When I was a teenager, I had a paper route.
Now, in the movies, newspaper routes are generally portrayed in idyllic, Norman Rockwell-like terms: you generally see a kid cycling along a pleasantly flat lane, throwing papers on people’s porches with unerring accuracy, under a sunny, cheerful sky, heralded by happy neighbors. Or something of the sort.
My route, let me make it perfectly clear, was nothing like that.
For starters, I wasn’t delivering newspapers, but advertisements. (I spent my adolescence in a small, cold, European country, and in that country they delivered advertisements and mail separately: the post office handled the mail, while the advertisements were done by third-party vendors, on weekends.) This may not sound like a big distinction, but it was, believe me – in my neighborhood, lots of people treated the advertisements with disgust, a loathing which easily spread to the messenger of said items. There were STOP! NO ADVERTISEMENTS! signs on lots of the mailboxes on my route, so I had to be careful where I delivered them, and the recipients, even if they didn’t have stop signs or skull-and-bones insignia on their mailboxes – okay, that last bit was an exaggeration – treated me with such disgust that I often felt scared dropping it off. I don’t once remember receiving a thank-you.
Secondly, before I even delivered the advertisements, I had to sort them. They would be delivered in batches to my house a couple of days prior to the distribution window, and – depending on how many different companies had advertisement sheets – it would take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours to collate them neatly. My hands would be grimy and soot-stained afterwards, and the knowledge that I hadn’t actually done the real work yet was, frankly, depressing.
Thirdly, there was the delivery. My neighborhood was extremely hilly, and the terrain extensive: I would pile and secure the ads on the back of my bike and set off – up and down those hills. (Looking back on it, that job put me in the best physical shape of my life to-date…I wish I could have carried that forward!) And delivery was no small matter: on my first weekend, it took me 8 hours to complete the job. I got more efficient at it, though: by the time I resigned, I had whittled it down to about four hours – two on Saturday, and two on Sunday. This didn’t include the sorting beforehand, though.
Last, but certainly not least, there was the weather. I did this job every weekend for a few months, from late summer until just before the snow hit. So most of the time, I was cycling along under a cold grey sky, with frequent rain showers for good measure. The wind would be cold, the sky dismal, and the only bright spots were the leaves on the ground – dripping, to be sure, but colorful, as if making up for the sky’s bad mood.
It was very hard work – underpaid, labor-intensive, and generally thankless.
And yet…here I am, today. I was driving home under a grey sky with my niece in the backseat, looking at the leaves littering the sidewalks. The wind was stirring, the cold just slightly biting, and somehow…it felt like home. A part of me can’t believe I’m nostalgic for those days, but regardless – there was beauty there. I would huff and puff up those hills, glorying in the descent: feeling cold at the outset, and thrillingly warm and happy by the time I was done. There was this wonderful sense of accomplishment each week, as the season changed, the sunset advanced forward, and the wind blew chillier and chillier. I remember biking along the huge body of water along the route – we lived on an archipelago – studying the sea to see its mood: I remember solitude and peace, even amidst the work-related anxiety and exhaustion. I remember the street names, most of which I can no longer pronounce properly; I still, at times, go to Google maps and look up my old neighborhood, reading the old street names, trying to retrace my route.
Maybe it’s time to create some new memories: maybe someday, looking back, I’ll remember this just as fondly. I’ll think about my niece, who is four years old and quite challengingly intelligent (never try to argue the right circumstances in which to use the word either with a child under the age of five: it’s an exercise in frustration) and wish I were where I am now. But it never works out that way, I suppose. You never can tell what you’re going to miss, until you miss it.
But I hope, someday, I’ll have a home like the one I once had. A place where I will struggle, but where I will feel a sense of accomplishment and belonging: not much to look at from the outside, but truly, indefinably, mine. Maybe that’s the meaning behind the “white picket fence” people are always going on about.
I hope so.
Chloe* wrote this piece for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She is a choco-holic and booknerd who loves quoting random facts at people, sunlight, and trying new things (just once). Her dearest ambition is to figure out the ultimate question of life, since the answer, according to Douglas Adams, is 42.
*Chloe is a pseudonym – this piece was submitted anonymously.