albums! lots of albums, vinyl that is!
Running a route as productive as possible meant less time on the road and more time in the doughnut shop at our meeting place, it was simple as that and my first taste of achievement in my own little way. There was a balance a kid must strike based on the thickness of the paper and the ultimate goal of achieving, the lost art, PORCHING! The ability to porch a paper without slowing down on your bike was the almighty accomplishment. A pause, a turnaround, an exploded paper, this all led to downtime, less productivity, and therefore no growth. It became an art, a badge of honor as my neighbors waved while taking one step out their door to retrieve the news of the day. Sure I was thinking all about this as a kid, NOT! It was really cool to hit that porch, see the smiles, and even cooler when I went collecting and the tips flowed in. It was something I became great at. I was a regular kid not especially great at anything, but not this, I was in my zone. I called it doing a good job and eventually doing more of it, a concept in business that didn’t take an MBA for me. Thank god because I barely graduated from high school and not with my posse.
The three of us, and eventually four with the arrival of Steve, proceeded to pop a squat on one of our bundles and began folding the papers. There were a few skills and a little wisdom that came into play when folding newspapers worthy of porching. What day of the week mattered as the Merc had set days for thick or thinner papers The thinner papers didn’t fly as well and this was almost always Mondays, Thursdays, and especially Tuesdays. Wendesnendays was another big ad insert with the risk of explosion mid-toss and Fridays had the entertainment sections. So the real thin days may have turned into a trifold or half-fold, but Wednesdays may not be folded at all. It was a science in our pee brains and a good topic for debate.
The MERC offered us canvas bags to stuff our papers into, the ones with the hole in the middle to put your head through. Yeah, that didn’t work out very well. It wasn’t the depression era with extra boys yelling “read all about it” on the corner. We were carting these firelogs around a five-mile route. In fact, I think the design of these bags was from the 1930s. Instead, we straddled these same bags across our bike racks and handlebars with the real rebels wearing them while peddling. That practice was quickly ruled out as job-related injuries mounted, plus you couldn’t throw a paper much farther than you could spit. This was the days before billboards or personal injury attorneys or maybe even workers compensation insurance, hell I think we were independent contractors so the Merc had their butts covered. Naturally, we had to pay for these archaic bags, wait, what?. Since the cost was deducted right off our account we coddled them to last an eternity. Oh now I get it, I thought, makes sense, if we didn’t pay we didn’t care. Of course, none of us thought that way until we had to buy the second bag, then it hit home. Later in business life, I called this “skin in the game”. By the end of our term as paperboys our bags would be as holy as the Prebetyiran Church we “lightly” attended, drug around the streets, and chomped on by chasing dogs.
It was a race and by the end, our hands were black from the ink with piles of rubber-banded papers strewn about the corner. It was time to load and here is where the balance came in. You had to load enough to limit the number of trips but not too much to push around the neighborhood. Furthermore, cramming a bag too tight inevitably caused the rubber bands to slide off as we reached for the next paper. Before we even tossed it we were doomed. Poof, a beautiful display dispersed about the front lawn. Tuesdays were always a thin day but if you had the skills we would leave the paper flat with just one rubber band and toss the paper like a frisbee onto the porches. The paper had to be just the right thickness so the rubber band wouldn’t cause the paper to curl, but not too heavy to break it. This was a judgment call and our first lesson in Risk Assessment.
The sun was still to rise and the fog hugged the suburban streets. Fortunately, it was a Sunday morning and the roads were all ours. Our bikes were loaded and like fighter jets launching off an aircraft carrier, one at a time, we were suspended into the fog towards our routes. I don’t recall how many Sunday customers I had but it was a lot more than my regular afternoon route during the week. There was an art to managing the delivery of the papers and it started with a laminated list my Mom helped me prepare. The secret was to map it out so there was never any backtracking and the end was as close to the doughnut shop as possible. After a few weeks of running the route that laminated card never came out of my pocket, instead, I had my route memorized. I knew each house, the special circumstances of each home, and even recalled the customers. I could put a face to a house and I especially recalled the ones that gave me a good tip on collection day. They were treated the best.
