The Papers

When I was a teenager and young adult, I had a fear that there would be no kind of job I could tolerate.  Adulthood seemed like one long road of boredom ahead of me.  My experiences having jobs as a kid proved this to me.

My first real job was as a paper boy.  Every day, for two years, I had to deliver papers.  The number of subscribers on my route usually hovered between sixty and seventy, and it was my home neighborhood, so I didn’t have far to travel.  I shared the route with Steve next door, and the papers were delivered to his driveway every day.  On a easy day, I could be done in an hour.  If it was raining or snowing or if the newspapers were thick or I just got unfocused and started wandering it could take close to three hours.  More than once my dad came looking for me when it started getting dark and I hadn’t returned.

There were real benefits to this job.  In the fifth grade, I had more disposable income than anyone I knew at school.  I had a bill to pay each week for my papers.  I collected the fee a month’s worth at time from the subscribers (we were supposed to collect each week—but Steve told me that was stupid and made more work for everyone), and used my metal punch to punch out that month’s row of holes, being careful to punch the cards over my zippered money bag so as not to litter the round discs of paper over the customers’ stoops.

After my bill was paid, I kept the rest, right around a hundred dollars a month. My parents said that as long as I put half of the money in the bank, I could spend the rest how I liked. I started a good tape collection and went through several bicycles—I even constructed one specifically for riding the route, with grocery racks in the back.  I wasn’t allowed across the street from school to go buy candy at Vandy’s Party Store, but I could pay other people to go buy me Nerds. Friends were astonished that I would hand them two dollars to go buy me a dollar’s worth of candy (that’s like, double!).  I felt rich and powerful.

The route also satisfied my curiosity.  I got to peek into most of my neighbors’ houses, or at least in their breezeways.  One of my favorite houses was Mr. Hampton down at the other end of my street. He was retired and ran the unofficial community pool in his back yard.  Any neighborhood kid could come swim as long as they brought parents with them.  I was never allowed there because we had our own pool, though the logic of that seemed foggy to me, but when I went to the side door of Mr. Hampton’s house I saw leather furniture and bookshelves.  He had distinguished looking glasses and often had a cigar, and he owned two small Fiat convertibles both of which he somehow managed to park inside his one-car garage.

Mr. Hampton, like many of the retired residents on my route, took genuine interest in me, and was happy to see me, even when I was there to collect money.

There were assholes too.  One guy insisted I never set foot on his lawn.  He had a paper box out on the street next to the mailbox and the first time I accidentally went to his door to deliver the paper, he came out to lecture me.  “You see that box?” he said, putting his hand on my head to swivel it toward the street. “It’s there for a reason!”  He had a noisy little dirty white dog who bit me more than once.

There was another house on a hill where a very large German shepherd named Thor lived.  He barked at me viciously, and I could only imagine what might happen if he jumped the fence one day, or burst through the storm door.  Once, I was carrying a stick with me, just for the fun of it, and I was tapping it along the iron railing on the steps up to Thor’s door.  Thor’s owner came out and yelled at me for provoking his dog, though it never occurred to me that I might be doing that.

There were kind dogs two.  Kristi, an old, half deaf curly-haired mutt was kind and happy to see me each day, but I had to be careful not to startle her if she sat facing away from me when I came up to the house.  More than once I startled her elderly owner too when I put the paper in the door.

Mr. Hampton had two kind dogs too.  They liked to bark, but just for fun.  I had dogs growing up and could tell the difference between a threatening bark and a “hey, let’s play!” bark.  One of the dogs, a collie, often played a nasty trick on me, though.  On weekends I had to deliver papers early in the morning when it was still dark.  Mr. Hampton’s yard was especially dark and he did not leave any lights on.  This dog, I swear, would lie in wait, invisible in the dark behind the windowed door, and when I was six inches from the handle, let loose with a volley of barking that scared the bejesus out of me.

I also saw how different people lived, how their personalities were reflected in their homes and yards.  For instance, I had a very proper German couple on my route, and the husband always insisted on paying his six dollar monthly fee in nickels and dimes.  I (no surprise) didn’t collect regularly—I would go out when I needed to get money to pay my weekly bill and go through my book and see who was home and who I was in the mood to deal with and collect accordingly.  Sometimes, I would get a month behind on some subscribers and have to collect two months, or sometimes I would collect at the end of the month and forget and go back to the same house a few days later to collect at the beginning of the next month.  But no matter what time of month I came by, this fellow always had his nickels and dimes laid out on the table for me, in groups of ten or twenty to make it easy for me to count.

Their house and yard were immaculate.  I realized how much thought they put into it when one day I came to deliver the paper and I was carrying a willow branch around for fun, to swat at mailboxes and fenceposts or whatever.  When I came near the door, I saw the wife standing just inside the door and set my stick down in the grass to retrieve on the way out.  She came out the door to grab the paper from me and then looked sternly at my stick  in the yard.  “What’s that?” she asked.  “Oh, it was stuck on my bag or something,” I lied, and grabbed it on the way out.

