I was a paper girl when I was a teenager. Because I was undocumented, I couldn’t get an after school job that required a social security number like some of my friends did. At the time, newspaper delivery was still a thing done by kids on bikes and it was an all-cash affair. I was told tales of the job’s many charms by a boy named Mario (the first boy I ever kissed), who lived across the street from me and who also happened to be the paper boy on my block. So a paper girl I became.
My route was a five block walk from my house. I’d set out at five in the morning and pick up my stack of papers under a street light in front of an old garage. I’d cut the ties that held them together, put them in my red paper-girl bag emblazoned with the name of the paper, The Record, and fold them as I walked to my first house. I’d snap a rubber band on each, then give them a toss one by one. It was on a steep hill, so I did the route on foot instead of on a bike. The first few days, I had to pick out houses from a list of addresses the route manager had given me. Soon, I had it memorized. Within a few weeks I was doing such a good job that I was given the adjacent route, giving me the coveted double paper route. I had about 90 houses I had to hit before 6:00 a.m. Then I’d come home and get ready for school.
In the 80s, it seems that having a paper girl instead of a boy was something of a revelation. (At least it was for the people on my route). The way I made money was that I’d go “collecting” every week. I owed something in the $2 range to my route manager for every paper I was assigned. I was supposed to charge the people on my route $2.40. If they tipped me, anything I got over that was mine to keep. Turns out that being a girl was very good for business.
The first time I collected, nearly everybody did a double-take. “I’m your new newspaper delivery girl. I’m here to collect,” I said, as I’d been instructed to do.
“Oh!” The old women would say. “A paper girl! My, how times are changing! I should have known a woman was on the job! We’ve been getting our paper so early and regularly lately. Not like when that lazy boy before you was bringing them.” Some people, feeling especially generous, would slip me a $5 bill and tell me to keep the change. Even the spare dollar here and there meant I raked in around $60 a week, an amount that felt decadently exorbitant to my sixteen-year-old self. It kept me in Jordache jeans and Duran Duran records.
I quickly endeared myself to my customers by delivering well, rain or shine. I grew to love those solitary early-morning walks. (It’s when I first began to really love a quiet walk in the snow in the dark). I took pride in my aim, landing the papers soundlessly in protected spots. I was always prepared with the tools of my trade, rubber bands and special green plastic bags to put the papers in when it was raining. Collecting became an all-afternoon affair, with customer after customer inviting me in for cookies and a chat.
My favorite people on the route were a couple named Del Vecchio. They were in the middle of the route, but I always collected from them last because I loved to stay and linger with them. I’d come in and they’d sit me down, get me something to drink, and we’d talk for hours. I loved hearing their stories. I grew up far away from my family (like 5,000 miles away), so I’ve always missed the presence of old people in my life. When I sat in the Del Vecchios’ living room and they treated me so affectionately, I imagined that must have been what it was like to have grandparents.
I was reminded of them, nearly thirty years later, last night when I couldn’t sleep. Trolling for a documentary to watch, I found one about the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire. I first learned about that tragedy from Mr. Del Vecchio, who was a young boy living in a downtown New York City tenement when it happened. He remembered riding his bicycle and watching with the horrified crowd. He had distinct memories of hearing bodies hitting the ground and seeing them crash through glass that was embedded in the sidewalks. Luckily, most of the Del Vecchios’ stories were cheerier than the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory story. He always liked to joke that he was already an old man by the time World War II came along and that he was so mad that they wouldn’t let him volunteer. Mrs. Del Vecchio would tisk tisk that it was a good thing that he’d stayed home. I loved hearing them talk. It made me feel like I was getting old wisdom handed down to me, history witnessed and just not read from a book, then carefully placed in my keeping.
Watching the documentary, I learned that the fire happened in 1911, which means that the Del Vecchios must have been in their 80s when I knew them. Eventually I stopped delivering newspapers and I lost track of the Del Vecchios and the many kind people who gave me good pocket money during my lean years. Most of them must be long gone by now. But their stories live on in me. And now you!