Daily Breeze, July 2005

DELIVERANCE

 

Our adventurer brings back the day of the paperboy

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

PHOTOS BY BRANIMIR KVARTUC

 

      From the predawn streets of yesteryear he beckons -- full of pride, Pop Rocks and all the Sunday editions he can balance on his handlebars.

      The paperboy is such a suburban institution, he still appears in our movies even though he's as extinct as the milkman, the full-service gas attendant and the video clerk who makes good recommendations.

      For nearly a decade, our newspapers have arrived via hairy arms jutting out of van windows. 

      But I can bring the paperboy back to the streets. I have an adventure column.

      I didn't think getting up at 2:15 a.m. for work would be fun. But boy, was I right. Driving down the 405 Freeway on less than two hours sleep, I'm seeing double. I'm on the 810.

      The Daily Breeze circulation department is a supermarket-sized warehouse where 50 employees stuff inserts into newspapers, papers into bags, then bags onto hand trucks -- which they load into their trucks and vans outside.

      As I enter, I realize I should have disguised myself. These are the very people who placed the "Camera Phone Free" ad inside the paper you're reading right now.

      Luckily, no one recognizes me -- other than my new boss, Miguel Gerardi. We met a couple of days earlier.

      "I'm sorry but you can't do the route today," he says. "You have to come back another day."

      It is 3 a.m. on a Friday. Dew has not formed yet. The only time I see this hour, I'm attempting to remember to put the seat back down.

      I spend the next 10 minutes trying to get Gerardi to admit that he's joking. (Earlier, I told him to give me a hard time, since these adventures go better that way.)

      "This is no joke," he says. And it isn't. Multiple carriers have called in sick, and it's a district manager's job to cover absentee routes. There's no time to train me.

      I don't need training, I argue. Delivering papers was my first journalism job. I tossed The New York Daily News, mornings off my brown Apollo 3-speed in Oceanside, Long Island.

      Americans are shocked by the deplorable labor conditions under which children work in foreign countries. All I know is that this 14-year-old was forced to work in hazardous weather for 50 cents an hour -- with no benefits or sick pay.

      Even my salary wasn't guaranteed -- as I discovered when I went around with my little green book on the weekends, trying to collect.

      "I already sent it in" -- that was a good one.

      And don't get me started about the vicious dog on East Lexington Avenue, who once ran me off his owner's driveway. I was able to retrieve my fallen bike, but half a Saturday's stack lay scattered within the circumference of the chain leashing Cujo to the basketball hoop.

      "Is anybody home?" I yelled for 10 minutes. (The next morning, not only did the dog's owner not apologize, he complained about the papers littering his lawn.)

      Sick of dealing with my disruptive presence, Gerardi passes me off to another district manager. At 3:30 a.m., I drive a mile south to a second warehouse packed with another 50 red-eyed Breeze employees. Their boss, Richard Greene, is less than thrilled to make my acquaintance.

      "This is a hard, tough job, and to give the impression that this is some type of little job that people can run around on a bicycle and do is a misconception," says the 11-year circulation veteran, as he demonstrates how to assemble my papers (half are folded in half and rubber-banded, half are folded in thirds and bagged, with the front page always facing outward).

      "These are good, hard-working people who deliver newspapers so they can get ahead and make a better life for themselves," Greene continues. "And most are suffering from sleep deprivation. I don't know too many people that work two jobs, period, much less a 7-day-a-week graveyard job on top of their 8-to-5 Monday-to-Friday job."

      I counter by explaining that I don't think the job is easy, that I have the utmost respect for carriers, and that I would never do anything to make light of the responsibility.

      And I'm hoping really, really hard that Greene doesn't see the 9-year-old girl's pink bike I rented from Corbin's Redondo Bicycle for this gig.

      Most newspapers -- including the Breeze -- got rid of paperboys about 10 years ago. As operating overhead increased, the cost of managing 1,000 kids delivering 60 papers each became prohibitive.

      At the same time, it got tougher to find enough young adults willing to work that hard, that early, for less than $100 a month when many earned at least twice as much in allowance.

      Today, the Breeze employs 215 adult carriers, who receive an average of $500 a month for tossing 300 papers daily. (The pay varies according to route difficulty. Bigger checks compensate delivery to apartment buildings, high-crime areas and probably to the crazy dude who bought that house about to plummet into the ocean in Portuguese Bend.)

      Greene eyes my route list: 65 papers, going mostly to consecutive houses in middle-class Torrance.

      "Oh, excuse me!" he groans, explaining that he used to drive 45 minutes roundtrip to throw five newspapers to the Terminal Island prison.

      "Now that was a difficult route!" he says.

