In 1978, I got my first job as a paper carrier for the Arizona Republic. I was a skinny twelve-year-old. My first morning, a Sunday, I struggled with the heavily loaded bike. In the driveway of the first house on the route, I tipped my bike over spilling out all the papers and adverts. I managed to finish my route that day, but on arriving back home, I told my Dad I wanted to quit. He convinced me to give it two weeks.
I ended up doing the route for five years, until I went away to college. Eventually, my two younger brothers also got paper routes and we all got up at the same unholy hour each morning. My legs got stronger. I learned the tricks of momentum: how to gain enough speed on a slight downhill to carry me up a steep driveway. I learned how to balance the heavy bike loaded with 70 Sunday papers and how to finesse a slow u-turn in a narrow driveway. I almost always did the whole route while riding continuously–never putting a foot down or getting off the bike. I prided myself on being able to throw a paper squarely on the doormat, often oriented with the headline readable when the homeowner would step out to retrieve it. Completing the route everyday in all kinds of weather gave me a kind of confidence, but it was a pride that I kept hidden. In the early 80s, almost nothing could be less cool than doing a job on a bicycle. Bicycles were toys for kids. We dreamed of saving enough paper route money for cars.
Before me, the route belonged to an older boy in the neighborhood, and I bought his well-used Schwinn Heavy Duti bicycle from him when I took over. Heavy Duti bikes were produced by Schwinn during the heyday of the newsboy 1966-1983. It was marketed to the paper carrier– the 1971 Schwinn catalog calls it the “First choice of newboys. Built for use and abuse. Cantilever frame, heavy duty front hub, Schwinn 26″ x 1 ¾ tractor tires, heavy duty saddle, drop forged crank, heavy duty spokes.” Tractor tires! The catalog listed the weight of the Heavy Duti, before baskets and bags or the papers themselves, at 45lbs, roughly the weight of three modern lightweight road racing bicycles.
On my particular Heavy Duti, the paint on the frame was worn down to the metal where the canvas paper bags rubbed on the tubes. I never considered riding the Schwinn for fun or to school; it was a tool for work. I don’t have a single photograph of the bike. I don’t remember doing any maintenance besides occasionally replacing tires and tubes. The bike did its job, day after day, year after year. Although my Heavy Duti was a leaden and un-nimble riding bike, it faithfully carried me into the early morning darkness.
We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but our group was a part of a worldwide union of bicycle newsboys that went back to the turn of the century. Strictly speaking, we were professional cyclists–couriers, messengers, and officially part of the cycling class–a black ink and newsprint fraternity that saw the world fresh before nearly everyone else. Almost every morning, I would hear owls and see them fly silently overhead. In winter, the air smelled of wood smoke. In summer, the clean sharp smell of creosote bush and ozone after monsoon rains. A handful of times in those five years, fog enveloped the streetlights. Frosts would turn lawns to brittle white carpets. On Christmas morning, we would peek at windows to see what our friends got before they woke up. We paper carriers were a republic of owls, rolling silently through the dark, flinging the news of the day on doorsteps.
Looking back, it was a semi-dangerous job. As far as I know, in 2020 all the paper carriers in America are now adults in cars. The early 1980s were a different time:
- In the five years I had the route, I never owned or wore a helmet, and neither did any of the other newsboys at our distribution hub.
- Our bikes had no lights or reflectors whatsoever and we wore no bright colored or reflective clothing.
- One winter morning, a flasher with an open trench coat approached us as we were inserting papers, jingling his car keys next to his exposed penis to get our attention. We went to a neighbor’s house and called the police; reports were filed. Our parents fretted, but the next morning, we were back on the job as usual.
After my last paper was delivered each day, I would sprint home on my unburdened and relatively lighter bicycle, hoping to beat my brother Craig, who also had a paper route, to the last helping of frosted mini-wheats or whatever other sweet cereal remained in the pantry. We called our bikes tanks, and although we didn’t know it then, it was exhilarating racing those tanks through the darkness each morning toward sugary breakfast cereals. Many years later, I built a single speed bike again and marveled at how fun it was to ride a bike with just one gear–all simplicity, no shifting, no overthinking, no clackety drivetrain noises. If the road got steep, you stood on the pedals, when the grade went down, you coasted.
The weather in Mesa Arizona is generally warm and mild, but low humidity sometimes sent winter lows below freezing. We wore stocking caps, long underwear, levis, and hooded sweatshirts whose cuffs were blackened by newsprint. In summer, we wore only shorts and t-shirts, and on the hottest nights sometimes only shorts and sneakers.
Our papers were delivered in bundles bound with plastic straps on one of our fellow carrier’s driveway. On Wednesday and Sundays and some holidays, there were separate bundles of advertisements that had to be inserted by hand into the newspaper. We liked to do our routes really early, around 4:00am, and sometimes the advertising inserts were late. The bundles of papers were warm from the press and we arranged them like beds and slept until the inserts arrived. Sometimes, we’d read the headlines and talk about the news of the day. We read about the Iran Hostage Crisis, about Reagan, and the Soviet Union and the Cold War. We read the cartoons and classified ads. We got a glimpse into a world that was much bigger than our little corner of Mesa.
Our early morning reading material wasn’t strictly limited to the newspaper either. When one of the carriers found a Playboy magazine, and we furtively turned pages, shamefully captivated by womens’ bodies, and a little scared by our own rising lusts. The world of girls and the promise of kisses seemed far off in the future to our little club of boys kneeling on a cold driveway folding papers at 4:00am. Those early mornings, traveling through the neighborhood with owls, under shooting stars and super moons, they were preparing us for something, but we didn’t know what. We knew we wanted to grow up, get cars and girlfriends, and leave the Schwinns and papers behind.
Laying on our backs on warm bundles of papers, looking up at the stars, we could sense that our lives would never be this simple again. Our voices were cracking, getting deeper, our bodies growing and getting hairy just as the sex education movies had warned. We didn’t know what kind of innocence or magic we were leaving behind. We hadn’t considered that cars might take your money and make you fat. We didn’t know that some girls–and even women–also liked bicycles and would happily go riding with you. We didn’t have a name for the joy of stomping on the pedals to fly up Hillcrest Street, hungry for the last bowl of Cap’t Crunch if you could only beat your brother home.