Collecting…my thoughts

A brief visit with Pat O’Neill, that inimitable local insurance peddler of indeterminate age and unlimited sense of humor, brought to mind a memory that hasn’t actively circulated among my brain cells in quite some time.

Although Pat is a proud Irish Catholic Elk who grew up in an inner city neighborhood of SIoux Falls, S.D., and I am a Protestant girl from North Mankato who has no ties to a fraternal organization, we recently discovered a mutual element in our personal histories: we were both “paper boys.”

Ok, I was a paper GIRL, but we served the same purpose: delivering the local news (in his case, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, and for my part, the Mankato Free Press) via the gritty streets of our respective hometowns.

As I jokingly called Pat a “collections agent” during our discussion of an insurance payment, memories of my five years going door-to-door repeating “Collect for the Free Press” flooded over me.

This was in the time of afternoon paper delivery, when lamps were lit in most residential front windows along Range Street and Belgrade, Wheeler and Nicollet Avenues by around 4 p.m. on the abbreviated days of autumn and winter, and a little girl like me who was conned into “sharing” a paper route with her older brother would have much preferred to be curled up on a cozy couch reading a book than dashing from house to house in the chilly air, tossing newsprint-smelly papers inside storm doors.

The older, stately brick houses, with their imposing porches and elaborate picture windows, always intrigued me, but there were plenty of smaller, poorer homes on my route, too–and a few apartments and businesses, as well.

To make the six-day-a-week duty somewhat more tolerable, I would concoct games of speed and endurance to test myself. For instance, before opening the gray metal door to the apartments above the New Deal restaurant (across from the former Brennan’s gas station on the northwest corner of Belgrade and Range), I would glance quickly at Valley National Bank’s digital clock, note the time, and see if I could make it all the way to the fourth floor and back outside in less than two minutes, dropping four or five papers at targeted apartments (and inhaling grease-filled air) along the way. Breathless, I was always pleased if I met my goal.

Crossing the street, I encountered Spinner’s Bar–which sometimes meant encountering juiced-up individuals. Occasionally I had to enter the bar to leave papers at the counter, trying to avoid the clouds of smoke, the pervasive beery odor and the leering red eyes of baggy-cheeked men slouched on the bar stools during my short stop in that infamous joint.

When it came time to collect, I would set out with a sheaf of tiny perforated coupons (one sheet per customer), affixed by metal rivets to a kind of little clipboard, and usually with a coin purse on a chain to hold the (mostly) coins I’d receive.

“Collect for the Free Press!” I chirped in a hopeful, falsely cheerful voice. It wasn’t just that I was optimistic I’d receive the necessary money–usually in odd and small increments like $1.15, 85 cents, maybe $1.75, depending on how often or recently a customer might have paid–it was more that I was praying my predictable solicitation wouldn’t be met with a scowl, a slammed door or a snarled “Come back next week!”

I never understood the grouchy adults–I mean, I was just a child, only eight years old when I began my paper girl years, seeking payment for what these people had already received from me on a daily and timely basis. I wasn’t responsible for the Vietnam War, or Nixon, or the hippies, or urban renewal, or whatever else it was they were reading in the paper or experiencing in their daily lives that made them less than friendly.

My association with newspapers has waned at times, but from those early days of pitching the daily news inside doors and onto porches, newspapers have never completely relinquished their claim on me. It’s a relief I no longer have to collect for them, though–guess I’m one up on you in that way, Pat.

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