      My list looks fairly straightforward. House numbers are notated with preferences such as "W/E" (weekends only) and "porch" (a quarter of subscribers request a doorstep, rather than a driveway, drop). Only one customer requires a unique delivery: A USA Today and a Breeze bundled together. We professional carriers call that a "combo."

      I'm passed off yet once more, by Greene to another district manager. Starting at 4:20 a.m., Cesar Gonzales introduces me to my route in his GMC truck. We're supposed to take turns delivering, but -- as when my father volunteered to help with my math -- I trick him into doing it all.

      "Grab the paper from the edge before you throw," Gonzales advises, "and get some wrist action going."

      Really? Can you show me how again?

      "You're really gonna go through with delivering all these papers?" asks Branimir Kvartuc, the Breeze photographer lucky enough to receive this plum assignment.

      It's now 7 a.m. on my second day as a news carrier. The absolute latest customers can receive their papers on Saturday is 30 minutes from now, and I know this will take longer.

      Familiar with my work ethic, Kvartuc thought I was only going to pretend to be a paperboy -- posing for a few minutes of photo ops, then letting someone else do the real work.

      "OK, then I need to go get a frappuccino," he says before disappearing.

      I poke my head through the hole in my new double-sided paperboy pouch, the one you see those "Extra! Extra!" kids wearing just before the "HITLER INVADES POLAND" headline spins around really fast on the movie screen. I begin filling it with the papers I assembled.

      If you ever wanted to feel how much you'd weigh on one of our solar system's gas-giant planets, try strapping 65 newspapers onto your back. From now on, I'm writing all these columns shorter.

      At least I went with the girls' bike. (Who was it that decided that BOYS' bikes should be the ones with the painful metal bar directly under the crotch?)

      "I know who you are!" says my very first customer, an older Lorna Street resident who exits her apartment just after hearing the kerplop on her welcome mat.

      This is just what I feared. Like Johnny Knoxville from "Jack-ass," I'm too famous to work undercover anymore. I'm going to have to move "Adventures With Corey" to Eastern Europe.

      "I'm sorry, I haven't seen your column," the woman admits. She called customer service yesterday to complain about not receiving a paper. The agent explained why.

      My ego deflated, I wobble back to my bike and toss to my first houses in 20 years. Unfortunately, in my ink-stained hands, newspapers become puddle-seeking missiles. (Sorry, south side of the 5200 block of Emerald Street!)

      Worse, I'm not entirely confident I'm hitting all the right homes. You would think the difference between 5223 and 5233 would leap off the page when you're trying to hit targets at 50 feet and remain balanced on a little girl's bike going up hills with a 50 lb. sack choking your trachea.

      It doesn't.

      "Do you like the Daily Breeze?" I ask the second subscriber I spot. He's more what I imagine my typical reader to be. In his mid-20s, the dude resembles Topher Grace from "That '70s Show."

      He nods yes, curious as to why he's being grilled so early on a Saturday.

      "I like it, too," I say, "except for that adventure writer guy. Isn't he awful?"

      In my head, Topher's about to shout, "Oh, you're Corey! Hey, I love your column!" Then he'll invite me inside for a beer with his friends, Ashton Kutcher and that Fez kid.

      In reality, he holds his curious stare for 3 awkward seconds, opens his screen door and excuses himself.

      Going unrecognized by Daily Breeze subscribers -- even after revealing myself -- is pretty pathetic. Then it dawns on me what's more pathetic: This morning, 100 employees of the Daily Breeze circulation department didn't know who I was, either.

      I'm not even famous at my own paper.

      I wouldn't say, however, that I couldn't get arrested. The third subscriber I encounter has just this in mind.

      "What exactly are you two doing?" yells the 50something Asteria Street resident. "Why are you taking pictures of our houses? This is a Neighborhood Watch street! There are no paperboys on this street!"

      The woman chases Kvartuc west down the 5100 block, wagging her finger. I opt not to try and stop her. This is payback for the 10 minutes we lost thanks to his frappuccino. (We are now 45 minutes late.)

      In addition, I don't want to jeopardize my tip when I collect later.

      At least my throw is improving. In fact, my very last one lands a paper smack in the middle of a porch on Victor Street. 

      It would be great if the people who live there actually subscribed to the Daily Breeze. You see, although my list says I'm done, my pouch contains four extra papers. So I toss the freebies randomly.

      Four, by the way, is the exact number of complaints customer service agent Judee Coleman tells me she receives for missing papers on my route. And that doesn't include the Breeze/USA Today combo which, of course, I ended up forgetting about.

      I brought back the paperboy, all right -- the one everyone used to complain about.

      "Nice to meet you," Coleman wrote in her email. "Keep your day job."

      Come to think of it, I got fired from my first paper route, too.

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