Last week, we had visitors at our cabin in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon.
I was walking back up the dirt road from the mailbox when David Brewster, the founder of Crosscut, and his wife, Joyce, arrived. Through the open window David said, “Have you heard the news?” I had not. One of the several blessings of our remote location is hearing little of “the news.”
“Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post,” said David, sounding distressed.
“What’s new?” I thought. “Egomaniacs buy media outlets, even iconic ones like the Post, with regularity these days.” How callous I have become.
But the news did have an effect. I recalled the years I was a “delivery boy” for the Post, roughly ages 11 to 15. For, though I am an Oregonian by birth, I grew up (ages 4 to 18) in Arlington, Virginia, home of the Pentagon, the Arlington National Cemetary, the Iwo Jima Memorial and a stone’s throw (across the Potomac) from D. C.
Seven days a week at 5:30 a.m., I rode my bike to the Westover “shopping center,” to pick up my “drop” — 50 to 60 copies of the Washington Post, which I then delivered to homes and apartments in the area by 6:30. My first task was to lever my wirecutters beneath the tight wire that bound the papers together. I suppose the wire prevented theft, or maybe it just made it easier for the guys who dropped off the bundle to fling it out as they drove on.
Then you had to “fold” your papers. This meant folding them by thirds (or was it fourths?), tucking the third fold between the first two. A good, tight fold made the paper something you could throw, from the street, as you pedaled by. With luck you hit the door, even better the doorstep. Luck failing, the paper landed in the flower beds. Then you had to dismount and retrieve the errant paper or get a yellow complaint notice the next morning.
While folding, there were other matters to attend to, as, for example, reading stories of the exploits of the Washington Redskins football team. The local baseball team, the Washington Senators, had fewer exploits to report — a combination that will be familiar to Seattle fans.
Then you stuffed all the papers in your canvas bag, hoisted the thing around your neck and re-mounted your bike — wobbly, because 50 to 60 copies of the Post were a heavy load.
Sundays were the worst on that score, a single paper being as heavy as a bucket of water. Often, my dad would come with me on Sundays. We’d put the papers in the car. As we came to a house or apartment, I would jump out and run one to the door. Afterwards, we went out to breakfast — always at Howard Johnson’s, always French toast.
I remember one day of these years in particular, Nov. 25, 1963. It was the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. With two buddies (also delivery boys), one old enough to drive, we made plans to finish our paper routes as early as possible in order to cross the Potomac River into D. C. and take up a place on the route of the passing funeral procession.
We arrived at 6:30, nearly four hours before the black, horse-drawn caisson would roll by. Our early arrival meant we were at the front of the crowd. I counted some 35 rows of people behind us.
I remember the drums, beating softly, steadily, and the sound of the horses drawing the caisson, their hooves on the pavement. Occasionally a horse would snort, or a leather halter would creak. I remember the sight of the widow, beneath her black veil, all the more beautiful, flanked by the president’s brothers, Bobby and Teddy. And the dignitaries who walked behind the rolling caisson. I recognized gray Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Britain. After him, Haile Selassie, president of Ethiopa, walked alongside Charles De Gaulle, president of France. They were an odd couple, De Gaulle at 6’5”, Selassie barely 5’.
We three newsboys watched that day as news was made, determined not to miss it.
Not quite three years earlier, as a Boy Scout, I had ushered at Kennedy’s inaugural on a cold January day, following a bitter overnight snowstorm.
If living in D. C. and being a Washington Post delivery boy sometimes meant being an eyewitness to history’s drama, it meant something else to me as well.
Back then, newspaper boys were expected to “collect.” Once a month, you knocked on doors of your customers to collect the monthly cost for the newspaper. You hoped to receive a tip for your services.
But “collecting” was the bane of the newspaper boy’s existence. Not only did it mean going out in the evenings, it often meant more than one trip to a given home, as customers would come up with one bizarre excuse or another for not having the money “right now.” They would say, “Can you come back in a couple days?”
A part of this experience, however, played into my later life as a pastor. Many of my customers were elderly. Some lived alone. What they wanted when I knocked and said, “Collecting for the Post,” was conversation and contact. They would prolong the visit as long as possible, which frustrated the hell out of me. But gradually I caught on to what they were after. They wanted to talk. They wanted to talk to a kid. They wanted to hear about Little League or school, or they wanted someone to listen to them.
As a newspaper delivery boy, you got to know the public, which is worthwhile. In the words of a New York cabbie, “If you don’t know the public, you don’t know nutting.”
I think this experience prepared me, in a way, for something ministers do, or at least that I did as a minister — pastoral calling. Visitng people who are alone, who are sick, who are lonely. A human connection.
Newspaper delivery, once a venerable first job with some real responsibility and challenge (cold, wet weather, darkness, hostile dogs, nutty customers, keeping track of money) is — at least in the form I knew it — gone now.
I hope that the same shall not soon be true of the Washington Post itself. Jeff (“who needs bookstores?”) Bezos seems an odd owner, but then it wouldn’t be the first time that new money sought respectability by buying something venerable.
But, as my delivery boy experiences suggest, newspapers have been more than just the news. They were a culture of jobs, habits, conversation and human interactions. More than that, they were part of what held our culture together.
Jeff Bezos’ online world does offer speed and convenience, but at a cost — the cost is what we lose in human interaction.