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Work Life Writing

A 1960s Newspaper Boy

M.L. Parker Department Store

My first job in grade school was as a paper boy for the Des Moines Register.

I wanted a paper route. It was what boys my age did. After discussing it with Mother, she arranged the job by calling newspaper circulation desks. The Register route was available.

It was a long, morning route because the Register wasn’t as widely circulated as our home town newspaper, the Times-Democrat. I could ride my bicycle and get the papers delivered with plenty of time to get ready for school.

Before long, I changed to an afternoon Times-Democrat route located on Marquette Street between West Central Park and Locust Street. The Times-Democrat had morning and evening editions at the time. Less walking, more deliveries, and more money for me. I kept the route until high school when I was told it was time paper boys moved on to other things. Having a little money, maybe a couple of bucks a week, made a difference in my life and in the range of activities possible in grade school.

I made weekly collections from subscribers on Fridays. Some subscribers were the worst. They were never home on Friday and when I finally found them on other days they would deny they owed for multiple weeks. My collection pages had a coupon that indicated each week that was due so I knew where each account stood. I gave customers the coupon for a week after they paid. When they got four weeks behind and didn’t pay I called the newspaper to cut them off. My supervisor never wanted to do it because the newspaper had subscription targets. Statistically, the majority of my customers were nice and paid on time. However I do remember the deadbeats. In retrospect, my margins sucked but there was enough money to satisfy my nascent financial needs.

On Saturdays I paid my bill for the bundles of papers dropped on the corner of Marquette and Lombard Streets. I took a city bus from nearby Mercy Hospital to what was then a thriving downtown Davenport. I spent parts of every Saturday morning downtown, beginning at the newspaper office on East Third Street.

One of my favorite downtown places was the automat at the M.L. Parker Department Store where I occasionally bought a pre-made hamburger and warmed it under an infrared light bulb. We didn’t have such a heating device at home. I stopped at W.T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth and occasionally went to Petersen Harned Von Maur, inconveniently located across a busy Second Street. I also stopped at Louis Hanssen Hardware Store where they had a centralized cashier operation connected to the sales floor by a small trolley system.  There was a coin shop which was almost never open as early as I was downtown. The idea coins that passed through my hands on the paper route were worth more than face value was fascinating.

In 1964 a friend and I rode the bus downtown. After paying my bill we went to the local Democratic party office and stuffed envelopes for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. Our motivation was to trade labor for an LBJ for the USA button. After finishing with the Democrats we walked a couple of doors down to the Republican party office and did the same thing for a Goldwater button. The idea our families would vote Goldwater for president was ridiculous. Father had worked hard to organize for JFK and was doing the same for LBJ. It felt weird being in the Republican campaign office but I brought home a button which had “Au H2O” printed on it anyway.

My male schoolmates were also shoplifters at the downtown department stores. Having a steady income from my paper route, I never shoplifted. From time to time I met up with my mates at one of the movie theaters for a matinee. They compared the results of their thievery that morning. For a while they stole bottles of men’s cologne which they tried to sell me. What would I do with cologne? Retail managers wised up to what was going on and secured the products in display cases. That apparently ended such thievery.

My interest in meeting my friends was to see movies at a reduced price of 35 cents. Most of what we saw was related to World War II: The Longest Day, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and others.  When the cost of a matinee went up to 50 cents, I felt we were being gouged.

One time we saw an ad for a movie in Rock Island about the Batman. Someone had compiled all 15 episodes of a Batman serial made in 1943 by Columbia Pictures. The Batman television show became a popular topic on the school playground, so we wanted to see the serials. We took the bus downtown and walked across the Centennial Bridge for the matinee. I told Mom what we were doing so she wouldn’t be surprised when I was gone for so long. I remember it was a very long walk across the Mississippi River although worth it because I now knew something others didn’t about the Batman.

In the mid-1960s working as a newspaper carrier expanded my horizons. I got to see how my customers lived and had a chance to explore a world outside the confines of our neighborhood. I found there was a broader world where everyone did not share the same values we did at home.

I felt the relationship with my manager was good, although my daily work was disconnected from him. I was always the last to know about sales promotions and newspaper policy that pertained to me. It led to an attitude that I would do my job as I saw best without worries about my supervisor or whether I was right or wrong in what I did. That proved to be a defining aspect of my character at the beginning of my work life. Being able to work on my own without regular, direct supervision became part of who I was and remained so for the duration of my work life.

My first work experience was positive and that made a difference as I progressed through life. Adapting to work in a positive manner was an important part of the working class home in which I came up. It prepared me for the challenges of a career yet to come.

2 replies on “A 1960s Newspaper Boy”

My first job was delivering the Des Moines Register and the the afternoon Tribute too. I had a big canvas sling bag to carry them, though I also used metal bicycle baskets as i recall. The discipline of delivery was easy enough to master for me, but like you the work of collecting was a chore.

Liked by 1 person

The process of remembering takes work. While I recognize the experience in the post, the process of writing it was more complicated than it appears. As I put together experiences from memory and research about dates, places and history, it came together in a narrative. I often found myself sitting and waiting for a memory to surface from wherever the brain stores them. The narrative isn’t completely accurate just because there was a limit to how much time I wanted to spend, maybe 90 percent. Blog posts are like a first draft of the story of a life. In most cases they are likely the final draft as I can’t get back to the several thousand posts written here and on other blogs as a historian might. In any case, thanks for reading and commenting Frank.

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