Friday, September 11, 2009

The Lowest Entry-Level Job in Journalism

Late summer through early December of 1969 was frightening to those of us up in Bel Air, the gated Los Angeles community for the financially fabulous. It was the dark season of the Manson Family homicides and paranoia ran high; the “Acid Is Groovy” murderers were still on the loose and appeared to be attracted to upper income neighborhoods.

I would often drive, all alone in the middle of the night, on upper Bellagio, Somera, Mulholland, Sarbonne, Roscomare, Stradella, Linda Flora or any of the other narrow, serpentine roads I routinely traversed, through gothic fog so thick I crawled rather than drove, anxious that lurking around the next winding curve ax-wielding acidheads might be right on top of me while on the prowl for their next victim. I ran various self-defense scenarios in my head; there would be no time for ad hoc reaction. I was hyper-vigilant.

I didn’t live in Bel Air. I delivered the morning paper.

I was eighteen, callow, and a struggling jazz drummer supplementing my income, although given the dearth of paying or otherwise gigs the reality was the other way around. I desperately needed the job.

Start time was 3-3:30AM, depending upon when the L.A. Times truck pulled up with the news-final bundles to the anonymous storefront on Midvale north of Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles. I’d begin the “assembling” routine at a waist-high countertop with my allotted bundles on the floor. I had 453 addresses on my route, one of six that subdivided the tony area the franchise covered, and I’d place a news bundle directly behind a stack of features– all the non-news segments earlier stuffed into one section– then lay a news atop a features, fold the two so that the news was inside and protected from tears or light moisture, then grab and insert the doubled up paper into the stringer to my right on the counter. It was a mean contraption with an explosive, unforgiving trip-lever mechanism that would knot a length of cord around the bunched-up paper to hold it together. If you weren’t careful, the working arm of the thing would get angry and strike the back of your hand; forty years later, scars remain.

Last step was dropping the paper into a wooden rack that stood on the floor at my right. It was a process to master into a rapid four beat ostinato lasting no more than a half-hour so I could as fast as possible load up my ’65 Beetle and head for the hills; you had to finish throwing by 6:30AM. Reading the morning paper with your coffee first thing is one of the simple pleasures in life; people get quite upset when their paper is late.

The papers would be neatly loaded into the back seat of the car, stacked high, obscuring the rear window. To get all the papers in, I removed the passenger seat and piled the rest beside me to window height, leaving throwing clearance. The job paid $425 a month but because the weight of the papers wreaked havoc with suspensions, only $110 was taxed, the remainder as non-levied car allowance. For a kid in 1969 with few expenses, the pay was a king’s ransom. In a pathetic sign of the march of time, as a percentage of net I had more disposable income then than I have now.

First day on the job, I was given a small notebook with all my addresses – no names - in order of delivery predetermined as the most efficient mapping of the route, first paper to last. I ran it two times with the dealer in his van before I was cut loose on my own. Surprisingly soon, the route became rote, and I never looked at the notebook again. My delivery time dropped from late to not so late to on time, then early, ultimately three hours more or less from stuffing to last throw. Out of bed at 2:30AM, I was often home and back in the rack by 6:45, waking at 11 or 12, the whole thing occurring as if in a dream.

When I came in to work each night, I’d get a slip with new starts, stops, or vacations; the night manager gave you the precise number of papers needed, not a single issue more or less. If, when you neared the end of the route, you were short, you’d screwed up, non-subscribers accidentally getting a free paper and you’d have to schlep all the way down to a spot on Sunset Boulevard to pick up extras which had been left there for contingency, and then rush back to route’s end. If you had leftovers, you’d also screwed up but where? Mystery solved with an annoyed message on the dealer’s answering machine; he’d then have to make a supplicating pilgrimage to deliver the way-late paper.

