Things Better Left Undone

A woman with a wild Phyliss Diller hair-do slips past me as I plop my butt and my headache into a torn vinyl seat. Two minutes later, as the 7:05 a.m. train pulls away, the voices of casual conversation drift into my humming ears.

So then I went to yoga this morning instead of…

We don’t use much gas because…

There’s a circular that comes every Friday, that’s how we…

I wonder if any of them have been up since 2:40 this morning? It’s the reason I have a headache and buzzy ears. It was my first training run for a 3–5 shift delivering papers.

Carlos has been doing this kind of work for five years. He has the computer generated delivery route memorized. In fact, he does not follow the order of the list, having mentally reorganized it into a more efficient pattern. He’s a small, balding man with a heavy Spanish accent and he drives with what I can most favorably call brutal efficiency.

“See? I don’t follow that.” He points at the sheaf of papers in my lap. “Too all over. First I go to Pearl. You see it on list?”

I don’t see it because Carlos has pronounced the street name PEE-AHR-UL. This happens a lot. I barely understand the street names when he mentions them.

“Here. PEE-AHR-UL.” He points at a page I’ve flipped to. “Number 82. Then 90, then 102.”

Carlos executes a sharp turn into a driveway. The sheet has notes for each home. Things like: dlvr to front step. Side door in driveway. Pls, inside screen door-handicapped. Carlos tosses most of the papers into the driveway or onto the front walk.

“If they no complain,” he explains, “I do it this way.”

Complaints shape the route and manner of delivery. Most of the subscribers are elderly and occasionally handicapped. Carlos is skeptical of that last description.

We come to a jarring stop after speeding through an apartment parking lot. “This one. Complain a lot. Come.”

We hop out of his car and enter an apartment building. He rings the doorbell—it’s 4:15 a.m., mind you—the tenant buzzes us in.

“See here? That door. Toss paper like this.” He expertly delivers the paper to the front door, two levels up. Often, when Carlos delivers a paper, his instruction to me is “toss like this.” He only misses twice and when he does, there’s no cursing, no complaints. He hops out of the car and fixes it.

Back in the car he opines, “Now. If they handicap, why they live on third floor apartment? No elevator. Nothing but stairs.” He shrugs, shakes his head, and we speed off.

As I flip through the sheets, unable to keep up with Carlos’s system, I notice that some of the deliveries are well off the street with no apparent number or even street name. I ask about this.

“Yeah, I know! Is crazy. Especially when they complain. Eh, who knows?” He shrugs again.

He has a point. I know I wouldn’t have been able to figure out where those addresses were without frantically calling back to the fulfillment office.

“Drive, drive, drive. Wear and tear, gas, early up. Don’t pay enough to follow instructions specific.”

Another good point. This route that I’m considering is worth approximately $193 per week. The Craig’s List ad I’d responded to stated $200 to $250. It also mentioned 3–5 a.m. as the shift time. 

I met with the fulfillment manager, Jim, on Saturday morning, confirmed my start day on Sunday morning, and here we are Monday morning—which still feels like Sunday night. Jim’s been working at the fulfillment center for twenty-three years. I ask him if he’s there seven days a week.

“No, I got Wednesdays and Thursdays off.” He chuckles ruefully and adds, “most times.”

It seems to me like he’s up twenty-four hours at a stretch. Has he ever gotten used to the early hours?

“Naw, not really. I don’t sleep much at all.” He hefts a giant styrofoam cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to his lips.

Jim’s very nonchalant and mostly upbeat. A very matter-of-fact guy, he lays things out as they are. Or as they should be. I like Jim.

“Now that papers have cut down on production, we don’t move as much anymore. Delivery guys don’t move as much product as they used to. We deliver a whole lot of other stuff too: circulars, phone books, advertising—you name it.”

Jim had told me the route’s value on Sunday. Now, Monday morning, he was detailing what it takes to be a delivery contractor. It turns out there are fees involved.

“You’ve gotta bag your own papers,” tells me, pointing at each item in the contract as he goes, “according to the contract, that’s $20 for bags. But I haven’t charged anyone for bags in twenty years.” He smiles. See? I like Jim. He goes on, “According to the law, we gotta provide a workspace for you, but since you’re not an employee, we gotta charge you for it.”

