19 June 2007

Michael row the boat ashore

My father lost his job with the city when I was 10. It was a prestigious job, a well-paying job, and being a child, even a bright one, I was never quite sure what happened that caused him to lose it. All I know is that was when hope died and our lives were changed forever.

Ten is an interesting age. Still a child, but on the brink of so much change. Concerned with being a child, but trying so hard to understand the adult world. At 10, I was energetic and curious and reasonably responsible, striving for positive recognition from the adults in my world, but still so young. When I look at the daughter, I realize just how young I was.

As that summer I was 10 passed into fall, my mother decided it would be wise if my brother and I were gainfully employed. Of course, I'd been a working kid since the age of nine. Mrs. H. from across the street would pay me a quarter to clean her silver and iron her handkerchiefs. I also acted as companion to another elderly neighbor while her senior citizen daughter and son-in-law attended Mass on Sunday. For this service, I received the handsome sum of $.25 per hour and a small hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen. I'm sure that no one ever guessed that when I wasn't shuttling blind Mrs. K to and from the bathroom, I was staring goggle-eyed at her daughter's stash of true crime magazines. As I said, energetic, curious and reasonably responsible.

The job that my mother proposed was more of a real one: a paper route. I was old enough for one, but my brother was not, so the route was put in my name, and we split the work. He had the two streets near our home, while I had the two further ones, a total of eight blocks worth of houses to fling newspapers at six afternoons per week and Sunday mornings.

Let's make one thing abundantly clear: at this point in time, newspaper routes were slave labor, which I guess made it ok for kids. The newspaper company charged you for your papers, your rubber bands and other supplies, and fined you if anything went wrong: someone complained, the paper was late or wet, you name it. You were responsible for collecting money for the subscription, and if you had a deadbeat, too bad. If you stopped delivering the paper and they complained, you ate the fine.

It was a racket. The only way you could make money was in tips if you were lucky enough to get any. Some people were kind, but others wouldn't tip no matter how good the service.

It was backbreaking. Those papers weighed a ton, especially on Wednesdays when all the grocery store sale supplements were included, so you got a cardio workout on your bike, as well as weight training. On Sundays, the papers were so huge that my father would also get up and drive us through the neighborhoods in the predawn light as we tossed the enormous piles of paper into people's driveways. They had to be there by 6 am.

It was filthy. I had newsprint so deeply ingrained in the palms of my hands that constant applications of Lava soap wouldn't remove it.

But there was a certain freedom to it, too. A grumpy camaraderie grew out of folding papers with my brother and later, other carriers who used our house as a pickup spot, and no matter how heavy the papers, I was alone with my vast and endless imagination while I wobbled down the street tossing papers here and there.

Sunday mornings were aggravating and exhausting, but there was always the promise of the sunrise, followed by 7 am Mass and a trip to Dunkin Donuts.

And there were the people. Oh, there were rotten people, those crabby ones who wouldn't give you the time of day and who flung the subscription money at you as though they were doing you a favor. There were the hippy freaks in their strung out, drug-induced stupor who were nice, but always stiffed you with a sad explanation while holding a screaming filthy baby. There were lonely old people who just wanted to talk. There were the kind ones who offered you water--from a glass, not the hose--on a killing summer's day.

As with any society, new carriers were viewed with a certain suspicion by the more seasoned ones. And in my brother's and my case, we attended the parochial school rather than the local public, so we were even a little more suspect. The route adjacent to ours was run by a boy my age called M. and his older sister K., who were fairly new to our area. I knew little about them and their two high school-aged sisters, other than they attended the same church as us, and their parents were recently divorced. M. was a cheerful and uncomplicated blonde boy with a sunny disposition. K. was more standoffish and I can still see her petite but sharp-featured face, topped by the same blonde as her brother's.

M. was good about dropping hints our way about dealing with our route. Since he and I had to go the same direction to get to our routes, we'd sometimes ride together for a block or two before. We didn't talk much, but it was companionable and friendly.

The last time I saw M. was on an autumn Sunday morning, a couple of months after my brother and I started our paper route. He was riding his bike toward his route, while my father trundled slowly along, my brother and I standing on the open tailgate of our station wagon. The sun was rising, almost breaking over the top the eastern mountains. M. waved to us, his usual cheery salute. I couldn't see his face, only his body silhouetted by the morning light. He died that same afternoon, instantly, dragged along with his bike under the wheels of a car.

How does a child comes to terms with the idea of forever? I understood that death meant that M. was gone, but not that it was forever.

In a twist of fate that in retrospect was so cruel, my school class was asked to sing at M.'s funeral Mass. We were asked because he was a child and we were children of the same age, because he was a member of our church, and our school was a part of the church. Because the family asked us to. I don't know that even while I was singing I made the connection between the casket in the center aisle and the boy on the bike.

When Mass ended, I was walking back across the parking lot to my math class, and my classmates were chattering about how sad the death of the unknown boy was. "I knew him," I told them. "I knew him."

And in that moment, grief took hold for the first time in my life and forever looked me in the face.