by John Chambers
It left black ink on my fingertips that wouldn’t wash off until the next day. I loathed the tactile feeling of collating newspapers, especially the paper cuts. I loved the privilege of being a reporter or cartoonist’s first reader. Cartoons, sports, world news, and the arts sections; my Sunday and bathroom reading for the rest of the week. But first, it had to be delivered.
There’s nothing more Americana than a kid with a paper route. In film and television, the pre-teen on a BMX bike, pedaling the neighborhood with a shoulder bag full of rubber-band-wrapped papers to be tossed on front porches and yards, is the timeless anecdote and introduction to the world of work. Walt Disney, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Warren Buffet, Tom Cruise, and even our current president, Joe Biden, started out delivering the news.
It was a different experience for my family. It was more of right-of passage than coming-of-age practice. From sister to brother to sister, to our mother, we carried a weekly Sunday morning newspaper route for 20 years. In an old rust-colored Toyota Corolla, my mom would drive each of us around the neighborhood with our dog, Lucky, on one side of the back seat, and a stack of inch-thick papers the size of the Sunday New York Times that reached the car ceiling on the other.
The Sunday Republican was the largest weekly paper of record for our regional area of Western, Massachusetts. It was pretty obvious the paper lacked diversity in the newsroom, but I took after my mother and enjoyed the silent debate when I saw bias and coded bigotry. Writing a letter-to-the-editor was not uncommon in our home.
I woke up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to collate a hundred newspapers from the seat of an antique chair in our library room. I was 15 years old and this was not a job I applied for.
I inherited the route from my big sister, Essie, who went off to college in upstate New York. A departure that likely combined elements of education and escape from our hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts.
Like baggy hoodies and left behind cassette tape music collections – it was something of hers I could choose to claim, though it later led to recrimination and reclamation when she returned home for holiday breaks.
I eventually passed the route down to my little sister, Christine, when I went off to Solebury School, a boarding school in rural Pennsylvania, after my junior year of high school. Christine took over the route for several years before making an even earlier exit to boarding school at Wilbraham and Munson Academy, in Southern, Mass, after middle school.
The haste of our exits from the Greenfield Public School system underscored the lessons learned from being the only Black residents in an all-White town. How does one deal with overt and covert racism; the pressures of presenting normalcy; the pull of integrating into a homogenous culture; and the sinkhole of emotional survival in an oft unwelcoming community?
Results may vary. A disclaimer that each family member had their own unique experience. A mix of trauma and triumph, discovery and acceptance; distance and space.
The route was our united front. A race through rain, sleet and snow that couldn’t be won, but still had to delivered. Our Sunday newspaper run.
My mother was the coach and captain leading the team. In addition to our driver, she was also the wake-up call, stand-in when we were sick, and neighborhood news gatherer – throughout the years of our family’s Sunday morning ritual. She carried on the tradition for another decade after the baby eagles left the nest.
Beyond the large holiday checks, a bonus for delivering on time, the route was a forced introduction to our neighbors and the larger community. A connection we valued and maintained. Meet the Chambers family, at your ‘Sunday Republican delivery’ service.
Essie started when she was 11 or 12-years old. She was more conscious of how the neighbors perceived us. She took pride in defying our White neighbors’ stereotypes of Black people. She felt pressure to exceed their expectations, she said when we were adults. Her Sunday delivery arrived early more often than on time. Never late. Like most of mine.
The route gave her the wheels to roll into other jobs like babysitting and sorting bottles and cans at the local supermarket. She was proving her worth as much as she was preparing for independence. A pull for her. I had to be pushed.
She set a high bar for me to follow. I was two-and-a-half years younger; a physical and emotional distance that could be measured by millimeters or miles depending on the day. I cried in the car ride back to Greenfield after we moved her into her college dormitory. When we got home, all I saw was her room full of relics and a torch to be passed; the responsibility of taking over the paper route. When she came home for holidays, she’d ask about my Christmas take in tips.
“About $200 dollars,” I’d reply.
“Wow, I never got a penny less than $400! Way to go!” she’d say, sarcastically. Typical sibling banter; find the weakness then twist.
The delivery truck would arrive at around 3am in the morning. And almost every time the delivery man would loudly shut the truck doors before starting the loud diesel engine. It startled me awake every time; an instinctual fear that a stranger was in our driveway. A general ‘protector’ fear that intensified when dad moved out of the house. But that was quickly followed by relief when I realized it was just a reminder that I only had a few hours left before forcing myself from a deeply held treasure, my morning slumber.
I’m sure mom didn’t enjoy the wake-up calls. I’d always plead, “Can I have just ten more minutes?” Which would turn into 30mins to an hour, or more.
