We were paperboys then, those of us who needed the money and had the gumption; every day after school—no American Bandstand, no stickball or ice hockey, no friends really—just the job. Six bucks a week I made before tips—if the 72 customers paid their bills when I came collecting on Saturday every other week; but then I had one of the smaller routes.
Paper routes were hard to come by in the little old mill town-gone-bad where I grew up. I inherited mine from George “The Spider” Kakatsakis, who’d moved on to delivering the Albany Times-Union, a morning route, seven days a week; up at 4:30, 150 customers, a cold ride on an old bike before school to be sure. The Spider was a go-getter. He eventually went and got his girlfriend pregnant, and her old man made him divisional manager of the company that sold our Register-Beacon its newsprint in the first place. But that would come later.
The whole damn deal was ironic, now that I think about it. My father, who never made more than a hundred bucks a week in his life, didn’t think I “knew the value of a dollar.” Me—who had calculated to the penny that the parents could afford exactly $20 in presents for us two kids come Christmas. Me, who watched the grown man cry when a peach basket flew off an open truck bed and smashed our old Buick’s windshield one summer far from home and ready cash. I remember him and mom doing the math—how to stretch a hundred dollars for a Greyhound ride for four from Upstate New York to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and back, with a stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in D.C. and a two-week stay with Uncle Dick and Aunt Frances smack there in the middle.
Me not know the value of a dollar? Absurd on the face of it. Money was a Real Thing in the middle of the 50’s. A Coke was a nickel, a Tootsie Roll a penny. A stamp was three cents, and the savings bank at school every Tuesday morning paid us three and a half-percent interest, if you can believe that. These were “the good ole days” you hear so much about, and they were the greatest.
We had the Yankees and the Dodgers, the Giants and the Celtics, and Bob Cousy and Frank Gifford and Charlie Conerly and Gump Worsley, and everybody played pro ball for the fun of it, it seemed, because—go figure—even the greatest of them all, the Mighty Mick, ole number 7, only made a hundred thousand a year. A hundred grand was a king’s ransom when I was a kid. We ALL knew the value of a dollar mid-way through the last century; the knowledge had taken root in the blood sacrifice of World War II, and we weren't likely to forget it.
The fact is, nobody else really wanted The Spider’s route. It was a cobweb of slums and faded clapboard suburbs that hung off the edge of our little old mill town-gone-bad, and the things an observant 12-year-old could witness between the reservoir on the hill and the river-run-thick-with-sewage were instructive and unforgettable.
Although I was positively forbidden to venture below Fourth Street, my new paper route, nonetheless, lay almost exclusively on the wrong side of the tracks, as the saying goes. What had been prohibited, suddenly, upon my turning twelve, became a life lesson. This, I suppose, is the way of things.
Let’s be clear about it: I think I was a nerd. I sang in the church choir, changed my clothes after school, and I carried a violin case everywhere I went, a sure target for snow balls, derision, and—now that I was making a little money—petty thieves. Thieves abounded in the little old mill town-gone-bad. A lot of them grew up to be cops. You could get your lunch money kiped in the Boys’ Room just like that. Many pants were wet-from-fear, I have no doubt.
We wore a lot of corduroy in those days. Blue jeans, of course, were not allowed at school. In the winter, if you’d peed your pants, it could freeze quickly and chafe your thighs as you ran back home. You had to think about these things; and other things. You had to think about Willy the Bastard and the dour boys, who’d gang up on you, pin you to the ground, and drool in your face. You had to think about the route you took to and from school, which way you’d go to get to the pond to skate, how to get home unmolested before dark.
Sometimes you’d have to defend your friend Rudy, who didn’t have a dad, and whose mom was too attractive and stayed out too late. For a while there, with alarming regularity, Rudy and I would be ambushed by a couple of older bastards. It didn’t stop until the day I swung one of those fuckers by the arm and smashed his face into a concrete wall. They never bothered us again, the bastards, but for a while I had to think about what if I’d killed Mike McGinty, and his dad the police chief wanted revenge.