I slowly cranked on the pedals one by one to get up to optimal speed. It was a fine line. A kid needed to keep enough pace to balance the weight of the papers, not too slow and not too fast. My route started across a busy street in an older neighborhood called Rancho Rinconada in the city of Cupertino. It was a post-war 1950’s wanna-be Eichler development with cracker box homes, flat roofs, a settlement for hippies of the 1960s and early workers in the semiconductor industry that would eventually explode into Silicon Valley. Eichler was a pioneering home builder that designed a very modern style, the reality is they were cheap homes on slab foundations, flat leaky roofs, and single pane glass everywhere that would act like a guillotine if a kid ever ran into the floor-to-ceiling glass. Later I would see a kid have a close call. As I pressed my pedals my whole body took on a rocking motion to put as much force against the load, it became a rhythm. I would rise to the crest of the busy street bordering my route, pause, and then glide down the slight rise through gates into my domain. I reached back to one side of my bike to grab a paper with my right hand and steered with my left while cranking and cranking. It’s a rhythm I can still feel today.
“Rancho”, as it was known, was our version of a bad neighborhood, and why I got this route I still don’t recall but a squirt like me had to be alert. I’m not gonna lie, our version of a “bad neighborhood” doesn’t even come close to what other kids are forced to experience, but as a kid, I didn’t know that. It was dark, wet and I knew the customers, good and bad, it was my world and my head was on a swivel. The sun began to rise, the fog lingered and the sidewalks were wet. I banked to the right like a fighter jet, I was building that model at the time, anyway, the dance began. One at a time I would jump the curb at each home rear back and launch my missiles to each home. Boom, I carried on with Stan’s mission, to vibrate the souls of each customer as the Sunday MERC hit its target. I would criss-cross the streets one by one in a methodical order, the same path every single time, alone. Banking left, curving right, with an occasional full circle as an encore. It truly was a thing of beauty. Each and every time a paper came out of my bags my bike became that much lighter. It was a sign of accomplishment. An effort positioning me to achieve a satisfied customer and sometimes rewarded. I would never let up on this mission, even to this day in my business.
My speed picked up with the release of every paper inching my way to the doughnut shop. Rounding the corner to the final street I would look down into my baskets and bags, count the number of papers left, and then compared to how many I had left on the route. I could do that in my head, no laminated card for me, just yet. I hoped I had “extras” but not too many. If I had more extras than normal this only meant one thing, I missed a house. Sure enough, I had one too many. My first foray into that sinking feeling, failure. I racked my brain, ran the route through my head over and over trying to identify my missing target. I had two choices, let it go and wait for the call from Stan with a customer complaint, or retrace my steps, hunt down that target, and complete my mission. A complaint form strapped to your bundles was another notice a kid didn’t want to see. It blemished a guy’s reputation and reduced the odds of a tip. Plus we were unrelenting with each other if we spotted one on a guy’s bundles. So I caved, whipped out the laminated card, and ran down the list. Darn, I still couldn’t pin it down. I was now digging into my doughnut time, this was getting serious. I didn’t mention, it was an unwritten rule between us, being the first guy to the doughnut shop was a badge of honor, another objective that I must accomplish. I began to panic, failure was circling me like vultures high above. As I shoved the laminated card back into my pocket I felt another piece of paper. It was my green start notice. Ah hah! There it is, my “ extra extra”. A huge sense of relief overwhelmed me. It’s almost as if I could see again, the darkness lifted and I was back on track. I smoothed out the green notice, took a look at the address and realized it’s on the other end of my route, the very beginning. Ug. I wrapped up my bags stuffed them into my baskets, reared back the wings on my fighter jet, and shot for the address. I wasn’t sure but I may have broken the speed of sound. I rounded the corner, the same corner from an hour ago, and saw the home in my sights. As I approached I throttled down, came to a complete stop, placed my right foot on the ground, kicked my left leg over the seat, and planted both my feet on the curb in front of my new customer. I have broken my own rules and left the cockpit. I reached into my bag, grabbed a paper, brushed it off, and approached the front porch. I took a look at the paper, my product, and as my duty, gently placed it on the mat just outside the door, performed an about-face, marched down the path, and mounted my bike. I would porch their paper for the duration of my career.