By the time I made it downstairs, she’d already sorted the four sections for me to collate. It was a bulky newspaper. The sports and business sections had to go inside the front-page section and finally huge section of advertisements and coupons that were wrapped in clear plastic and had to be placed just so. It was a careful process. Especially, if the TV Guide section slipped out. A miss-step that could lead to afternoon calls to our home from subscribers. Yes, they all had our home phone number, though it got used mostly during my tenure.
After I loaded up the cars, we’d be on our way before I had a chance to eat breakfast. It was a carrot mom held over my head. At the conclusion of the route, we’d drive to Dunkin Donuts to buy a couple dozen to go. A dozen I could handle myself throughout the rest of the day. The other dozen were for my family. Three French crullers, three strawberry-filed, three maple syrup frosted, two plain glazed, a cinnamon roll…and a partage in a pear tree…was all that was missing. The benefits of a teenage metabolism.
The route started on Crescent Street, the street I lived on. I didn’t feel the same pressure to deliver the paper to our nearest neighbors on time. I didn’t hold any of them in high regard, and many saw me as a menace. A reputation I would live out in secrecy on pre-Halloween nights when I’d enact my revenge. So, my mom took it upon herself to walk a few doors down our street and a few doors up to make those deliveries before she dragged me out of bed. She was always keen to stay in good graces.
The Hamilton’s lived three doors up. Mrs. Hamilton was president of the town Chamber of Commerce and Mr. Hamilton owned a shoe store on Main street. Both accused me of throwing a rock through their garage window. I was guilty of a lot of things, but not that.
The Crocker’s lived two doors down and rented out the house next to ours. They were the town telecommunications magnates. They turned their garage into an operator call center and later an Internet Service Provider. They also cut down our apple tree in the backyard, digging up our pet cemetery in the process of installing a six-foot tall cement wall to divide our properties. I felt no remorse lobbing the occasional egg in the direction of their house.
The other families on Crescent Street remained friendly, at least on the surface. With the exceptions like the Hannon’s and the Zinn’s who would become lifelong friends, and heroes for driving my mother to the hospital during medical emergencies
We’d wind our way down Crescent to Congress street. I’d do the door to door deliveries while mom stayed in the driver’s seat. They were mostly residential homes, but there were two large group homes for people with mental illness along the route. I was familiar and friendly with many of them, even the ones who’d walk the streets talking to themselves or someone inside their heads. My dog, Lucky, loved these stops the most. They had treats for her and she’d linger on their porches and patios as they stroked her thick black hair.
My mother told me much later in life, that the day Lucky died of old age, the residents of the group home asked where she was. After she told them the tragic news, they cried. They told her Lucky was more than a friend, she was their therapist. They could tell her anything and she’d listen without judgement. My mom was a therapist herself and appreciated the sentiment.
A house on Grinnell street was our final residential delivery. I had to navigate a gauntlet getting to the front door without feeling the bite of a vicious dog I was sure was a part wolf.
Then we were off to our final stop, The Towers. It was nine stories, and 95 units. It remains the tallest building in Greenfield. Built in 1974 as retirement apartments for the elderly, it overlooked main street and the surrounding mountains. It could be the quickest and most efficient delivery, or the longest depending on who opened the door.
Ms. Thomas in 5d loved to have me in for chats and give updates on her grandchildren. Ms. Wolinski in 7f gave me ornaments and cookies she made for Christmas. Mr. Donnelly would tell me about his fishing spots and his latest catch. There were, of course, the ones who called the house complaining the paper was late, or not delivered. But they were in the minority. Retired folks adjust to ritual with the extra time to spare.
The longer I delivered there, the better I understood mortality and the passage of time. Their passage to the heavens marked by a cancelled delivery notification, or by my father, who loved to read obituaries as much as books on critical philosophy. Kafka, Nietzsche and nihilism were among his favorite topics of discussion when I got older. Go figure. The Sunday paper route was our stand against alienation and the existential anxiety and absurdity of trying to define our place in an all-White town – truly Kafkaesque! The wonder of where in the world could we feel welcome. In the words of Buckaroo Banzi:“No matter where you go, there you are.” It’s worthy to note, that the only role my father played in our paper route ritual was to sit back and read it on his Lazy Boy.
One Sunday, after the route and donut run was complete, I stayed behind in the Corolla and moved over to the driver’s seat. Mom passed me the keys. Driving the car back and forth in our driveway had become my new favorite pastime. I promised not to go past the driveway. I was fifteen years old, and not old enough to get my driver’s license, but that day was coming soon. It was a newly acquired longer leash. Probably part perk after my parent’s separation. My dad still held his place in our home, but he did not sleep there.
Imagining I was old enough to drive, I felt as cool and confident as rapper/activist Chuck D. A little over-confident on this particular day. I was wearing my shades and blasting 80s Hip-Hop from the UMASS student run radio station. An open box of donuts on the passenger side. I put it in drive, except it wasn’t drive, it was in reverse. Then I slammed on the breaks. But it wasn’t the breaks. It was the gas pedal.
