There are two monthly scheduled curbside pick-ups of recyclables in my town. On the second Tuesday morning of each month, an enormous blue toploader makes its way slowly up and down the streets, alternately roaring, wheezing and groaning at the application of accelerator, clutch and brake. It stops at every house and two men drag barrel after barrel of cans, bottles, and household plastics away from the curb toward the truck, emptying the contents of each into a rear-mounted conveyor. The conveyor fills rapidly and is then hoisted hydraulically into the air and rotated, so that its payload can rain down amid a thunderous clamor into the toploader’s interior. It’s a long, laborious and loud undertaking that virtually precludes sleeping late on that particular morning.
On the fourth Tuesday of every month, the same big blue toploader cruises the streets of our town, braking only for stop signs and foolhardy squirrels. Usually, you have to be specifically listening for it, to even recognize that it has come and gone. The same two guys who endure a back-breaking day of frantic labor on the second Tuesday of each month have it easy on the fourth Tuesday. They hardly need disembark from their truck at all. It’s newspaper/magazine recycling day in my town.
The current recession has been particularly tough on newspapers. Dailies in Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities have closed shop for good, while flagship publications like the Washington Post, LA Times, and Boston Globe are bleeding to death. Once-popular magazines like Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker aren’t doing any better. Once it’s all over, what will be left? My guess is, the two “papers of record,” The New York Times and The Washington Post. One center-left paper, one center-right paper.
I can remember, when I was a boy, delivering the Newark Star-Ledger. This was in the mid- to late-1970s. I had a big canvas pouch, filthy with accumulated newsprint ink, and a stout metal ring that held a sheaf of stiff paper cards, one for each customer, on which I could record collected fees. Every morning, a guy in a station wagon would leave a bound stack of newspapers in front of my house. I would cram the newspapers into the canvas bag, get on my bike, and deliver the papers. I’d pedal away from my house at 6am or so—into the cold and dark if it was winter, under a brightening sky and rising sun if it was summer.
My paper route was unusual in that it consisted of one long street, a roughly one-mile-long stretch of access road called Dupont Trail. The papers were heavy and the hills were steep, and I got $6 a week plus tips for 7-days-a-week delivery. The Sundays were particularly onerous because delivering the much larger editions required two (and sometimes three) trips out onto the long access road and back. A full week of Star-Ledger delivery cost 90 cents. Sunday-only delivery was 30 cents. Later this price increased to 35 cents, causing some customers to cancel their subscriptions. A pretty good tipper, I remember, might give me $1.15 when I collected fees on Friday afternoons. A quarter tip on a 90-cent bill. Not bad, percentage-wise.
It was hard work, but I don’t remember complaining. I’d had to enter my name on a waiting list just to get the route. I delivered those papers from early 1975 until early 1979, when I turned 16 and got a job as a clerk in a Grand Union supermarket in the next town. In all that time, I never missed a day’s delivery, though I still to this day, some thirty years later, once in a great while, have a dream where it’s late afternoon and I’ve completely forgotten to deliver the morning papers. All those empty mailboxes, all that undelivered, unreceived news.