The Paper Trail
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!")
As the sky lightens, so does Taylor's Malibu. By 5:30 he has finished the day's route, comfortably ahead of the 6:30 deadline (the fog will keep a number of his fellow carriers out an extra hour). He has tossed 200-odd papers, at 18 cents per. Before subtracting the price of gas or factoring in complaints each of which can cost Taylor up to 50 cents on weekdays, that adds up to a little more than nine bucks an hour. Ready for what he says are his three hours of daily
sleep, Taylor turns on his lights and follows an exit sign to the highway.
"I know what you're thinking," he winks, clearing his throat as much out of habit as need. "You're thinking that I drive around in the dark so I won't wake people up when I pull up to their house. Well, that's exactly what I tell the cops when they stop me. But all I'm really trying to do is save some money. If I kept my headlights on all the time, I'd burn through a set every three months. That's, like, 12 bucks a month. And let's face it, I deliver newspapers for a living. I'm not exactly Steve Forbes."
If you're over 30 and can remember spending your allowance on comic books or magazines like Boy's Life, then you've seen the want ads. Maybe you answered one. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, if a kid wanted a new bike (complete with banana seat), or, say, a transistor radio with leatherette carrying case, a football (official NFL size and weight), a calculator watch, or a newfangled fiberglass fishing pole, all he or she had to do was deliver papers for GRIT, the free weekly featuring more coupons than editorial copy; in today's vernacular, it would be known as a "shopper."
"Join the thousands of others who earn FREE prizes and make cash profits every week introducing GRIT to friends, relatives, neighbors and others," the quarter-page ads read. Line drawings of the prizes were usually accompanied by portraits of beaming boys and girls, fanning wads of cash and shouldering a white cloth delivery bag. "GRIT, 'America's Greatest Family Newspaper,' will help you get started in a profitable business of your own by sending you papers, all the supplies you'll need to be successful, and suggestions on how and where to begin." The kicker? If you were a Boy Scout, taking a route would earn you a Salesmanship Merit Badge. Who could resist?
Daily newspapers attempted to entice young workers with similar promotions. In the mid-Eighties newsboys and newsgirls for the Pioneer Press or the Star Tribune were still being invited to picnics, given the chance to win Twins tickets, offered cash prizes, even lavished with letter jackets and baseball hats featuring the papers' logos. In many American families, delivering papers was more than a first job; it was a rite of passage, a sign that you had the mettle to pull up by your own bootstraps.
Today both dailies in the Twin Cities use many of these time-tested methods of recruitment. The job of newspaper delivery is presented as "an easy way to make extra cash" in half-page Help Wanted classifieds that stress that the work takes but a few hours a day.
"What we're looking for are people looking to make enough money for a car payment or a boat payment or some spending money," explains Scott Frantzen, vice president of circulation at the Pioneer Press. "We have people from all walks of life--district court judges, homemakers, teachers. We've got people who do it because they want exercise."
The want ads also promise that those who become carriers will be paid hundreds of dollars biweekly and will have the chance to compete for bonuses (when applicants call the Pi Press, for instance, they're presented with the possibility of making $500 just for signing up for a route). There's also a conscious effort at both papers to borrow an ink-stained page from the past, when bag-toting youngsters were featured in Norman Rockwell paintings. "Those folks are the real heroes working at our newspaper," the Strib's vice president of circulation, Steve Alexander, says about today's troops. He dubs the act of paper delivery "the daily miracle."
Even editorial departments get in on the act. On Sunday, January 30, Amy Lindgren, a columnist for the Pioneer Press, penned the Job Hunter section's cover piece, titled "Paper Work," in which she waxed nostalgic for her days as a papergirl. "I read recently that three of the current presidential candidates list delivery as a first job," Lindgren wrote. "Is newspaper delivery for you? If you don't mind early hours and you could use extra cash, it's worth a try."
There is one telling difference between the ads that graced those classic comic books and today's notices in the classifieds, though. The pictures. Instead of corn-fed kids from the heartland, job seekers are treated to photos of responsible-looking adults; an ethnically diverse selection of men and women, somewhere between 20 and about 70 years old, smiling from ear to ear, proudly displaying their employer's newspaper. Delivery is no longer child's work, no longer a way for kids to supplement their allowances. For the past decade, 99 percent of the people who carry routes for the two Twin Cities dailies have been over the age of 18. Most of them need access to an automobile, and none of them is in it to win a new bike.
The circulation heads at both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press say that a bulk of their adult work force is made up of professionals hoping to squirrel away a nest egg. But more and more, modern-day newspaper delivery "boys" and "girls" are living on the edge, struggling just to make ends meet. While economists complain of a labor shortage, a growing number of low-skilled workers are finding that the jobs for which they're best qualified are not keeping pace with the stock market. For these people, newspaper routes aren't a vocational hobby, they are a way to keep the bills paid and the lights on.