In seconds, the car crashed through white picket fence in the back of the driveway. Then it tumbled down a steep embankment that could also be called a cliff. And finally came to an abrupt stop, inches from a bolder half the size of the car. Fortunately, I was unhurt. I got out of the car in shock that there was only minor damage, except for the fence, and my ego.
I climbed up the embankment by holding the medium-growth trees that I still can’t believe I missed hitting. Angels were watching. And so was our next-door neighbor, a high-school math teacher and gossip queen. And the older brother of my friend Mark, whose family owned a garage and tow truck business. He saw the aftermath. I went inside the house and up to my room and put the covers over my head. In the first weeks of high school, I already had a nickname. Evel Knevel. It stung, but didn’t last past my freshman year, fortunately. It did, however, instill enough fear that I let an extra two years go by before finally got my driver’s license.
When I finally left Greenfield my junior year of high school, I only told my best friend, Craig. He’d report back that they were still calling my name in homeroom for the first month before they realized I wasn’t coming back. I wasn’t looking back either.
I don’t remember much about passing the Sunday Republican reins over to my little sister, Christine, but I suspect she was much better at it. She was almost seven years younger than me. I regret not looking into my little sister’s well-being more after I left.
She was birthed by my parents, the same interracial couple who brought Essie and I into the world. Except she came out the spitting image of my mother. She could pass for White. I thought she had it easier, but the hidden identity was not something she wanted to conceal. It exposed her to a different side of racism than her brown-skin siblings. She heard what White folks had to say when Black folks weren’t around.
It was acceptable to tell a racist joke so long as it wasn’t in the presence of anyone Black, she learned. When I came for visits to her boarding school, it was as much about our sibling affection as it was proof to her peers that she was Black. She’d cling to me as she introduced me to her friends with pride.
When my mom finally took over Sunday delivery, it was more about the friendships and the community activism that ran through her veins. She’d become close friends with many subscribers on the route. It took her longer to finish because she’d take time to stop and chat with her friends, like Mrs. Crandall in The Towers, who still asked after us, and had gifts for the four of us; me, Christine, Essie and of course my mom to put under the Christmas tree. She became close friends with Ms. Cassidy on Prospect Street. She was an English teacher at Turners Fall High School.
She invited many of these friends to events she organized at our Unitarian Church (My parents compromise – he was raised Baptist, she, Protestant). Like her Anti-Racism Film Festival in its 15thyear, or the Stone Soup Kitchen that provides meals for the hungry. She’d load up the leftover produce and food donations and deliver them to a domestic violence women’s shelter not far from the church.
Her two-decade run ended rather unceremoniously after she got sick and had to find a substitute. Unfortunately, the sub wanted to hold on to the job and my mom had mixed feelings about letting it go when her health improved. And so it went. The end of an era. No plaques, or newspaper mentions. No retirement Rolex watches to memorialize our legacy.
As I look back on those years, I see our experiences in a new light. Less shade. More clarity, and some sadness at a dying industry. I appreciate the cost of newspaper nostalgia on the environment, even if the unrecyclable screens and micro-chips that replaced them is proof that progress is relative.
The fact remains; the Chambers kids became more literate on social, local, and global issues and events. It helped inform our world view, fueled our activism, and inspired our creativity. It abetted our maturity as writers and storytellers.
Essie would go on to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer, produce a national new magazine program before climbing the heights of television and doc film world. But she stays focused on her passion, her first love. How she’d like to be introduced: writer.
Christine would become a playwright and receive her Masters in Playwriting at Columbia University, and move on to become a renown photographer before she tragically passed away at 39.
I honed my writing craft in the world of communications and advocacy for global non-profits and foundations, before launching and arts and culture organization that blends the art of building community, nurturing artists, and advocating for social justice causes.
My mother continues her activism to this day, fighting all the good fights. From pipelines to Black lives matter, she’s the pure essence of a White ally. While much has changed in Greenfield, Mass, I still get pulled over and questioned by the cops, and new neighbors greet me with a curious, “Can I help you with something?” Like I walked into a store, when I was just taking a walk around the block.
“I was born here,” I reply. “Raised on Crescent street where my mother still lives,” I say to their surprise. Molly Chambers and her three kids were no longer delivering the news. No longer announcing their existence.
About the author:
John Chambers is the founder of the award-winning arts and culture non-profit BloomBars, an artist incubator and performance venue in Washington, DC. Since founding BloomBars in 2007, John has hosted and participated in countless literary workshops, readings, and book signings, including several funded by Poets & Writers. In his previous career, he was a senior vice president for the global communications and advocacy firm GMMB where he ghost wrote everything from op-eds to speeches that have been published or appeared in nearly every major media outlet in the U.S. and worldwide. He’s written poetry and prose most of his adult life, though he’s never sought to be published, until now.