WIth my payload now empty, I was free to accomplish my final goal, perform a landing on the aircraft carrier waiting for me also known as Winchell’s Doughnuts on Bollinger Road, oh, I was also building an aircraft carrier model at the time. As I raced from the furthest points of my route I reflected on the consequences of my mistake. I did a quick calculation in my head and realized that I had added 35% more distance and another thirty minutes to my route. Ok, that actually didn’t happen, but I knew that I made my job a lot harder and was paying a price. No badge of honor for me, darn. I hopped the curb from Bollinger into the neighborhood strip mall, I could see the yellow color of the Winchell’s sign coming into view. I felt like that last runner in a marathon that persevered even though they lost all control of their bodily functions. There they were, John, Steve, and Jeff, sitting on the ground, leaned up against the wall stuffing their faces with doughnuts. Huffing and puffing I tried to lean my bike up against the wall only for it to slide down and crash to the pavement. I didn’t care, let it be, and proceeded to complete my weekly Sunday mission, sell my extras.
The Winchell’s doughnut shop was situated on the corner of our 1970’s version of a strip mall and along with that came the MERC newsstand, ya know, the machines where you drop in two quarters one at a time, wait for the drop, lift the creaking door up grab a paper and let it slam. These were the good ‘ol days of the newspaper, an era now gone. Each Sunday folks around the community who didn’t subscribe for home delivery would walk up to the machines, grab a paper load up on doughnuts and then retreat back to their homes. It was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. As a customer would approach the paper dispensary we would intercept them and offer to sell our extras. We were in sales training and never knew it. It went something like this. “Hello, I am a paperboy and have some extras if you would like to buy one”. The customer would look at me up and down, squint their eyes out of doubt, eye the paper and size it up to the ones behind the glass. “How do I know all the sections are there? ” he would spew out. “Oh they are’, I always have extras on Sundays and it’s how I can make extra money” I would reply while I could see the doughnuts on display behind him. I would then fan the pages of the paper to demonstrate that I could be trusted. “See”! He grabbed the paper and paid me my 50 cents. I had just learned my first thing in sales, overcoming objections. More importantly, I had a thing for Old Fashioned Chocolates and I had enough to get a few. I stuffed my face. Looked over to the guys and we were all satisfied, mission accomplished.
Sundays were the culmination of a long week. Seven days a week, a paper route job demanded. It was hard work for scrawny kids and a lesson in commitment. You just couldn’t decide to skip your job one day. Folks were depending on me. Between school, sports, chores, and the route this kid was pretty busy. I suppose this is why I am the way I am today. I must keep busy and find outlets for the thoughts and voices whirling in my head. As I grew up, school became my least favorite place to be. I really didn’t excel at anything related to school except maybe reading and shop classes, which were phased out during our tenure, I think because of money. I loved my teachers in elementary school but as Junior High came into the picture that began to fade. It was becoming more and more evident that I would not fit in. This was the late 1970’s and the challenges I hear kids going through today remind me of my youth which was really no different back in the Disco era, other than it’s talked about constantly today and kids are medicated beyond belief. Perhaps that’s ok but not really sure. Later in my mid-teens and beyond I would go down a long path of self-medication only to realize much later that the path leads to nowhere. I wish I hadn’t chosen that slippery trail.
