Thursday, June 25, 2009

Me & Mick and Foreign Tongues

1965 was also the year my brother Mick entered Gateway. As you know from reading this blog Mick and I had a serious sibling rivalry. His entry into Gateway would not make things better.

When we were young we appeared to be polar opposites. I was a bookworm who tried but failed at sports. Mick was good at sports and had his struggles in school. Oh, Mick was also attractive to young teenage girls and could talk with them while I wasn’t attractive and was petrified when in their presence. This dichotomy put us in many awkward situations.

As you’ll recall my parents weren’t very good at academic coaching. This worked out fine with me because I’d muddle through somehow and get good grades. With Mick it was a trial for all. They’d try all kinds of strategies to help him get better grades. They’d sit with him at the dining room table and go over his math. They’d send him to summer school. And best of all they bought him the ALM records for learning Spanish.

In Gateway in the sixties we learned foreign languages by listening to records and repeating what was said. Classes were assigned a foreign language and mine was French. Mick’s was Spanish. If I could write in French I’d write out my favorite phrase from our first year. Remember, these were records so they weren’t always perfect. This particular record had a flaw so it slowed down when it came to this one phrase and went from normal to very deep and slow. We’d laugh every time we heard it.

But getting back to Mick; he listened to his records every night for weeks. I don’t know if it ever helped him but I learned “Hola Isabel, como esta?” right away. Then I had to listen to it seemingly forever.

I took French for two years. I couldn’t say anything in French at the end of those two years. I couldn’t read French at the end of those two years but somehow I got an okay grade.

Mick did the same. Except for the good grade part. Although he did better in Spanish than in his other classes.

When I look back at this it seems there was some profiling going on. First we were all put in classes with kids with similar grades. Then we were assigned different languages. Kids with poorer grades got Spanish. Kids with better grades French. French was a high class language while Spanish was spoken by Mexicans and immigrant laborers in Buena.

Finally I got a good grade just for muddling through and Mick a poor grade for the same effort and understanding. Merde!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Pedaling for Dollars

A paper route is not just a job. It’s an adventure and not a good one. At least I picked the Bulletin for my route. This meant I worked after school, ate dinner, did homework all like a normal kid except for the work part. My brother Ted was dumb enough to be an Inquirer paperboy. That meant getting up at 5am. No way I was getting up at 5am.
The main bad part of a paper route was collecting money. Adults have a lot of trouble saying no when other adults ask them for money they owe them. Especially if it’s fifty cents. But for some reason they had no qualms saying no to us. Not just once, repeatedly, till you got sick of asking them. Finally they’d cancel owing, like, ten dollars and leave a 13 year old holding the bag. You had to go back to “the man” and tell him and he’d read you the riot act. Would he help you talk to the asshole who wouldn’t pay you? No way, Jose. You were on your own. A miniature collection agency with no muscle behind you.
Sometimes it was funny when they didn’t pay you. They’d hide from you. You could see they were in the house but they wouldn’t answer the door. That was really pathetic.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Better Off Dead” and you were a paperboy you know that movie was the revenge fantasy for every kid everywhere. “Give me my two dollars”.
Ideally people would tip you but this was a Methodist town and they watched their pennies and I was a lazy, indifferent paperboy so the tips were meager...even at Christmas.
There was a good side to collecting money too and that was you got to go to peoples houses and often young women answered the door. Maybe it was the woman of the house, say, a hot 22 year old or maybe it was a girl a few years older than you. You would ring the bell and they’d answer and you’d just stare for a long, long, long minute like an idiot. Stunned. Unable to speak. Eventually you’d squeak out that you were collecting but in between was lingerie or tight blouses and jeans or shorts or long hair or red, red lips and that was the best part of being a paperboy.
Actually being a paperboy was good preparation for being a poet. You got to see the inner lives of people and you rarely made money. Perfect.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Paper Route Redux

I could be wrong but I believe 1965 is the year I got tricked into a paper route all over again. Not only a paper route but a bigger, harder, more complicated paper route. This kid in town, Bob Cocozza, approached me and asked if I’d like to take over his route. I’d need a bike with a basket because this was a Philadelphia Evening Bulletin route with over 50 customers. He said I could make a lot of money. He was a year or so older than me so I believed him.

I went to my Dad and told him all about the route. How much money I’d make, the responsibility it would teach me, etc. Basically all the bullshit parents want to hear and kids know they want to hear so they buy into it. Everyone involves knows it’s a lie but they want to believe. In its simplest form this usually results in Mom walking a dog at 6am every morning in the rain. In my case it had no real hardship for my Dad. Only me, only me.

My Dad wouldn’t buy me a bike however. He said if I wanted a bike he’d buy it and I’d have to pay him back. It was the first of thousands of times in my life to come where I made an insane calculation and told him I could do it. So off we went to Woodbury to the bike store. Both Mick and I bought bikes. Mine was a red Schwinn Typhoon. Basically a hunk of iron with a foot brake and one gear. Since Wenonah was largely flat this wasn’t a real problem.

We bought a basket as well and I was off to the races. For two weeks I shadowed Bob and learned the route. Every afternoon after school we’d drive to the Earnhardts and pick up our papers. We’d wrap them in rubber bands, put them in our bags, then in our baskets and off we’d ride. Bob’s route covered primarily the south side of Wenonah. He had customers on both the east and west sides of the railroad tracks but there were a lot of them.

After our first week Friday rolled around. Friday was collection day. This was the day we got off our bikes and walked up to the doors of the customers to ask for the meager amount the weeks worth of papers cost. Your collection money would pay for your cost of the papers and provide you with a profit. That profit depended on everyone paying. Therein lay the rub. They didn’t all pay. So there you’d be Saturday morning driving around hitting up customers again before you went to see “the man”.

This was a guy in his thirties or so who serviced the routes. Nowadays he’d be the sadsack driving around with the papers in his mini van with his wife at 5am but back then he got to be a sadist with an army of minions. Besides badgering you constantly for money he weaseled you into being a circulation agent. Contests would be formed for you to grow your route. You’d ride around with an extra twenty papers to distribute to new potential customers. After they’d gotten a free paper for a week how could they tell a thirteen year old boy they didn’t want the paper? How indeed? Let’s keep in mind there were only x number of houses in Wenonah so all these people had been hit up by generations of bike riding paperboys. They were cold hearted monsters and they weren’t buying our spiels.

Or at least not mine. My friend Don Adams and later my brother Ted used superior customer service to expand their base and improve their bottom line. I did not. I used lazy paperboy skills coupled with zero follow through to shrink my route and my bottom line. I was no better at this shit now than I had been when I was younger. Just bigger.

There were benefits to being a paperboy however. More about that in my next post.