Updated: Feb 5, 2021
He stood in my front driveway, comfortably loitering aside his dilapidated and bruised Toyota pickup truck. The paint was faded, the truck creaking against the burden of newspapers piled in the bed. The back wheels sunk into the recently refreshed black tar on the driveway, an area shared, like a giant green on a British golf course, between our house and the one next-door. Our neighbors did not display my dad’s diligent driveway maintenance, a stark contrast made obvious in the afternoon sunlight.
As I spied the scene at speed from two house lengths, I could practically hear the truck begging for mercy. Whoever he was, he had little respect for boundaries.
I rode up on my dirt bike, having visited my best friend Robbie two blocks away after school. This man must have come for my dad. He did not realize my father worked at an office and would not come home for hours. My mother was inside the house. She was not aware of our visitor.
Before my knobby front wheels hit the incline, he had turned toward me and smiled wide, as if he knew me. His easy adult familiarity caused my Spidey sense to tingle, but he was so confident. He held his hand out, his fingers stained yellow brown, like his teeth and the upper patch of mustache over his lip which hung like an unruly bush over its boundary. The color of his mustache failed to match his darker, thinning hair. I stopped my bike but stood astride the frame.
He smelled like cigarettes, not unlike most of the adults I knew. But this smell followed him like a dense perfume, almost as pungent in its Turkish aroma as an old lady’s eau de toilet. I remembered that French phrase from Christmas commercials.
“Hi, I’m Jim Barstow and I work for the Herald Examiner. I run the routes,” he said, hand still outstretched.
“Hello, nice to meet you,” I said, formally polite and conscious I was talking to an adult. I shook his hand from the safety of my bike. I had no idea what “run the routes” meant, but I knew that Melvin Durslag, the sportswriter, wrote for the Herald. We did not subscribe to the Herald, but I knew who he was. I loved reading Jim Murray’s column from the LA Times, the paper we received every morning. My dad said they competed for rival papers. I had no idea Sportswriters competed.
“I have an opportunity for you.”
Now, at this point in the retelling, its likely you think you know where this is heading. The description of the white truck, a poorly kept stranger waiting in the front driveway for a preteen boy. You would be wrong. Mr. Barstow was perfectly safe.
He told me that he grew up in the San Fernando Valley and remembered, as if this would make a deep impression, when the tract we lived in harbored thousands of orange trees as far as the eye could see. I found that hard to believe, I thought our little slice of heaven had some age. He remembered pulling the fruit, as big as baseballs, off trees as a kid and eating them in the sunlight. It was hard to imagine this tobacco stained adult ever picked fruit off trees in his youth.
Barstow wanted to know, as earnestly as possible, whether I might be interested in taking on a paper route. It just so happened, one right in this area had just come open. In this moment, he reminded me of Professor Marvel when he used the phrase, a position had just come open. The word choice did not fit a conversation between an adult and a child. But, suddenly, I felt just a little older, and maybe a bit more important. A job had just come open for me.
Wait. There’s more. Not only could I make money from a paper route in my spare time (afternoons Monday through Saturday and Sunday mornings), a rare, but limited time opportunity was also involved. If I decided soon, I could join the other kids with paper routes at a Dodger game the next week.
Mr. Barstow, puffing on a fresh Pall Mall, smoke hanging just above his head before a faint breeze carried it away, had my full attention.
“Talk to your parents, see what they have to say. Paper routes build character. I need to know soon.” He also mentioned, almost in passing, that I also collected the subscription fees every month. Whatever I did not collect, I ate. Minor detail for a boy with dreams of Chavez Ravine, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes and Don Sutton in his head.
I wondered how he had decided upon me as the perfect fit for this fantastic opportunity — a job so important he was willing to regale me and others at a Dodger game. I never asked the question. But it seemed as though he read my mind. “A friend of yours suggested you for the position.”
He mentioned the name of someone I did not know but knew of. That was good enough for me.
“One more thing”, Barstow said, walking towards the back of the pickup, smoke still trailing him like a puppy. “At the Dodger game, you will also get a signed ball from the pitcher of the game.” The Herald Examiner had gone to a great deal of trouble, he said, to make this a special event for the boys.
He had just made an offer a young Dodger fan could not refuse.
And, that dear readers, is how I decided to take on a paper route in exchange for a Dodger Ticket. My parents, believers in hard work and self-reliance, thought it would build excellent habits, but reminded me that I had to do the work and would not be taking days off, rain or shine.
Over the next two years, I made little money from the job. But what I got was much, much more valuable. While I held the paper route, I was also playing football and baseball in leagues around the San Fernando Valley as well as for my parochial school, St. Joseph the Worker. I joined the debate team. I had obligations. My father would never allow me to miss practice of any kind. And I would never ever miss delivering the papers seven days a week, rain, shine or sniffles.
I can still feel the weight of the papers in the canvas bags, looped over both sides of my handlebars, a pouch stuffed on each side to the top. Before fitting the papers into the bags, I folded each one into three parts and slung a rubber band over the top. I can hear the snap of the rubber on the side of the paper and feel its smooth inkiness. I would leave my house each day on my bike, cranking up speed down our short driveway, turning up Kelvin Avenue, past the Freiburg and Owens homes to make a left turn onto Fairchild heading North towards Roscoe. As I felt the weight of the bag dwindle over the course of the route, every day I felt the transactional satisfaction of meeting my obligation one hurled paper at a time.
I still remember the thrill and terror of being chased by the speckled mutt on Gazette Avenue. I remember the kindly waves of the occasional customer waiting on their porch for the afternoon paper. My mother told me that if an elderly customer waited for the paper, to get off my bike and walk the paper up to them. A lesson in courtesy.
Lastly, I remember the time one of the customers played an important role in saving our own dog, Waldo. I might tell that story next.
In the meantime, Go Dodgers! I still feel like a kid watching you play, always thrilled, sometimes disappointed, always a Dodger fan, rain or shine. And I am extremely grateful that Mr. Barstow offered me the paper route that enabled me to see my hometown team play and so much more in life lessons. And, I still have the signed baseball!