"It's a fairly well-kept secret, typically by the mass media," observes Peter Rachleff, a professor of history at Macalester College. "We've had an enormous proliferation of low-wage jobs. There's this joke: A guy says, 'I hear the economy is creating a ton of new jobs.' And his friend says, 'Yeah, there are so many, I can have two of them.' I think the invisibility of these types of low-wage workers is a big part of the problem. For instance, most of us have no idea who delivers our newspapers. They work in the dark. No one ever meets them."
It is possible, of course, that if you got up early enough to meet your delivery person, you'd find he or she is a freelancer saving up for the newest iMac. But chances are just as good that the person pitching your morning news looks a lot like Chris Taylor: short on job security, tight on cash, and more than a little fed up with living hand to mouth, door to door.
A mild concussion, three fractured ribs, a fractured tailbone, and a broken wrist. These are Owen Fitzmaurice's merit badges, earned while braving unshoveled sidewalks and cluttered driveways as a newspaper delivery man. The wrist is still healing, so when he works St. Paul's Highland Park for the Star Tribune from Monday through Friday, he has to wear a brace. It's an inconvenience, especially when he's trying to maneuver his bright-red Mazda pickup around the tree-lined streets of his 28-mile route. But he has compensated by learning a new toss. Like Taylor, he can hit the front steps from the edge of the longest driveway. Nowadays he just needs a little more arch.
Fitzmaurice also has worker's compensation, for which he is thankful. A four-year veteran of the Strib, the 67-year-old divorcé says his current employer is far superior to the Pioneer Press, where he had worked in 1996. "They are the absolute worst," he snaps when asked about the St. Paul daily, which does not provide its independent contractors with worker's comp. "They work you like a dog, pay next to nothing, and when you get hurt they say, 'Tough luck.'"
Fitzmaurice is slow to take shots at the Strib, in part because he believes his employer deserves credit for helping to pay for his latest injury, in part because he has the same fears as Chris Taylor. "If I didn't have Social Security, I wouldn't talk to you at all," he says. "They can fire you right on the spot, for no cause. And don't think they won't." After emphasizing again his belief that the situation for carriers is much better at the Strib, though, Fitzmaurice does allow that there have been a number of recent changes that suggest the McClatchy Co., which bought the Minneapolis paper two years ago, is more cutthroat than its predecessor, the Cowles Media Company. In other words, more like Knight Ridder--which owns the Pioneer Press, pays their carriers half as much, and fines them more often for customer complaints.
According to the Strib's Steve Alexander, pay rates for his carriers range from 15 to 20 cents a paper from Monday through Saturday, and 28 to 35 cents on Sunday. Workers can choose between daily routes or weekend routes, or take on both. "There are a number of conditions that dictate the rate," he explains. "It depends on the kind of route it is, the amount of driving, and the degree of difficulty. It would also depend on how long you've been on a route."
These same conditions apply to Pi Press carriers, says Scott Frantzen, Alexander's counterpart in St. Paul. But the pay scale is significantly lower. Frantzen is unwilling to divulge how much money one of his employees can expect to make for each delivered paper. He guesses, though, that the average worker--who, unlike his or her peers across the river, must work seven days a week--makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 a month. Jan Olson, who has delivered the Star Tribune and is now a carrier at the Pi Press, says that breaks down to between 8 and 9 cents a paper on weekdays, 30 cents on Sundays.
The economic disparity doesn't end there. When there is a special insert on weekdays from a department store such as Dayton's, Olson (who asked that her real name not be used) says the Strib typically pays its delivery force an extra three cents per paper for the inconvenience. The Pi Press doles out only a penny. When a sampler of, say, soap or candy is included with the paper, the Strib lays out a nickel per, the competition just two cents. And if carriers at the Pi Press want to wrap their papers in rubber bands or stick them in a plastic bag, they're required to pay three cents for the supplies. The Strib provides the materials for free.
Olson and Fitzmaurice say charging for bags is unfair, since customers will complain if their papers get wet or blow away. And the carrier will be expected to pay the price. "If someone's not happy, I get charged a fine," Olson sighs, exasperated. "So if I don't want to pay a fine for a delivery complaint, I sometimes have to buy bags."
Ultimately, it was the fines that drove Fitzmaurice away from the Pi Press. And it is the threat of more fines at the Strib that makes him most nervous about McClatchy. Every time there's a delivery complaint--a missed, misplaced, or late paper--the Pi Press charges a toll: $1 per paper Monday through Friday, $3 on Sunday. This is especially maddening, Olson says, because management in St. Paul refuses to cut carriers a break if papers are late off the printing press, which they often are. No one gets cut any slack in bad weather, either. If the paper is late, it's late. (Daily papers need to be on the step by 6:30 a.m., Sunday papers by 7:00 a.m.) Carriers are also expected to pay a fine whenever a customer doesn't receive a paper. For Olson this is especially troublesome, since most customers on her route live in apartment buildings, where she says paper theft is commonplace.
