lake effect winds and the newspaper boy

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i’m not particularly proud of this story, but it’s about 32 years old so i’ll cut myself some slack and tell it anyway because if i do it right, it could be pretty funny. but i’m still at this moment, having trouble making my fingers tap the keyboard with any pride. that said, it’s completely true.

it all began, as most of my recollections do, in buffalo. i was about 12. that makes my older brother about 16 and my younger brother about 8. given that our household was not your typical (or maybe considering the period -more on that in a future post-, it was) household and that i grew up with a fair amount of chaos i can say that as kids, we got away with a lot of mischief. now i can’t go an’ blame my mom or dad about this because frankly, i knew what we were doing was just not appropriate. but… when the cat’s away (or uninvolved) the rats will play.

in the 20th century there was a phenomenon known as a “paper boy” this was a human person not made of wood pulp of pre- to post-adolescence age who operated a daily “route” to deliver newspapers to people’s homes per their paid subscription. often these paper boys (who were usually boys) had a large canvas bag sidling the hip opposite the shoulder where the strap was slung filled with newspapers. often they would ride their bikes and fling a paper where it would ultimately land on a front lawn or break a window or in the pattern of a lawn sprinkler — it didn’t matter where it landed really, just as long as it made the property line of the subscriber. those kids on the bikes with their bags were the standard, often careening onto the lawns or into the streets or parked cars in the opposite direction of the flung paper due to the laws of physics.

other paper boys, let’s name one in particular Johnny D’-something-ia, for example, were enterprising fellas and had fashioned a radio flyer pull wagon into a full-fledged newspaper delivery crate on wheels. i mention his last name because while i wasn’t a Mc-something or an O’-blah-ahan, i was an Irish kid in a predominantly Italian neighborhood and he lived somewhere nearby. i prefer Italian food. the Irish food i’ve had is not very appealing.  

my dad worked for the morning paper whose paperboys were middle-aged men with 5am shadows and tobaccoffee breath. they would drop their pallets of about 500 bound copies of the daily edition on a street corner. they sat behind the wheel of large delivery trucks making stops to these street corners in the dawn’s early light. so when drivers with probable names like “Mitch” and “Goose” and “Scotty” were dropping inch-long cigarette ashes in the footwells of their bouncing trucks, Johnny was sawing logs and likely dreaming of Chevy Camaros, Farrah Fawcett or throwing the winning ball to O.J. Simpson (hey, O.J. was a hometown hero then). middle-aged men still dream like that too, don’t they?

let’s say for example that this particular Johnny’s box was about 2′ high by 3′ long and say 2′ wide.  i wanna say that it held an entire pallet’s worth of papers. but remember i judged that capacity with younger eyes and something four feet high met my chin.

this box was emblazoned with a home-drawn version of the competing newspaper’s logo on its sides. this kid was proud. it was his job! this newspaper was the evening paper. so it was likely printed in the morning; batched and put on pallets in the late morning and then delivered to those street corners or maybe to a newspaper boy’s route in the early afternoon. (i’m sure my dad, if he’s still daring to read my blog, will correct me.) i had no job.

so if you’ve been keeping score with this blog, you’ll know that my childhood home rested near the edge of Lake Erie. the winds coming from that lake were profound and they would crank up capriciously.

we had a dog named Toby that my aunt gave us by surprise one snowy morning for our father’s birthday. my mother hated that dog; my father liked the dog. i still recollect with a fair amount of sadness how either Toby or my mother managed to survive their existence with each other. being around my mom made Toby behave in a nearly feral way. my mom offended him whenever she could.

anyway, Toby loved us kids. we loved him too. he was a mix of beagle and either husky or malamute for he LOVED the snow and to pull our sled through the snow on our ways home from the penny candy store. and like huskies, he tried to run away as often as possible.

Toby hated the newspaper boy named Johnny. they had a very complicated relationship. it wasn’t so much that Toby was allowed to roam free about the neighborhood, but given his affection for my mother, he managed to get out quite a bit. hmm… maybe she let him out hoping he’d get hit by the car he eventually survived. being chained to a steel cork-screw stake in the backyard apart from all the action didn’t help either, i’m sure. sometimes Toby would just get loose and we’d go after him.

same time every day, Johnny would come around, tossing his competing newspapers this way and that all while pulling that massive wagon. he would often park it, right in front of our house, to hoist open the lid of the wagon while watching us sit with Toby. he’d restock his bag and do his thing. he would use bricks to weigh down the papers as he left the lid open…. leaving his box of competing newspapers vulnerable.

vulnerable to the wind. that’s all. just sayin’…

this happened every day. sometimes we were home, others we were at piano lessons or grocery shopping or at mass with our grandparents (don’t ask). but we knew it was going on. it had for years.

you’re smart. you can see where this is going, can’t you?

