David Munger’s (over at Cognitive Daily) entry about smells that began with a note about his paper route jogged a memory of my own, but not one about smells (people on my route didn’t really smell, they’ll be happy to learn). Rather, a paper route story.
Paper routes used to be done by kids in the local neighborhood, back when newspapers were in their heyday and even a little state like Delaware could boast that its largest metropolitan newspaper (The Wilmington News Journal) had both a morning and evening edition. I delivered the evening edition, every day after school, and in the mornings on the weekends, while my middle brother delivered the morning edition. I was pretty good at it and won a company award one year for outstanding delivery.
Delivering newspapers in a neighborhood is a pretty solitary activity, but one where you learn to make fun to make the time pass more quickly. Going from house to house, you got to know every little detail of a person’s house and lawn (probably more so than the homeowner knew, as you passed over the same ground every day). You got to know their idiosyncrasies (“Don’t throw the paper, place it gently on the front step!”), their dogs (my, how they liked to yap), and even their kids (don’t worry kid, I’m not here to kidnap you).
Perhaps the most detestable and yet interesting part of having a paper route is collecting. Collecting is what we used to call it when it came time to get your money for the previous 2 weeks’ worth of newspapers. Some people would try to do it every week, but with as many customers as I had, I had to do it every 2 weeks or I’d be doing it all the time. In those days, I’d go door to door in the evenings, looking for my $3 or $4 (whatever it was, I forget the exact amount). You go in the evenings, because that was when it was most likely you’d get someone home.
But one house I will always remember. In it, an old man lived, apparently alone, without family or friends. I never saw anyone who came to visit, nor any cars in the driveway. I barely saw him, except when he’d come to the door to let me in, collect his money, and pay his bill.
One time I was there collecting, he said, “Look kid, I’m going to need to stop the paper.”
“Like a vacation hold? For how long?”
“No, I just need to stop it altogether. You see, I’m dying, I have no family any more, and I really haven’t read the paper much for months. I just kept getting it because I’ve always gotten it. But I don’t read it. “
“You don’t read it…?”
“No, no… I just get it, bring it in, unwrap it, and put it over there on that pile.” He motioned to a large pile of old newspapers by his garage door, neatly stacked and tied with twine. “I don’t know why, but what’s going on in the world just stopped being interesting to me…”
“Yeah, sometimes the newspaper can be pretty thin on good news.”
“It’s not just that, but it’s not relevant to my life. Look at me, I live alone, I pay my taxes, I shop at the store, and make myself dinner. The newspaper was just bringing me stories of life happening to other people. But none of it mattered to me.”
“I see…” I said, but I really didn’t. This is the most he ever talked to me outside of the usual bull about the weather or the price of the newspaper.
“Just one more thing… I know this probably won’t mean much to you right now, but try and remember it later on when you grow up.”
Gawd, I thought to myself, nothing like having an old, lonely man giving you life advice. “Sure…” I said out loud.
“Don’t get a newspaper. People spend so much of their lives reading about stuff that don’t matter. Just go out and live your life and don’t worry about what’s inside that newspaper.”
“Okay, I’ll try and remember that… Oh, and I’ll stop your paper.”
“Thanks kid, you were a good paperboy.”
“Thanks… I’ll see you around,” I replied awkwardly, knowing full well that was probably the last time I’d ever see him.
And with that, I took his money, punched his card one last time, and left.
His advice still reverberates with me to this day. A lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about what’s “inside that newspaper,” except that the newspaper has grown into everything on the Internet today. And instead of spending an hour in the evening reading the paper, we’re now spending 2 or 3 or more hours a day on the Internet, twittering, Googling, updating our Facebook pages, IMing, replying to emails, surfing endlessly, looking for information, looking for knowledge, looking for meaning.
There’s a lot of that to be had online. But there’s also something to be said for the richness and value of just living your life, and leaving some of that vast communications network behind every now and again. I still read an occasional newspaper despite his advice, but I try and keep it all in perspective and most importantly, moderation.