The Paper Trail

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

Eldridge's hands look permanently stained with ink. His cuticles are caked with dirt, red with swollen paper cuts. His eyes are bloodshot and his eyelids baggy. Yet he's hyperalert, always blinking, as if he were staring into a bright light, as if he has been wide awake since the day he was born. He's swimming in a pair of blue polyester pants, a wrinkled dress shirt, and a once-white pair of generic tennis shoes now muddied by puddles and old snow drifts. The only thing that will protect him from today's chilly rain is a thin summer jacket he was given by his employer three years ago. The Star Tribune's white logo has all but vanished, owing to wear and tear. The right-hand sleeve, which Eldridge caught on a nail, looks like it has been through a paper shredder.

What's most striking about the Central High School graduate, though, is his hair, which dangles flush with his bobbing Adam's apple. It has the density of a Brillo pad. It actually looks tired. "The pressure of this job gets to you," Eldridge mutters.

To hear the beginnings and ends of his clipped, sometimes incoherent sentences, you have to lean in close. "There was this one guy who was so worried about getting his papers out on time that he ran right through a crossing guard's flag. I mean, the stress is just through the roof," he muses. "It's probably the most stressful delivery situation out there. It's much worse than pizza delivery."

One by one Eldridge's cronies stumble into the Strib's St. Paul depot: A retired teacher, paying off some debt with a second job, doing penance for what he calls the "big mistakes" he's made in life and love; a husband and wife, wearing matching warm-ups and working a welfare scam, delivering two routes in hopes that neither social services nor the Internal Revenue Service will notice; an Iranian woman who tosses 400 papers a day to help her husband keep his small business afloat; another woman pushing retirement age who has been carjacked twice this year and looks half-buried under the weight of the steep medical bills she'd just as soon not discuss at this time of day.

While they wait for the green-and-white delivery vans to pull up (they're driven by Teamsters), small talk gives way to grousing. Like a lot of folks devoted--by necessity or virtue--to their jobs, the carrier's world doesn't go much beyond the nine-to-five (or, in this case, the two-to-seven). Stay on the job long enough and minor inconveniences become injustices, careless slights turn into spiteful wrongs, and managers sprout horns. "You can always tell who the paper carriers are," Olson jokes. "They're the ones in the corner yelling and hollering before the sun comes up."

"Look at this complaint! This address isn't even on my route. Why are they giving me this? It's harassment, that's what it is."

"This might sound paranoid, but I think the circulation people are calling people and telling them to complain so they can make more money on fines."

"I hear they're giving away free subscriptions again. That's such a pain in the ass for the carrier. It can throw you off by a half an hour."

"Sometimes I think a riot's going to break out in this place. There's a lot of mentals down here."

"If I were an investor, I'd get out of this business. No one reads this crap anyway."

Not all the kvetching is without merit. Carriers haven't seen a substantial wage increase in years. There is no money granted for mileage, no taking into account the wear and tear an independent carrier's car absorbs under the burden of a daily route. And there's no doubt that newspaper delivery can be a hazardous profession, even if you're not riding around in the dark with Chris Taylor. On one stretch of his route, Fitzmaurice has had to do battle with bold raccoons who aren't shy about gnawing on the daily news. Dogs are a constant problem, of course. Black ice is even harder to see in the dark. And in certain neighborhoods, the odds of getting assaulted are much higher than the chance of getting a tip for a job well done.

In October 1996, for instance, Eldridge made headlines in the University of Minnesota's student newspaper when four frat boys, after spotting the carrier jotting down notes in the front seat of his car, kicked in his windows. And on the night Fitzmaurice quit his job at the Pioneer Press his manager threatened to "take him outside" and teach him a lesson. Apparently Fitzmaurice had complained too loudly about being made to stand out in the cold while the depot managers put out the morning papers.

The logical solution to these problems, as well as the steep fines and low pay rates, might be to unionize. At the Strib, drivers and employees at the printing plant are represented. But whenever people like Eldridge have called for an organizing meeting, no has shown up. Eldridge guesses fear of managerial recourse might have been one cause for the lack of enthusiasm. But he's also convinced most carriers don't want to organize because it would mean reporting their income. "Most people working here don't have a pot to piss in. They're working on the fringe. In most cases they're working off the books."

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