We were still kids and the adolescent challenging years weren’t quite upon us yet but they were close. The gang was made up of myself, Steve, John, and Jeff. They all lived on the same street and my home was a couple of blocks away. I was fortunate to hook up with the guys otherwise I’m pretty sure I would have had a much lonelier childhood. We all had our individual struggles and we never really talked about it other than harassing each other. I recall one day the four of us at Steve’s house. There was a strange box on a desk at the center of their home. He flipped a switch and a green glowing screen appeared with a blinking cursor. It was one of the first Apple computers to be released. Steve had one and was already pounding away on the keyboard creating programs. I think we were probably twelve. Steve would go on to become a very successful software engineer for international companies. John lived next door to Steve and also embraced the new thing called a computer. His Dad was a big-time executive in the semiconductor industry and I’m sure challenged John in his childhood. We didn’t spend much time there but I do recall one thing, we were allowed to swear in their house and even “F-Bombs”, wow that was cool. If that happened in my house, well, we won’t get into that. Both John and Steve continued onto college and John worked his way up through the ranks of the semiconductor world and became very successful. Jeff was a character. The good-looking part of the crew Jeff got all the girls but was a geek at heart, I think he struggled with that. Star Wars was IT in the late 70’s and Jeff was obsessed. He would make his own super 8 movies with us as characters, edit them by adding scratches to each frame of the super 8 roll emulating laser beams from our weapons we pretended to shoot during filming. We had gatherings at his home to make models of all sorts, it seemed like a storybook childhood. It wasn’t for Jeff. Jeff had his struggles and looking back I suspect it was a combination of mental health, his home life and the poor choices we all made as we entered high school. As we grew older Jeff became more and more distant from the crew, his mental health declined and we lost track of him. Some thirty-five years later I would see a one-legged rough-looking man with a prosthetic leg riding a bike down the same road I used to pitch over towards my route. It was Jeff, he was homeless. Our childhoods looked so similar from the outside, but on the inside each of us were facing the perils of growing up in different circumstances that shaped us as men. Some good and not so.
I think the boys would agree, our paper routes were some of the best times of our lives. Between the lesson learned and camaraderie we really flourished. This was how I learned. Monday came fast and the crew was back at it but this time in the afternoon. School would let out, thank GOD!, and we would head straight for home. After stuffing my face with snacks I would wander over to the front window to see if the papers were there. Yep, the stacks were there waiting for us to perform our duty. This time the gang would emerge on their bikes one by one minus Steve. He was probably writing a program to launch a spaceship and a few more keys had to be struck. Too bad there was no internet yet. Today was a bit different. My parents were still at work so I flung open the front door, placed my stereo speakers so the not-so-classic rock sound would pound through the slamming screen door and folding of the papers commenced.
See, the procurement of vinyl was a mission presented to us like a classic MIssion Impossible episode that even at our age we watched reruns of. We chose the mission and right after it self-destructed, at least in our childlike imagination that was still hanging on but slowly dissolving. There was nothing like a fresh new album with the vinyl record perfectly fit into the sleeve wrapped with clear plastic. The artwork on the album cover was like our internet, our way to “follow” our bands, the way rock and roll artists communicated with their fans. We were fortunate to grow up in the prime of rock and roll music. Rested up after a weekend morning route and the doughnuts still partially lodged into our stomachs we would mount our bikes once again on a Sunday afternoon but this time it was a reward. Our motley crue, yes that was one of the bands in our generation, would swerve our way to Tower Records, THE music store of the 70s and 80’s. It wasn’t exactly close and it turned into a day-long trip. With our pockets jammed full of our paper route earnings we would roll up to “Tower”, as we called it, tossed our bikes to the bushes, swung open the glass door, took a big whiff, and the smell was awesome. New albums! Each one of us would disperse like a pack of Blue Angels fighter jets and spend hours flipping through the albums. Packaged up and neatly stacked by genre a kid could flip through each one for hours until you found it and that’s exactly what we did. Fresh off the press was Aerosmith, VanHalen, Journey, ELO, Foreigner, Kansas, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who, I could go on and on. Enticed by the album covers each one of us would carefully select an album and proceed to the front counter where a long-haired guy with healing acne would take our money, bag the successful mission, and back on our bikes we went. With each one of us grasping our handlebars by one hand and our bags in the other, we retreated to home base ready for the coming week but not before we hit Mcdonald’s for a Big Mac!