I did a lot of thinking as a kid, and one of the things I thought about a lot was this thing we called sex. I think I knew what sex was. Sex was the way I felt when Bonnie Yaraslavsky washed her hair before choir practice and it smelled something like Heaven. It MUST have been sex when Barbara Boyer crossed her legs under her desk in the office and all us paper boys, wrapped in the co-mingled scents of fresh ink and newsprint and her perfume, would jostle for the best view into her office. Sex was waiting to be last, coming back up three flights from “the basement” in fourth grade, hoping the sun would fall just-so behind Miss Craig’s petticoats. And it was sex-sex-sex-and-nothing-but-sex that took my breath away one morning on my paper route, collecting on a Saturday, when Mary Sole came to her door with her nightie open to my gaze and the bright blue sunny-fun sky.
And then there was the matter of Francis the Blow Boy.
What WAS the matter with Francis the Blow Boy? Willy the Bastard gave him that name. Willy, in fact, was the only kid who called Francis Francis the Blow Boy. It was a curious thing. Basically, Francis scared the paper boys to silence.
He was a grown man who had a paper route. He had an old balloon-tired bike he pushed, mostly, because Francis had the biggest paper route in town; there were so many papers crammed neatly into his dirty white bag on the handle bars that he couldn’t steer; no way. I think he must have had THREE paper routes, because you saw him at all hours of the day, pushing his big bike, his papers folded and rolled for accurate trajectory. Nobody delivered the Register-Beacon or the Albany Times-Union like Francis the Blow Boy.
We shunned him in the pick-up room. He had an abnormally-small head, and the kind of crew-cut we associated with ringworm in those days. His face was leathery and disproportionally equine. His teeth were tinted green and he always needed a shave. He had a couple of dirty tee-shirts, one worn over the other, and he smelled something awful most of the time—worse than the hallways and acrid back-stairs of the worst of the deliveries on my route. I don’t think I ever heard Francis speak a word.
The feeling you got when Francis was around was something like shame I guess. You were ashamed that somehow such a creature—a human being, after all—could creep you out in such a way. Or maybe that was just me. I never discussed Francis with anybody, and I don’t really know why. All I knew then—and remember now—is that Willy the Bastard would snigger “Francis the Blow Boy” whenever he was spotted pushing his bike and papers furtively 'round some corner.
Willie the Bastard was the kid who introduced me to hypocrisy. It was Christmas time, and those of us with afternoon routes were suffering because by five P.M. the snow has turned to slush and the sun has inevitably died pale and wan over the Hudson, but the wind cuts through you like a lie from a lover.
These were the days when the Christmas music leaking out of every steamy aromatic storefront didn’t drive you insane, you understand. We knew the words to all the songs because we sang them in school and we sang them in church, and even the Jewish kids acknowledged that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was pretty cute, and essential if the weather was bad. The Salvation Army had their little red kettle set up in front of Woolworth's and most everything smelled green, which as you know is the color of money.
I’d finished early that day, hurrying because it was very cold, even if the gritty sidewalks had not yet refrozen for the night. I was approaching the shoddy mill, which lay on the other side of the seventh street tracks, and I was looking forward to crossing the tracks at last because there was some kind of huge exhaust fan around the corner at the back of the mill. It blew hot air all the time, summer and winter, and I was thinking how welcome that would be, a little stop in front of the shoddy mill exhaust.
They say smell is the strongest memory trigger. I have always found that to be the case, and on this occasion, out there across the tracks on the ragged edge of the warm and friendly seasonal scents of pine, apple cider, and hot chocolate, I smelled Francis the Blowboy. That acrid off-putting admixture of what we used to call B.O. and…something else…that was foreign and vaguely sinister was amplified, churned in my direction by the current of warm air that gushed from out behind the shoddy mill.
I came upon the worst of all my Christmas Past tableaus that day: Francis the Blow Boy was on his knees in front of Willy the Bastard, whose corduroys were down around his ankles. Neither of them saw me, but I guess I understood in an instant how Willy earned his spending money.
A quarter went a long way in 1958, but nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.