LONDON, ONTARIO – I got my very first job in the newspaper biz at the age of eleven, working for the Toronto Star. Three years later I landed a job with The Globe & Mail and two years after that, The London Free Press. The minimum age for newspaper boys in the 1960s was actually twelve but that first paper route came with a few mitigating differences that made it less physically demanding so they figured they could bend that rule a little. It’s true that I didn't have to memorize an entire neighborhood's worth of streets and houses nor endure any sort of extended exposure to nasty weather because this was an indoor route. But in other ways – psychologically in particular – I doubt I would have been much better equipped to handle some of the stresses of that route if I’d been twice as old.
Each day after school and on Saturdays I walked about a mile to Westminster Hospital and picked up two bundles of Stars at the parking attendant's booth. This cozy little hut was staffed by an avuncular Legionnaire and during the winter months he had a little space heater chugging away in there while he smoked his unfiltered cigarettes end to end. Some days I felt quite woozy with second-hand nicotine by the time I'd loaded all my papers into a canvas shoulder bag and drifted over to the main hospital building.
In the early '60s Westminster Hospital – all three multi-storied wings – was filled with war veterans. While a few of the wards were permanently off-limits to me, my job was to drop into each of the rooms on all the other wards and try to sell newspapers to patients by the copy. While there was some turnover in terms of who occupied those beds, I would estimate that at least half of my customers were permanent patients. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for the anguish, the pathos and the quiet courage I encountered every day on that job.
My prior experience of war vets was Remembrance Day assemblies at school when a heavily decorated senior citizen would come by each year and give us a talk in the gymnasium. Invariably these were First World War vets who all seemed to sport jaunty moustaches (or was it the same facially decorated vet every November?) and whose chats were peppered with references to 'Empire' and 'duty' and 'answering the call'. Having all the gravitas of a hummingbird and the attention span of a flea, I'd eventually grow bored and tune out these gents, leaving me feeling a vague sense of guilt at what a shallow twerp I was.
But that paper route soon presented me with far more compelling evidence of what war could actually do to a human being – if it didn't kill him outright. Every day for an hour and a half I moved through this stuffy, sterile universe of the permanently sidelined; of once-healthy young men condemned to live out the remainder of their lives in their pyjamas.
I was embarrassed and even a little frightened when I had to help one of my very first customers – a handsome young man with a hauntingly apologetic look in his eyes – to fish coins out of the change compartment of his wallet because his hands were shaking so badly. Over the next few days and weeks, I came to realize that these palpitations were not a passing condition. I hoped it was different when he slept but when he was awake, those hands were never at rest.
I remember a much older vet always lying on his right side in the formation of a backwards ‘S’, rasping at me in a strangulated voice to dig the money out of the wooden shaving bowl in the top drawer of his bedside cabinet. I would always set the paper beside him on his bed but I never saw him pick it up. Would someone else pick it up and read to him after I'd gone? Or did he just buy unread Stars as an act of kindness to me? Or because he hungered for any kind of human exchange, no matter how perfunctory or banal?
One day, not looking where I was going, I bumped into a mobile curtain unit set up around one of the beds and set it rolling away. An attending nurse looked over at me in alarm and urgently shooed me away as she grabbed the section of curtain and pulled it back around. I got out of there as fast as I could but not before glimpsing her patient; a bare-chested man propped up in a sitting position who seemed to be missing the top right quarter of his head, including one eye and a chunk of his cranium. The light wasn't good. Maybe his injury wasn't quite so bad as it fleetingly appeared. But accurate or not, that vision took root and remains in my memory to this day; never more vividly than on Remembrance Day mornings when I stand in observance at the Victoria Park cenotaph.
On Saturdays, I got one brief break from my forlorn rounds when I would slip outside and walk over to the tiny firehall northeast of the hospital where I sold a copy of the fat weekend edition to the young man stationed in the small apartment over top of the garage. Always decked out in a wife-beater and usually smoking a Sweet Caporal, this guy wasn’t just able-bodied, he had appetites as were evinced by the girly pinups tacked to the inside of a tall and rarely closed cupboard door which could just be discerned from where I stood in his doorway at the top of the stairs. Most weeks he would flip me an extra dime and say, “Get yerself a Coke.” I couldn't bring myself to tell him that most stores now charged fifteen cents.
All four of the Goodden boys had paper routes growing up. Dave was the keenest worker with a Globe & Mail route which he dispatched with such professionalism that he won a trip to New York and then wrote up an account of the trip in an essay which the paper printed. A Free Press reporter wrote up an account of Ted’s most dramatic moment as a paperboy when he raced up onto a porch in the still-dark morning and stumbled upon the tuxedo-clad body of one of his customers who didn’t quite make it to his front door after a soiree the night before. While I can’t recall anything particularly notable about Bob’s career in newspaper delivery, I have no doubt that I was the crappiest paperboy of us all.
My two later routes were morning routes. I wanted the money and I didn't want to sacrifice the opportunity to get together with friends after school. But morning routes were not a good fit for me and I stuck at neither for more than a year. In the summer time when I could stay up all night and head out at 4:00 or 5:00, I provided the best service. Although that probably wasn’t the case on the morning after my first and only acid trip when the effects still hadn’t worn off by dawn and I had to gather whatever scrambled wits I could to deliver seventy-two copies of The London Free Press. There’s one house on Marla Crescent which I can’t go by to this day without recalling the distressing conviction that overtook me while I set their paper between the doors; that this simplest of transactions had somehow taken two hours and I probably wasn’t going to complete my rounds before midnight.
In the dead of winter, I could be a notorious slug-a-bed, capable of sleeping through any alarm. My mother went so far as to set a metal pie plate underneath my wind-up clock so as to give its jarring bell extra resonance that might be loud enough to haul me up from the land of nod. One night, learning that Ted was going somewhere the next morning at six, I asked him to drop into my basement bedroom and give me a wake-up call. Unbeknownst to me, he undid the latch of the window just over my bed while giving me that call and when I still hadn’t surfaced by the time he headed out, he propped open that window with his boot and started shoveling snow onto my still-snoring form. That really established a good mood for the rest of the day.
I laughed most heartily when Sheila Curnoe shared with me one of her more exasperating memories of life with Greg: “We would go to 74 Langarth Street for supper with his mom and then we would get in the car. Driving home down the streets he would say, ‘There’s Mr. McIntosh’s house and I delivered papers there. And I delivered papers there. And over there too.’ And I’d think, ‘Jesus Christ, do we have to do this every single time? I don’t care where you delivered papers’.”
I laughed because it’s so true; ex-newspaper boys who continue to live in their home town really do move through a uniquely memorated landscape for the rest of their days. At a profoundly impressionable age we drink in what cab drivers call ‘the knowledge’ and – largely useless as that information may be to us in later life – we never really relinquish all of it because in some goofy way, it still excites us and intrigues us. It is the remnant stuff of that time in our lives when we first came to know the larger world and devised and discovered our earliest strategies for making our way through it.
Most of us know better than to try regaling our wives with such prosaic lore. But occasionally we superannuated paperboys do have our moments in the sun. When there’s street work going on or traffic’s backed up, you want to hear from someone who knows where all the shortcuts are or who recalls an obscure back lane that links this neighbourhood with that one. And sometimes, believe it or not, people actually do ask, “Where did Mr. McIntosh live?” Or, “Is that the house where they had that German Shepherd who would lunge at every passing cyclist?” I'm not saying that openings to flaunt our peculiar expertise arise every day. But we do come in surprisingly handy at times like that.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
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