With addresses on both sides, at the beginning of each street I’d organize papers in my lap, piled with the folded, throwing ends in delivery order: three right, one left, two right, two left and so on to run the route as smoothly as possible. Carefully S-ing up the roads, throwing out of both windows, things went fast as long as houses were at street level but long, steep driveways, up or down, were common and I’d have to slow the car. With a full load, even in first gear, the car strained to make it upward; on the downhills, if I wasn’t careful, the papers in the back would avalanche. If the down driveways weren’t too long and you could actually see the house from the curb, it became something of a precision sport to see if I could coordinate strength, speed, hand and eye, and car motion to angle-throw the paper down the drive directly to the front door.

My VW had a sunroof and when I was feeling particularly cocky I’d insouciantly toss through it, the papers sailing through the air left and right in graceful parabolas before splatting on the walkways like delay-fuse, wood-pulp mortar shells, detonation occurring when the paper was opened, headline exploding off the front page.

Under all circumstances, you had to be careful of flowerbeds and bushes; foul balls would definitely generate an angry complaint. I have no idea what it was like in other neighborhoods but Bel Air subscribers were indulged, most demanding that their papers be delivered to very specific spots. The well-to-do expect perfect service, even if they don’t pay their bill on time, which happened more often than the dealer preferred.

When it rained or threatened to do so, we’d have to bag the papers in plastic, adding a fifth step to the stuffing process, and squaring the degree of delivery difficulty: the slipperiness of the bags made 453 papers an unstable load; drive, stop, or turn too fast and they’d be all over you, and what a thrill if they slid under or over the accelerator or brake pedals. Sundays were most challenging, the size and heft of the paper requiring different assembly and two loads; there was no way 453 Sundays could fit in a Beetle, and if bagged for rain, dangerous. Rainy nights, windows open and almost as wet inside the car as out, slippery roads, poor visibility – these were “character builders,” as the dealer would declare to us with an amused verbal point in my direction. I don’t know why. I thought I had some but, apparently, you can never have too much of the stuff.

Toughest addresses, rain or otherwise, were the buildings along the flats on Moraga Drive just east of Sepulveda Boulevard, and on a short section of Roscomare up in the hills. I’d have to stop, get out of the car with an armful of papers, use a pass-key, and walk through the building, quietly dropping the subscriber’s paper at their door.

Apartment houses in Bel Air. Who knew? It did my heart good to learn that when he developed the community in 1923, Alphonso E. Bell, Sr. allowed a little loose acreage for the upwardly-mobile down payment poor, low-income housing L.A. รก la mode.

For most of us, it was a temporary or second job. For Naito it was one of three. A Japanese gentleman in his 50s with three kids to put through college, he was quiet, slow and steady, in contrast to the rest of us. Mickey was a wiry guy in his 40s who, with a pencil-thin moustache and curly hair slicked back on sides, tight pants and fitted short-sleeved Sy Devore knock-off to highlight biceps that needed all the highlighting they could get, looked like actor Cornel Wilde if Cornel Wilde had been an over-age, circa 1956 American Bandstand reject. He was a dissipated, atrophying juvenile delinquent and first-rate lounge-lizard, habitat: third-rate bars, with a stupendously tacky sense of debonair. He’d been on the job for years; this was it. I supposed he never thought it would wind up as a career but it had, a bitter, angry edge betraying the good-buddy bonhomie he projected. This is not a job you aspire to as a kid. It’s dead end employment, and failed expectations and exhausted possibilities fueled the hedonistic philosophy he’d often express with empty exuberance: “When I die, I wanna be cock-inserted with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other!” It was unclear whether he drank because he delivered newspapers or delivered newspapers because he drank.

Though we were never supposed to know the names of those on our routes, I delivered to many Golden Age Hollywood stars. Mickey, who had thrown all the routes in the franchise at one time or another, made notes in my route-book, pairing names with addresses to wise me up. It was a classy favor to one I’m sure he was not at all convinced was worth it. With the knowledge, I give a little extra, got the paper just that much closer to the front door so subscribers would save a step. It paid off at Christmas, Mickey asserted, in tips that could add up to a hefty, much needed year-end bonus. Because they routinely interacted on the set with craft and labor personnel, the stars knew how to take care of the working guy who made life a little easier for them, and I saw quite bit of Andrew Jackson and Ben Franklin in the days before Santa showed up. Even the anonymous apartment–dwellers stepped up to the plate, batting an Abe or an Alex my way. Classy people, all. Well, almost.

