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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.

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.

Chuck Schmidt October 10, 2011 at 02:39 PM
Gerry, Great piece and brought back memories of my Detroit Free Press route in Huntington Woods. Proving that I was not the sharpest tool in the shed, I purchased the route for $10 in January...right after all the Christmas tips had been collected by the previous paper boy. Despite that inauspicious beginning, I fondly remember riding my bike down Huntington (the street that boardered the zoo) and hearing the animals in the wee hours of the mornings. Strange how I don't remember the cold rainy days but only the good mornings. Must be our Catholic upbringing. Thanks for the memories!
Michael Nalley October 10, 2011 at 02:46 PM
What I remember most was superior fish was next door and the smell every afternoon was brutal and do you remember the fly trap up on the telephone pole? ugh- M Nalley
Elvis Tomaszycki October 10, 2011 at 02:51 PM
Does delivering the 'Shopping News' for 1 cent per 100 papers delivered count as a paperboy job?
Judy Davids (Editor) October 10, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Another great column Gerry. I fondly remember our Daily Tribune paperboy in Hazel Park.
Gerry Boylan October 11, 2011 at 12:08 AM
Huntington Woods was a long bike ride from your house in RO!
Gerry Boylan October 11, 2011 at 12:09 AM
Huntington Woods was a long bike ride from your house in RO, Chuck!
Gerry Boylan October 11, 2011 at 12:10 AM
I forgot about how close Superior Fish was...but the fly trap I don't remember.
Gerry Boylan October 11, 2011 at 12:11 AM
Elvis...the answer is yes, Shopping News counts!
Ernie Mahar October 11, 2011 at 02:18 PM
Hey Chuck, I had the next Freep route West of yours on the other side of Scotia. Real trouble collecting from all those doctors and lawyers! It's amazing how little cash those pretty well-to-do housewives had on Sunday afternoons!! Christmas tips?? Not in my neighborhood! The lady who lived on the corner where I picked up my papers every mornning got a little irritated by the one-hundred or so wire rings that the papers came wrapped in that somehow got tossed up into her tree over the winter! That was sort of like a full-metal toilet paper job.
Ernie Mahar October 11, 2011 at 02:21 PM
After my Free Press run in the morning I was stupid enough to help one of my local Huntington Woods buddies deliver his Tribune route in the afternoon. A true glutton for punishment.
Jan Smith October 11, 2011 at 08:31 PM
My dad delivered the Detroit News in Huntington Woods. The homeowners gave the money to their maids to pay him, but the maids usually did not give him the money. He moved on to bagging groceries and later ushering at the Royal Oak Theater.
Michael B October 12, 2011 at 04:55 PM
Small correction: I had a Tribune route, and there. was a Saturday paper, often early -- but no honkin, ad-inserted Sunday edition.
Jon David Wanner November 17, 2011 at 12:18 AM
PART 2 Jon Wanner In Macomb County the News was the dominate newspaper and Macomb Daily was often in the bag of mix. many took the News or Free Press and also took the Macomb Daily which was also still a 6 day newspaper but on Saturday after 1978 was a early morning newspaper. I remember when the News, Free Press and Macomb Daily went to offset printing and the nightmare of late newspapers as the pressman learned how to operate this new format of printing. I also remember that we printed the Daily Tribune and the Huron Daily Tribune a few times when they had press issues. Now the daily Tribune is printed at the Macomb Daily plant in Clinton Twp. 15 mile and Garfield. I often went over to the old Tribune building on 3rd to see former staffers from the Mac Daily including Besty Blower the Circulation Manager, I always liked that feel of a small town daily Thank You for the memories former Macomb Daily District Manager and Carrier and Oakland Press Supervisor Jon David Wanner
Jon David Wanner November 17, 2011 at 12:20 AM
Part 1 I started out at the Detroit News in Roseville old Station S-129 on Gratiot and Frazho Rd. Route 36, After the first year I switched to delivery of the Macomb Daily Route 60-300 and later 60-082, The Macomb Daily, who now the flagship newspaper of the Daily Tribune and Oakland Press. My Route was much larger in area and during the 1970s and early 1980s Macomb Daily grew very rapidly. My route kept being divided and I won a Exceller Club Carrier award and was nominated Carrier of the Year. But that wasn't enough punishment I decided to become a District Manager at Macomb Daily and later a Supervisor at the Oakland Press before managing Promotions and Sales at Suburban East Region at the Detroit News in the mid to late 1980s. The JOA took out many of our jobs. Gannett decided to go with Motor Route Carriers and newspapers lost contact with their customers by billing in the mail and delivering in the morning. Any business that lose contact also decrease sales and circulation in this case. It was always more difficult to tell Johnny you weren't going to take the paper than not mailing your payment back to a office with a unnamed clerk. But our young people lost something too, learning how to manage a business and money. Also exercise and a tradition that is time honor! See Part 2 Jon Wanner
mike kay March 02, 2013 at 02:06 AM
Hi guys and maybe some gals ha ha what a time I got a route a Detroit. News and I was 10 my next door neighbor told my about it my parents. Had to sign for me I lived around 12.5 and dequinder and rode my heavy duties to 13 and john R the ride just to get my papers was 1.5 miles then off to the route witch started at 42 dailys and 64 Sundays the station manager was MR G short for gratuitous Marty gratuitous what a father figure. Nice man tough but understanding. I had my route for 5 years I built my route from those small amounts. To 220 dailys and 326 Sundays and yes all in one tripit earned me trips to Disney world a dude ranch in Texas.cedar point kings island and many many prizes it was tough but fun and rewarding I made around 70 bucks a week and played ball football and baseball anyway what a great memery and for all you paperboys out there I just restored. My 1976 Schwinn heavy duties even with the ray rocket. Rack it is awesome the only thing iam missing is those bags for the papers the Detroit news bags front and back if anyone knows where I can find them or any of you that has them let me know please you can email me at chevy7062@Gmail.com and hay that was some great stuff to reminisce on
Laura Harrison March 02, 2013 at 02:53 AM
I grew up in the time when there were only paperboys. But we were part of the action at the News substation on Holcomb and Vernor on Detroit's Eastside. The station was in the same building of a small market. We always got real thirsty about mid afternoon and had to wander over to the market for a pop. Just happen to be the same time the papers were dropped. My girlfriend's house was across the street from the substation and we would either hang out a window or sit on the front steps hoping they would stop by and talk. Flirting was always part of the process.
Hugh Greenough February 07, 2014 at 10:41 PM
I was a Detroit newsboy in 1968-1969. I remember Mr Lee he was a great guy. At that time the fish market was next door to the news station. If they were unloading fish you had to avoid riding your bike through the stink'n fish water. I remember Mr Lee singing a song that went "If you like beans and gravy join Greenough's navy...Fight! Fight! Fight! for Palestine" . Those were good days. A friend Mark (also a newsboy) made up a song about Mr Lee called "In the Metro" sung to the tune "In the ghetto". We never sang it when Mr Lee was around. One more thing before I close. Mr Lee had a punishment if you misbehaved we called "the flush". He grabbed Mark once when he was acting up and dragged him into the bathroom. The way Mark told it was... Mr Lee told him "when I flush the toilet you scream like I have your head stuck in the toilet." It worked it quieted down after that! Thanks for sharing your story.

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