The job was more fun in the summer, but it wore on me in the winter.  There would be several days in a row of dark, cold, windy, snowy days, and I would have to judge how carefully to dress so as not to be soaked in sweat when I got home and avoid frostbite at the same time.  I could not use the bike to speed things along.  The worst would be a stormy Sunday morning when I had to get up at five thirty and trudge my heavy Sunday editions around the neighborhood and be finished and cleaned up in time for church. My dad would take pity on me and drive me around if I asked him, but I often felt guilty about waking him up and trudged it out on my own.

The absolute monotony of days would start to wear on me.  Winter in Michigan is long and dark, and it affects everyone’s mood.  My customers would be just as grumpy as me and I would have a pile of homework waiting for me when I got home.  If I dragged on too long, some people would grumble “It’s about time!” when I dropped off their paper close to five o’clock.

When the job was good, I was attracted to its solitude. I’ve read that one peculiarity of ADHD-PI folks is that we crave solitude (even though we do much better around other people).  Despite not being happy about getting up early on weekends to deliver papers, there was something attractive about being the only soul out skulking around the neighborhood at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.

That attractiveness, though, is through the long fog of memory of a forty year old.  When I gave up the route, I felt an enormous sense of relief and freedom, though I would soon miss the money.  At the time it seemed like pure drudgery, a constant weight to carry around, the knowledge that when 2:00 rolled around at school and I started to feel sleepy and withdrawn, I couldn’t just go home and rest, but have to do the route.

Some of my other ADHD things manifested there too, though I knew nothing about ADHD then.  I knew some customers were always grumpy, so I only collected every other month.  They grumbled about having to pay two months each time, but that was better than going to their door twice as often.  Not such a big deal, but one new house I let slip by without ever paying.  For some reason, I got put off about this family.  I don’t know why; they were not mean or weird or smelly or anything, and they didn’t have a yappy dog.  But for some reason, after they started getting the paper, I didn’t go collect at their house. Once it got past two months, I gave up on ever collecting from them because I couldn’t fathom going to their door to collect and having to explain to them why I hadn’t collected before because I didn’t know why I hadn’t done it. And I couldn’t decide what to do if I were to go and collect.  Was I going to make them pay for eight or nine months of back papers?  Or would I just forgive the debt and move forward?  Eventually the issue got resolved; another took over the route, and I just marked them as paid in the book I handed over to him.

His father called later and said this boy went to their house and they said they had never paid before, and he wondered why I had marked them as paid.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I guess I just made a mistake.”  He pressed me for awhile, wanting some logical explanation, but I didn’t have one.  When my parents asked me about the call, I just said the new boy had some questions was all.  I was secretly ashamed at my failure, and having no real explanation for it made me want to hide it even more.

For many years, I could not figure out this behavior.  I would have some mundane task like this to take care of, and something would happen to initially put it off, until it grew into major irresponsibility on my part.  I knew I should have collected from them.  I knew I shouldn’t have put it off.  I knew if I went to their door and said I messed up and will start charging them just from this month forward that everything would be fixed, and I knew all these things were the responsible things to do, but still the task was left undone, and it wasn’t like I just forgot about it; I would think about it every day as I passed the house, would hope every day that they would not be home when I dropped off their paper, would hope that they would not come out and say “Hey, do we need to pay you?”  It would be a great secret to carry with me, something with a simple solution, but the more I did not do it, the more I could not do it.

I also had a budding sense that it shouldn’t be this way.  This job wasn’t that hard, and there were good benefits for me.  I just thought I was lazy, and that worried me.  I got excellent grades at school, I was becoming accomplished on the piano, but this little job got the better of me.  I couldn’t do this simple thing consistently, and I made dumb mistakes. What kind of a life could I expect if I couldn’t even do a simple paper route?

LA Times

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7 thoughts on “The Papers

  1. Thanks for writing this! It was really a joy to read… I never worked at a newspaper route, but I remember so many random things like not having charged someone the right amount for a beer when I was bartending and ALWAYS undercharging them from there on out for that same beer because I was terrified of correcting the mistake. Never knew that this could relate to my ADHD… thought it was just my being generally nuts 😀

    Very neat read 😀

    • Thanks for your comment! Many “mysterious” events in my life become clear through the lens of AD(H)D. I tend to be a tad generous as a grader when I teach for the same reason you describe. I am fortunate never to have worked as a cashier; even though I was a star math student, small details escape me, and I’m sure I would come up short all the time.

  2. Interesting. My kids, both of whom are ADHD, shared a paper route last year. It was torture to get them to do it. I hadn’t thought about how challenging it was from them. Thanks for the insight.

    • Yeah, anything that’s an every-single-day thing is not so good for me, unless there’s intrinsic motivation. Like eating.

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