Brando was beginning his involvement with the Native-American movement, and I received an unsigned letterpress Christmas card from him blandly informing me that a donation had been made in my name to some tribal cause.

Thank you. (N.B. to Marlon, wherever you are: remember the 5AM sonic boom every day between Christmas 1969 and New Year’s that I hope you didn’t like? Your paper, bazooka’ed against your front door, courtesy me).

Before work I’d sometimes meet up with Micky and a couple of guys who threw routes in West L.A. at Picwood Bowl, now buried under a shopping pavilion. Here, the night-shift world presented itself as blue-collar spectacle, the bowling alley packed with nocturnal bowlers joyfully kicking back after work or, like us, gearing up for the extremely early shift.

My parents had comfortable childhoods; the Depression never touched them. But, on their own and getting started after WWII, all they could afford was veteran’s housing in a working-stiff neighborhood in New York City which somewhat galled them. My sister and I were raised to feel like members of the landed gentry – without the land, aristocrats who, like characters in a Jane Austen novel, had little but name. We didn’t even have that. Possessing my own streak of snobbishness, I always felt self-conscious and uncomfortably different. I aspired to be accepted as a regular guy, even as I remained aloof: I didn’t want to be that regular. No, I had delusional ambitions to be on the receiving end of the paper in Bel Air, a well-monied guy reflecting the upper-class I possessed in attitude only.

The first night at Picwood Bowl, Mickey introduced me to the gang as one of them. “Steve, he’s good people,” he kindly declared even if he didn’t really believe it, another classy gesture that warmed me to him.

Mick was a role model for me – on what not to do with one’s life. Good judgment not his strong suit and stubborn, he was a poster-boy for the popular, inspirational message that if you continually fail in life but keep working hard at it, eventually you’ll become a successful failure. If only I’d paid more attention.

It was easy to romanticize the job – ennobling, working-class hard work, a member of the news cavalry, the unsung heroes of journalism, we silent town criers of the night delivering the world to your doorstep. I know I certainly did. I had to. I was young, with the world at my feet but stumbling around. I had no idea where I was headed and was frightened that I was going nowhere fast and in danger of arriving early. I was working my way down the social ladder, sensing that I was, with precise skill, throwing my present and future away 453 times a night, seven nights a weeks, fifty-two weeks a year. The job was bad news.

Eighteen months into it, I was involved in an unrelated car accident, hurt my back and quit. And while I had no prospects, I still had possibilities, however vague.

A few years hence, while I was clerking at the old Discount Records shop on the corner of Brighton Way and Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, a wealthy friend of my mother offered me $50K to marry his daughter; she was seriously dating a gas station attendant and the fumes from their potential union offended him. He told me I had great potential for class. Nice. I thought I had some but, apparently, you can never have too much of the stuff.

His figure was the cube-root of what a sane person would even remotely consider; I’d dated this girl a few times. She was deceptively sweet, a chocolate-covered razor blade who, 34 years later, would refuse to tap the million-dollar trust fund her Dad set up for her when she was young and he had the loot. He was now old, sick, bleeding home healthcare expenses and near broke. He desperately needed her help to avoid nursing home internment; even the best of them stink. Though they knew which fork to use, had the background, and dressed tastefully, Mickey, who stood at the head of the crass, had more class in his unmanicured pinkie than the two of them put together.

I gave the offer its moment; hey, 50K.

When I started delivering the Times, I was young, dumb, and made of rubber. When I left the job, I was still young, dumb and made of rubber but had unconsciously begun to develop a solid core. Delivering the newspaper had, indeed, been a character-building experience. I thought I had some but apparently…

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