The Paper Trail

What you won't read in the morning paper about how the news gets delivered

It's 4:30 on an unusually foggy morning in early February and Chris Taylor flips off the headlights for the tenth time in two hours. The speedometer reads 40. The traffic signs in this St. Paul neighborhood say 25, maximum. Taylor barely taps the brake pedal of his '88 Chevy Malibu, which is weighed down with more than 100 copies of the Star Tribune, then whips down an alley, Jim Rockford-style. The next delivery is two blocks away, so he accelerates. Slush rushes beneath the car's balding tires. A pothole mocks the shock absorbers. The trash cans sailing past the passenger window are, thanks to the fog, just like the objects in a rearview mirror: closer than they appear. Taylor takes a leisurely drag off his third Winston Light of the night and blows smoke through his bulbous nose. "These things are two bucks a pack," he grumbles, his raspy voice proof that money is no object. "That's why I'll never vote for that goddamned [Michael] Ciresi. Guy goes after the tobacco industry, gets rich, and now he wants me to send him to Washington. What a crumb!"

A lesser newsy, a novice at the delivery game, would be white-knuckling it this a.m. In just a couple of hours, commuters will be warned of the low visibility--and the visibility will be markedly better. Taylor (who asked that his real name not be used in this story) barely has a hand on the steering wheel. When it's time to take another corner, the 58-year-old doesn't even glance for oncoming traffic--a move that's either gutsy or just plain reckless, considering that he's about to go the wrong way down a one-way boulevard without any headlights. Waving his Winston, he's rattling on like one of the talk-radio hosts he dials up to stay awake.

"The only reason they can sell that rag is because of all the coupons, the free samples," he opines, pausing to give his payload a derisive glance. "Corn flakes. Soap. Tampons. Next thing you know we'll be delivering free copies of the encyclopedia! If the paper gets too heavy, a lot of guys just dump the coupons, especially on Sunday. And you know what? As long as you don't throw out the TV guide, no one notices."

Duty breaks up the banter. Taylor hops out the door while his car is still rocking from the sudden stop. He snatches a yellow plastic bag from the back seat. Earlier in the evening, he'd bagged all the papers for his 34-mile route, in part because it is wet outside, in part because the plastic makes the paper easier to throw. He trots halfway across the street, swings his arm like a slow-pitch softball player, and lofts a copy of the day's Strib toward a two-story Tudor that's at least 20 yards away.

A motion light flips on as the paper bounces once off the sidewalk and once against a rattling screen door, and lands on the front porch as if it had been placed there by caring hands. In a single fluid motion, Taylor jumps back into the car and heaves it into gear. A rush of cold air follows him, but he keeps the window cocked. He says the daily exercise keeps his wiry frame warm, loose as a distance runner's. "Thursdays are nice. The paper is bigger so it has a little heft," he explains. "Mondays are the worst. It's like trying to throw an envelope. In this neighborhood the guy who delivers the Pioneer Press has a much shorter route because he delivers to most every house. So he walks door to door, goes right up to the front step. I don't have that luxury. In St. Paul, Star Tribune routes are spread out all over hell. So I just throw the damn thing, try to avoid the bushes, and hope no one complains."

Before pulling onto a main thoroughfare, Taylor flips his headlights back on and brakes to obey the speed limit. He wonders out loud whether he should fasten his seat belt. The answer is no. He lights another cigarette. Three minutes later, driving through a residential area crowded with apartment buildings, the headlights get flicked off again. The speedometer registers a surge. It's all habit, perfectly timed, honed over five years' time. Stop. Go. In. Out.

Taylor works the city grid like a wizard solving a puzzle. Sometimes he backs into a customer's driveway to throw a paper without getting out from behind the wheel. Sometimes he keeps his distance, parking near the curb. ("I think this guy is addicted to meth. No matter how early I deliver, he's already up, staring out the window. It's spooky.") Sometimes a paper gets snagged in the shrubs. Sometimes he takes a little extra time with the toss. ("That guy's a doctor or something. He always tips well, never complains. I'll go the extra mile.") Now and again he even walks a paper all the way to a customer's door, especially if they seem the type to gripe. ("The way some people act around here, you'd think we were delivering a Persian rug!")

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