The sound of Journey pounding through my screen door was not exactly ideal for my parents but what did they care, they weren’t there. Rock music would become a vital lifeline for all of us as we navigated our teen years but for now, we rocked while folding papers. Monday was a medium day for the size of the paper but this week was one to look forward to. Strapped to our bundles, once a month were our collection books. It was collections week. Payday! As paperboys we were independent contractors, of course I had no clue what that was, but what it meant was, I had my own little enterprise and I was in charge of accounts receivable. If I didn’t collect, I didn’t get paid. I took it very seriously and probably why to this day I spend plenty of time making sure we do a good job and get paid in our construction company. With my route completed for the day I would get back home, do the dreaded homework that I barely understood, had dinner with the family, and then, back at it! As the sun set behind our typical 1960’s tract house I would mount my bike again and run my route but with no papers this time, instead, my collections book holstered like John Wayne. I would follow the same path as if I were delivering papers and by the time I reached my first house darkness was upon me. This was my chance to meet my customers and their chance to meet me but most importantly I wanted my money. I would meander through the sketchy neighborhood in the dark with a small zippered money bag bulging with checks and cash. As I neared the end I was weighed down by my payload of cash and an empty collection book. It never occurred to me that I could have been robbed.
Hunkered down in my bedroom I would dump the earnings onto my bed, spread it out, and stare at my take. This is what it’s all about, getting paid for your hard work. It wasn’t all mine. I had overhead. I would portion out what I owed the Mercury News for the papers, supplies and that one canvas bag from the depression era, the rest was mine. It was still a good take. I reached for my own savings account passbook my mom had helped me set up, flipped open the pages to my last entry and envisioned the next entry. Mom would teach me how to endorse each check, fill out a deposit form and count my money. To my reluctance, I was forced to portion out most of it to my savings account. I wondered why and I would come to find out later.
I could barely open the gigantic door of our fake wood-paneled diesel station wagon but I was determined, Mom was taking me to the bank. With the bulging zippered back tightly gripped, I shoved open the monolithic car door like it was nothing and stomped my way into the bank like I was the president. We inched our way in line as each customer, one by one, completed simple transactions that would someday be handled by an electronic teller called an ATM. I approached the counter perched on my toes and plopped my bag on the counter. One by one the teller would count my bills and enter my checks. I knew exactly how much there was. She would reach for my savings passbook, insert it into a cutting-edge dot matrix printing machine and spit out my new balance. Wow! My account was being built each month. It was all mine ready to be spent but only with the approval of Mom. I had my eye on a few things I really wanted but I didn’t have quite enough to achieve my goal, so back at it I went, expanding my enterprise. I had a growth opportunity fall in my lap that I would convince Stan I was worthy.
Just like us, Stan had his own route. Each and every day he would motor through the neighborhood creating those sonic booms at corners just like ours. There was a clan of paperboys throughout the valley never to meet each other and Stan was the center of the network. The closest we got to anything resembling cell phones was the imaginary Star Trek Communicators that we wish we had. Instead it was the word of the street that depended on relationships. It didn’t take long to hear some of the older boys were giving up their routes. Their stint was up and instead girls, sports and other not-so-good things hedged out the responsible jobs we had. Unbeknownst to me, I would follow down the same path but not until I had become king of my domain. I had my eye on a route, the one right here in my neighborhood and sure enough, this was one of the routes up for grabs.