my older brother could get our younger brother to do just about anything. one day, my younger brother on the advice of our older brother decided to have a chat with Johnny. now Johnny was about 14, maybe 15 years old, tops but he was small for his age. my younger brother was about 8 or 9. as i look at my Thing 3, who’s 8 at the moment, i can’t for the LIFE of me envision him going up to a 15 year-old kid and doing what my brother did. well, actually i lie. i can. eight-year-old boys with older brothers have moxie on loan.

the chat we intended for them to have was quite simple and it went along the lines of: “we don’t like you parking your box of newspapers from the competing company in front of our house. we want you to go somewhere else and do it.” i’m sure, as i consider Thing 3, that the message wouldn’t have been quite as smooth but maybe just as effective. i can see him looking back at his brothers as he cranes his neck and squinches his face to say, “what? i’m supposed to say what?! why don’t we like this?”

Johnny didn’t agree with my brother. Johnny was, truth be told, cut from a tougher cloth. we might have been like Irish linen: fresh, strong and breezy, suitable for sport clothes and tablecloths and cleaning dishes whereas Johnny was cut from say, burlap. he was scrappy and clearly enterprising, but not very flexible.

this tete-a-tete between my brother(s) and the dog and Johnny went on for a few months, growing in intensity from time to time with stares and mutterings.

our pride was bruised. this kid, with his hundreds of competing papers, openly thumbed his scrappy nose at us and our family’s livelihood on a daily basis. we wanted revenge. it was humiliating.

i guess.

so one particular day, vengeance was ours. it was very windy. it was stormy and it was our moment. for likely the 728th time, Toby saw Johnny throw the competing papers and walk up our street. grab, throw, walk. grab, toss, walk.

to a dog, this must’ve been very offensive. or … it looked like a lot of fun.

Johnny pulled his cart up to our driveway, parked it and looked at us spitefully. it might’ve not been spitefully actually. he could’ve just been squinting because he needed glasses because i saw him wearing them later on.

Johnny had his thick white pad with him this time. that pad meant he was collecting fees for the paper service. these visits with customers usually took a few minutes so time was on our side.

without notice, my younger brother took off down the front yard hill, into the wind with his hair blowing wildly and arms outspread as if to prepare for liftoff. Toby was running along barking and looking around as if to say, “this is fun! right?”

Johnny, who was about 100 feet from his cart, looked up from our neighbor’s driveway and saw my brother and Toby on the approach. Johnny started whistling and yelling at my brother to call him off, Toby must’ve thought he was calling him because he perked up, switched direction and galloped toward Johnny, which was an unwelcome move.

my brother was still on the bee-line for the wagon. the wind was picking up and the sky was getting crowded with birds, clouds and leaves.

with time being of the essence (whatever that means) i got up to help my brother and be there with him in case things got physical. when we got there, i grabbed the bricks and we turned the cart just so the wind could scoop into the box and get an edge of the front page section, giving life to dozens of gray-tone newly unfolded newsprint sheets.

a cyclone of Dear Abby, furniture ads, real estate announcements, legal notices, want ads, Family Circus, Peanuts, obituaries, sports highlights, arson reports, classifieds, op-eds, stock market analyses, theater reviews, movie listings, letters to the editor and more grew wings and went up, up, up and up and away amid Johnny’s cries, thrusted by the pressure of his feet pounding on the ground as he ran from the barking Toby. Johnny was undignified, red-faced, arms flailing, shrieking and spitting tear-laden obscenities in Italian and English and ultimately pointing at me and my brothers who were, i am ashamed to say about 30′ away on our front hill, laughing our butts off. the papers were everywhere. we were pretty undignified too.

Johnny didn’t seem so much like burlap anymore. i didn’t feel so much like Irish linen.

from a strategic standpoint, our achilles’ heel in all of this was revealing to Johnny who we were and what our dad did for a living. we are lucky our actions didn’t make either paper’s City section. when my dad found out, oh my god. my mom was hysterical. i’m sure we were punished or yelled at or somehow disciplined but the consequences didn’t last long as i grew up with a fair amount of chaos. that level of intensity which was followed by an almost magical calm was familiar to us.

Johnny’s mom ran his route with him for a few weeks after that. i could see that they were in dire straits financially and didn’t enjoy the benefits we had of a dad who worked at an executive level and a mom who could stay home with us in a big house that faced Canada. their clothes were dirty and she was overweight, pushing a stroller alongside the massive newspaper bin. i think there were newspapers in the stroller. so … um…

they needed the money that Johnny earned on his route. i felt pretty bad about the newspaper a-go-go. but kids are kids. we are impulsive and we don’t think about the next moments or the larger-picture consequences our actions have on others. he didn’t continue his route — or at least the way he ran it when we engaged with each other — after that summer.

i remember that i looked for him around the neighborhood to apologize, half hoping that he’d ignore me or call me something profane in Italian.

thank you.

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

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