The Strib's fines are lower by almost half (50 cents for a daily, $1.75 on Sunday), but since McClatchy bought the operation in 1997, carriers say the fines have become more frequent. Brian Eldridge, who delivered for the Pioneer Press for 15 years before defecting to its rival in 1993, claims it has gotten harder over the past two years to explain a fine, even when it may be clear the carrier wasn't at fault. "These two papers are so competitive they're copying each other at every level," he says. "If they're handing out a lot of fines in St. Paul, eventually they'll hand out more fines in Minneapolis. It makes me worry that [the Star Tribune] will eventually start to pay less."
"I can't speak to the last two years," says Alexander, who left the Los Angeles Times to join the Strib's executive team six months ago. "I'm struggling with the characterization that we are somehow more stringent, though. My understanding is that there have always been charges." Alexander also denies that pay rates will go down. Rather, he says, to compensate for rising gas prices, the Strib plans to give its carriers gas coupons which they'll be able to use at select service stations this spring. (Frantzen says the price of fuel is being discussed in St. Paul, but so far the Pi Press has no plans to make up for the rising costs.)
One thing that both management and labor agree has changed at the Strib in the past three years--although there are different explanations as to why and to what effect--is their contractual relationship. Just before announcing their intention to sell the paper in November 1997, Cowles made all of its delivery people independent contractors (an arrangement that has been standard at the Pi Press for 151 years). In years previous, carriers were nonunion employees of Cowles. That meant they were entitled to health and life insurance, vacation pay, and discounts on newspapers. Now they function as freelancers: A carrier signs a contract to purchase a given number of papers from the Strib and is then reimbursed a set amount per paper. Among the carriers, the feeling is that Cowles made the shift to boost its bottom line, to make them more attractive to potential buyers. True or not (Strib spokesman Frank Parisi says it's not), Alexander points out that the industry trend is to keep carriers off the company payroll: "I can't think of a daily paper that doesn't hire out delivery service to independent contractors anymore."
"[The new contracts] have changed everything," Brian Eldridge concludes. "Suddenly people are being charged more for delivery errors. We have to buy our own insurance. We have no job protection. The worst thing, though, is that people have to walk around in fear, always scared they're going to lose their job."
Free coffee--blistering hot, served in small disposable cups, thick as printer's ink, up-all-night strong. For carriers who arrive between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. to pick up their papers at one of the Strib's 52 depots or the Pi Press's 14 distribution centers, it's a staple. It's also the only time-killer that comes without a price. If you want a paper to read, take it out of your paycheck.
Still, Brian Eldridge--a 52-year-old man who knows all too well that nothing much comes free--prefers to drink Mountain Dew. Twenty-ounce bottles, sweaty and sweet. It's his poison--what keeps him wired while walking his four-hour route, what makes it possible to work another shift as a janitor, and a third as a mechanic. "This job is insane," he laughs, taking a swig. "It's just a bad habit."
Although most carriers arrive at their depot (or "distribution center," as the Pi Press calls it) at this time of the night to await the arrival of their papers from the printing plant, Eldridge usually shows up no later than 1:30 a.m.--another habit. While a handful of depot managers get the massive warehouse space ready for another morning's load-out, he props himself against one of the makeshift plywood tables, peers out above his oversize glasses to read the day's delivery sheets (which tell a carrier of customer additions, cancellations, and complaints), and sips his Dew. The scene is so lonely his every move causes an echo.
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."
"Why do people work off the books?" Macalester's Professor Rachleff asks. Answer: "It's a strategy of survival. The poor are very creative and very hard-working in figuring out how to survive. But I believe there will be an explosion of working-class anger and organization. That's a lesson of history. It's happened in periods of the past where employers have used their leverage to push workers down even further than society thought was reasonable."
Until that occurs, though, Owen Fitzmaurice knows it's hard for anyone without a morning route to understand why carriers keep on carrying. "People ask me all the time, 'Why in God's name do you do this?' But look, a lot of people don't have any choice. That's what no one seems to understand these days. There are a lot of people not making enough money during the day, and this is one of the few jobs you can do early in the morning."
Eldridge figures he'll quit one day, one day soon. He's been repeating the vow since the 1980s, and his habits have always been hard to break. Chris Taylor says he likes the hours, relishes the privacy, could never stand the normal workday rat race. ("You ever drive in rush-hour traffic? Man, I look at all those idiots and just think, 'We're doomed.'") Jan Olson puts it most simply: "Honey, if it's legal and helps us pay the bills, we'll do it."
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