It was 3:15PM and the annoying electronic bell rang at the middle school signaling the end of the school day. I couldn’t have been more relieved as I struggled, really struggled, to conform to the confines of an archaic educational system, not to mention pre-algebra was kicking my butt. I needed an escape and thought about tunneling out like Hogan’s Heroes, another iconic post WWII tv series of the ages we kids loved, but the bell would suffice. I’d never get a grip on Algebra and as years in “the system” stretched on my grip would loosen while spiraling towards the unknown. Saved by life outside my definition of prison, and armed with the rumors of the coveted routes becoming available I shot home like Luke Skywalker in pursuit of a Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter, ok yes those models were also at Jeff’s house awaiting assembly, I hit the front lawn, projected from my bike in a batman way and prepared for the days work. I was free once again. After dragging the speakers of my hi-fi stereo towards the infamous screen door I was especially excited because there it lies, my new album by a new band called Van Halen still wrapped in plastic. I must have been 12 going on 13, it was 1978. Star Wars and Van Halen all released within one year, Woooh! I peeled back the plastic, and as always, pried the cover open, placed it close to my face and took a big whiff. A new album, ahhh. Forty-plus years later this treasure remains in my collection and just recently the world lost Eddie VanHalen, a reminder that life presses on and doesn’t. As I prepared for the neighborhood concert the boys would roll in one by one, with their own albums in one hand while tossing their bikes onto our front lawn with the other. Stan hadn’t shown yet so while we waited for “the drop” the opening acts began. Even at 12 and 13 we already had our individual tastes in music. John was no doubt a Stones guy, Steve seemed to gravitate towards Bowie, The Kinks and I even think Devo. For some reason I recall Jeff as a Whitesnake guy and I stuck to the popular rock and roll of the day that we all grew to love. The everlasting music honeymoon was on, music would become a huge part of our lives, our survival tools a channel to unite us as we navigated the minefield of adolescence.
It’s almost as if Stan appeared from nowhere. He would rip around the corner just two houses down from our corner, abruptly stop and pop out of his bouncy drivers side seat. “Howdy boys, what’s the good word” Stan would say, not looking at us while eyeing the bundles in the back of the panel van. “Not much” I would squeak out, then in the same breath, “Say Stan, we heard that some of the other kids are giving up their routes, is that true”. “Sure is” Stan replied while fumbling for our bundles. “Which ones?”. “Well, Mark is giving up his route over on Miller Avenue, and Doug is giving up his route right here”. Bingo that was the one, I knew it and wanted it, bad. “Stan, what’d you think about me taking over Doug’s route”, “It’s right here in my neighborhood”. The fumbling in the truck ceased and Stan’s head poked out through the metal grids separating a driver from the papers. It’s almost as if Stan was right out of a cartoon, big bushy mustache, mild-mannered and clearly just a plain ol nice guy. “Um, well, you already have a route, Billy”. I was in transition from Billy to Bill at the time but I let Stan carry on. “I know but this is right here in my neighborhood and I know everyone here, it makes sense to me”. “I don’t know, then I would have to find another kid to take over the Rancho route” then it struck me like a ton of Sunday papers, I seized the moment. “I’ll do both” I yelled over the idling engine of his rolling office. As it came out I instantly wondered how the heck I would, but think of the money, I could get that 35MM camera package I have been wanting since I was “a kid”. I envisioned riding my bike to the bank all by myself but not with the zipper bag, it was now a backpack filled with cash. The bundles began lurching out of the side door as if they were self-propelled. Stan had a talent to pitch those bundles from the rear of the truck and somehow made a hard turn out the passenger side sliding door onto our launching pad. I wondered out loud, “Did he hear me?”, turns out he didn’t but all my buds did and they thought I was crazy. Stan re-appeared from the rear of his truck, hopped back onto his spring-loaded seat, and ground the gears into place, ready for his next stop. I was still standing on the lower step inside his truck with the sliding door wide open. We made eye contact and I said again loudly, “How about I do both routes”. A pause and then Stan turned his truck off, woooh, he never turned his truck off, this was serious. Stan looked at me, glanced back out the windshield and then back at me. “Are you sure?” Stan said quietly now that the motor was silenced. I wasn’t and replied “Heck ya ” I can handle it.” Stan divulged, “There’s only been a few kids that I know of that have taken on two routes, Bill”. Bill?, he called me Bill, it was some sort of right-of-passage. At that very moment I was growing up. Stan fired up his truck, looked over at me, nodded and said “It’s yours”. My heart began pounding, my first leap of faith in growing my business. Crap I had no idea how to pull it off, or did I? I stepped off the last step back onto the sidewalk tripping over my bundles while Stan raced off. As the exhaust cleared a buzzing sound of a motor followed. It was a lawnmower, no wait, it was one of the older kids from down the street on a Mo-Ped, a light bulb went off and my strategy began to take shape. My excitement grew as I visualized running my route, I mean routes, on a motorized bike. But I had to remain focused since I didn’t have both routes yet. I reached for my bundles, flipped the strap, popped them open and began folding with Van Halen’s David Lee Roth screaming Running With The Devil to the neighborhood.
