A Writer Writes
by Chris Honoré (Colombia 1967-69)
My elementary school was called Allendale, a name I never gave much thought to. It was a massive, pale green, two-story Victorian building on a quiet neighborhood street.
Two years before I headed off to Jr. High School, I suggested to my folks that being a paperboy would build character, or words to that effect, and solve my financial situation – I was always short of pocket change for, say, a comic or baseball cards wrapped in waxy paper along with a square of pink bubble gum. To sweeten my argument, I pointed out that the newspaper shack, where a cohort of boys gathered each afternoon after school, waiting for the bundles of newspapers to arrive, was less than a block away from Allendale.
“Fine,” my parents said, with some reluctance. “Let’s see how it goes.”
And so I spoke with the manager of the shack, Al, a swarthy guy with a stub of cigar tucked securely in the corner of his mouth, heavy black glasses halfway down his nose, his short-sleeved shirts peppered with small burns from the cigar. “Okay, kid,” he said, “Let’s give it a try.” And so I got my first paper route: a list of addresses, street names, plus a heavy bifurcated canvas bag for the papers, some 60. I learned how to fold and tuck, each paper, ready to be tossed onto front porches, stoops or walkways. The filled bag hung from the handlebars of my Schwinn bike, balanced, and within easy reach.
There was a lot to learn and I memorized the houses that took the paper – it was the Oakland Tribune. There were usually four sections to the daily. Sunday’s edition was a monster, impossible to fold and so I walked my route.
I soon learned that I was most accurate when throwing cross-arm and with some practice I usually hit my target. When I didn’t, I’d stop and approach the house, listening for a bark or a growl, find the paper on the lawn or in a flowerbed bed, walk to the bottom step of the porch and give it an underhand throw, aiming for the doormat.
I loved being a paperboy, delivering a paper that some people waited for. Often, I noticed a curtain would push back when the thwack of the paper hit the porch. And, of course, I met the people who lived behind the doors and windows. Once a month I’d walk my route to collect for the paper. I had a small receipt book, a carpenter’s apron for change, and a pencil behind my ear. At times, when I rang the bell or knocked on the door, a very large person would answer, look at me, and though we had met before, growl, “Yeah?” If there is a generic image of this individual lodged in my memory, it’s of a man, his white T-shirt stained yellow under his arms, his chin stubbled, his squint creviced. I’d smile and say, “Collecting for the Tribune.” On occasion he might say something like, “Look, kid, catch me next month will ya?” It really wasn’t a question and I’d look at him and nod and mark him down as unpaid for that month. All in all, though, people were pretty nice.
I usually collected on Sundays, when I knew my subscribers were home. There were some who would answer the door, women, mostly, and turn and call over a shoulder, “Come on in,” and I’d step into a living room that looked and smelled so very different from my own. Sometimes I kept an eye on a baby while the mom went into the kitchen for her purse. Or I’d stand very still as a dog gave me a good sniff, poking its nose into my crotch. If I smelled cookies, I’d leave with dollar bills tucked in my carpenter’s apron and a couple of homemades in hand.
I loved my route. I loved newspapers before I ever read one or really knew what they were. That would come later.
There are threads that appear and reappear in our lives. Some we recognize and some may even give us pause. For me, newspapers have always been such a thread.
I was a paperboy during the early 1950s, and as I reflect on those days I realize that my route took me out of my narrow world of school and friends to a world beyond the familiar, a neighborhood of large and small bungalows, most with one-car garages, listing wooden fences and squares of patchy lawns.
I knew the people on my route, meaning those who subscribed. As for those who didn’t, after finishing my Sunday delivery, I’d work up the courage to knock on their screen doors. If they answered, well, we’d stand there, peering at one another through a scrim of wire mesh, and I’d ask if they might want to take the paper. Had they asked me, I would have been hard pressed to explain why they should subscribe. What I knew about the Oakland Tribune was that it consisted of sheets of white paper, blocked headlines, columns of words, the inside peppered with small and large ads for appliances, clothes and cars. As for all the stories above the fold and below, I never read a word.
The paper was a huge part of my life and yet it wasn’t. I often rode my bike through Brookdale Park and I’d see older men sitting on benches, newspapers held open in front of them, reading intently.
I recall not long after I became a paperboy, walking downtown and passing by what must have been a union hall. Men, dressed in rough clothes, wearing hats, were seated on wooden benches, not unlike church pews, waiting for what I assume now was work. What caught my attention as I gazed through the window was that almost to a man they were reading newspapers, held like white sails, all lost in that day’s news, a haze of smoke drifting above them.
I looked at their faces, partly obscured by the papers, wondering who they were and I felt a momentary connection to them. Perhaps two or three were reading a paper I had delivered the day before. I glanced down at my hands and saw the familiar ink embedded in the crevices of my palms, a reminder of the 60 papers I folded every day.
As years passed, the memories of my route and newspapers dimmed. I knew that those dailies were referred to as “the press.” But I had no idea what that really meant: massive rolls of newsprint, drums of ink, linotype machines, men and women in newsrooms, all of it resulting in the papers that sat upright on racks or on the counters of corner kiosks. Their bold headlines marked moments, some greater than others. I will always remember the blocked black words “PRESIDENT KENNEDY KILLED IN DALLAS,” seeming so breathtakingly final, conveying the wrenching grief that rippled across our country. It was the same with MLK and Bobby.
I still recall when my awareness of newspapers shifted. I was in the Peace Corps, stationed in Cartagena, Colombia. For reasons that escape me I was in Bogota’. It was late in the summer of 1968. Pope Paul VI was visiting Colombia, part of a Latin America tour, and the city vibrated with anticipation. I was having breakfast in a hotel dining room, seated at a table covered in white cloth. Colombia was a very Catholic country and I knew this was momentous.
Looking around the large room, I noticed men and women seated at tables leafing though notebooks and talking animatedly. At their feet were portable typewriters in black cases. They were clearly journalists there to write about the man from Rome. In that moment I wanted to be them, to cover this story, to be part of that headline that would soon emerge. I wanted to write stories, help keep the nation’s record. I wanted to be out in the all of it.
Chris Honoré (Colombia 1967-69) was a high school English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area before and
after the Peace Corps. He lives today in Ashland, Oregon with his wife. Their son is a cinematographer in Hollywood.