It’s $2 per week for a stall in the warehouse. A $.10 fee for processing a tip that comes through the payment processing system, invoices $.05, and a $1.00 for each bulk delivery. That might not seem like much until you start to subtract it from the already tiny paycheck based on a per paper delivery rate of $.1497 for six days a week. $.2667 on Sundays.

Jim takes me to what would be my stall in the warehouse. It’s an unfinished corral made of wood—composite flooring boards. It’s here that the delivery driver will individually bag the papers on their route. On rainy days, most will need to be double-bagged.

Carlos whips the car into a sickening u-turn and tosses a paper. “192, Herald. Toss like this.” The paper skids down the driveway. We swerve into the opposite lane and Carlos stops abruptly, slaps the hazards on, and hops out. He runs across a short lawn past a sign that reads: Keep Off The Grass. I glance at the delivery sheet, we’re at 195 and the instructions read ‘inside door, stay off grass.’” Carlos tosses the paper onto the porch, scuttles back to the car and we’re off.

As he maneuvers the car from stop to stop, he still hasn’t complained. Never. He occasionally points out route difficulties or touchy customers, but never a complaint from him.

“You got another job?”

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I work downtown during the day as a graphic designer. Carlos just nods.

“What time you got to go?”

I tell him I catch the 6:50 a.m. train from my town’s center.

“Ah, good. Very close.” He’s thinking of me, when this route is done, how far I have to go to make it to my next job on time.

“I do more runs, deliver missed papers. Then I work pizza shop at eleven. Go home after this, get a couple hours sleep, next job.”

Delivering papers and working at a pizza shop can not possibly pay very well. I am certain the paper route doesn’t pay well as I’ve seen an advertised $200-$250 per week drop by the hour. According to the details, the pay fluctuates according to the amount of papers delivered. Customers change orders, switch papers, or cut back to three or four deliveries a week. It’s a whole other ball game on Sundays.

According to Carlos, these routes would pay out nearly $500 when he started several years ago. Now it’s worth less than half of that. It’s no secret that with the rise of the Internet, newspapers have struggled to find their place in the market. The cover cost of an individual paper has only gone up as readership has declined. Yet it appears that newspaper delivery is just as burdensome as ever. With fewer rewards and more work.

Of the one-hundred and twenty-five newspapers delivered that morning, only two of the stops were at apartment buildings. The rest went to homes and, ostensibly, to homeowners. I wondered if the recipients of the newspapers understood the effort that went into delivering a newspaper every morning?

Once a month, delivery drivers leave a self-addressed envelope for tips with the newspapers they deliver. It is, like most service industries, the best way to make up the losses associated with doing the job.

Carlos jerks to a stop, racking the parking brake. He points at a house, “This one? Good tipper. $15 once or twice.” He jumps out, up the drive to the top of the steps, and slips the newspaper between the storm and front doors.

(Note to readers: this is what it takes to get your newspaper delivered exactly as you’d like. Tip your delivery driver.)

A short while later, Carlos recounts a different tale. “This house? One time, leave note inside tip envelope.  ‘Poor service: no tip.’ Not good, not very nice.” Carlos shakes his head—still not complaining. He drops me off at my car with the beginnings of a sinus headache and the ill affects of interrupted sleep.

On the drive home, I weigh the pros and cons of taking this job. In the kitchen, I have a short conversation with my wife. The company is expecting me to be there at 3 a.m. the following morning and every morning thereafter, seven days a week. If I can’t make it, I’m responsible, as a contractor, to find a replacement.

From my day job, later that morning, I call Jim and let him know I can’t commit to the job and lay out my reasoning as well as apologizing for taking up his time. 

During a stint in the Marine Corps more than twenty years ago, I dealt with virtually being dropped out of a helicopter, being nearly drowned in full gear (more than once), near hits from friendly fire, tear gassed several times, and nearby explosions. Since then, I've been attacked in the street by a stick-up kid. Twice. And most recently I've been training in the Israeli close combat system of Krav Maga as well as Muay Thai kickboxing. But I can't do this route.

“No worries, that’s fine, thanks for letting me know.” I can hear his smile over the phone. He must get plenty of people who just never show up again. “You want me to just mail the check for today’s work?”

I let Jim know that will be just fine.