Investing in equipment was the strategy to build my empire, well it was more like “wouldn’t that be cool to have a Mo-Ped”. See, Mo-Peds are like between a bike and a motorcycle. They even still had the pedals just in case but only reached about thirty miles per hour from the tiny motor. I figured it was a lot faster than I could pump the pedals of my bike loaded down with papers. It was gonna take some convincing since I wasn’t old enough and didn’t have the money to buy one, minor details for an up and coming CEO. The pitch was carefully crafted to my investors and then I approached the board of directors, my parents, well my Mom was the Chairman of the Board so she was my in. I am not exactly sure how it happened but I succeeded. The Mo-Ped was mine on a couple conditions, that I wear a helmet and I pay for the gas. Sure I agreed knowing that wearing a helmet was the definition of a dork, and the gas, no problem with my increased income I could bear a little more overhead. It was light blue made by Peugeot that miraculously appeared in my garage, along with a white helmet, ug. I quickly rigged the racks to take on the canvas bags and I was in business.
It was a Friday afternoon, the best day of the week, schools out and the weekend ahead. The weekly routine wasn’t much different except that this was the last day of my single route and come early Saturday morning the expansion begins, two routes. There was one other difference and the boys had no idea. We always got an early start on Friday and so did Stan. With school letting out earlier on Fridays and Stan anxious to get home to his four boys he would arrive near 2:00PM and fling those bundles without coming to a complete stop. It was another magical power in Stan’s arsenal. The crew would arrive just like usual. Perched on its kickstand were the signs of progress, my light blue Peugeot mo-ped, poised for deployment.
Saturday was a light paper day and a good time to run some test flights. With the same ol canvas bag now strapped to the back of my new vehicle, I set out to deliver the Sunday Ad sections for my test. Success! The mo-ped would be the ticket to expanding my enterprise and finally outrun the pit bulls of the Rancho neighborhood.
I buzzed these West San Jose neighborhoods for the next several months which seemed like years perfecting the art of hucking a newspaper like a frisbee at 30 miles per hour. My savings account continued to grow and I was ready to make my big purchase, a 35MM camera package. We found a man who was selling an entire set with all the lenses and I cherished it for many years.
Kids grow up fast and I felt it coming, I was as confused as any adolescent. What was happening to me? It felt like I was “coming of age” but I think I was thirteen. It seemed like the time to move on, buzz the neighborhoods one more time and hang up the canvas bag. Stan pulled up to our corner as usual, cranked on that panel van door and I popped in to say hi……and then by. I let Stan know that my time was up and I would join my predecessors into the abyss of life. The crew was heading to high school. Crap! Stan’s normal sparkle was a bit dimmer and I had a funny feeling in my throat. This wasn’t new for Stan but it was for me and I was sad and scared at the same time. Out came my papers and I snatched them like a pro, for the last time. Stan ground that long stick shift like it was a Pac-Man video game into gear, paused, looked at me, winked, and said good luck, Billy. As he pulled away, a bit slower than normal, I stepped into the street ready to wave goodbye. The old Merc panel van rounded the same corner as it had hundreds of times before, kicked up some dust as one of my favorite songs “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas played on through the screen door, Stan was gone. I performed an about-face towards my perch of papers and gazed to the sky. Dark gray clouds were forming and they would remain for much of my teen years.