12 November 2009

Benton County - Paper Route

I worked on or had a paper route in every one of the Fowler years, or the years that I can remember, anyway.

Fowler, Indiana, and the whole county had its own paper, the Benton Review, but that didn't need to be delivered. You got it mailed to you at home or you bought it at the IGA on Thursday, but there was no route. That saved some poor teenager(s) a lot of trouble - everyone in the County took it, and it only came out once a week. The social situation in Benton County what it was, you had to get it and read it right away so you wouldn't be behind on the times. You wouldn't want to be the last one to know who was entering what at the 4-H Fair, or be the last one to get that new recipe for zucchini bread, or get double booked and thus be unable to attend the Ladies' Altar Society's monthly supper.

I only once got a mention in the Benton Review, and that was after we'd moved away - I got busted for speeding just inside the Benton County line, near Templeton, driving up US 52, a four lane divided highway, to our dentist in Kentland with my brother Chris. That was one of only two speeding tickets I've ever received, and that was 1986 (the second was in 1991). (Makes you wonder what the cops are doing, really. Oh yeah, pulling me over on suspicion of grand theft auto. Or of knocking off a 7-11.) That ticket was earned only four years after we left Fowler so there was a chance that Ma would see the Benton Review, and thus learn about the ticket, and thus restrict my driving privileges. My friends the Schwartz's helpfully saved the Police Blotter column for me, and I still have it somewhere. "S. Brennan, LaFayette, Ind., speeding, 69 in a 55." My claim to fame in my hometown.

But there was more than one paper that you could get in Fowler in the 1970's, and while no one I knew got the Chicago papers, our family had the Sunday morning Indianapolis Star route. The Star would come to us in sections, with ads, comics and lifestyle arriving Thursdays and news and sports coming on Sunday mornings. The whole thing would then need to be stuffed together, rubber banded, and delivered early on Sundays. I would often help with stuffing but I only remember actually delivering it twice. It was the "big boys" route, mostly, but stuffing was a crappy job, so I got to do it.

When I was a little older, us "three little kids" had the afternoon daily, and I got to do more than stuff. There were two routes in town - we had the southwest one and another family had the other half of town. The papers from the Lafayette Journal and Courier distributor would arrive every day at 2:30, which meant that during the summer I'd ride my bike or run home from the pool at the 2:50 ten minute break. (At the Fowler Pool, hours were 1 to 5 [well, 4:50] and 6 to 9 every day, with a ten minute break every hour at :10 minutes to. I've never heard of this break at any other pool. I guess the pool closed from 5 to 6 for a dinner break, but why the ten minute break? No idea.) During the school year, the papers would be there waiting for me when I'd ride home or take the bus home from Sacred Heart.

The J&C came bundled in a stack, wrapped in brown paper with a slip with that day's count, and banded with wire. To prepare them for delivery they had to be cut out of their bundle, counted to make sure the daily slip was accurate, rolled, rubber banded, and stuffed into bike saddle bags which went over the rear fenders of our bikes. In the years we had TV in Fowler, Tom and Jerry would be on at 3:00 p.m. and sometimes we'd roll the papers with that playing in the background. I was a fast roller and I enjoyed that part: folding the papers into 1/4ths, grabbing a green rubber band from the pile on the threadbare living room carpet, putting it around the top, twice, pushing it down to somewhere in the middle, flipping the finished product onto the pile, and grabbing the next one. When there were just a few left, someone would start stuffing the saddle or shoulder bags with the rolled papers, fold side up for easy pulling and flinging.

We delivered the papers off our bikes, most of the time, unless it was really snowy and then we'd walk the route with a sled. I distinctly remember riding my old Schwinn in the snow, though - it had to be pretty bad for us to walk it. I don't ever remember getting driven for the daily paper, though sometimes on Sundays, after the big boys moved on to better jobs and the Indy Star was delivered by someone else, when the J&C was on a morning delivery schedule, dad and I would wake up early, just the two of us, and deliver the papers by car. We'd then go to 7:00 a.m. Mass and come home and make waffles for the rest of the family who would go to the 9 o'clock Mass, which was longer but had guitars. But that's a different entry.

For the afternoon daily route, though, it was almost always on my bike. I'd put the saddle bag over the rear fender of my Schwinn - or whichever Schwinn was in working condition - and I'd head into town. (Starsky's, Wagoner's, then you'd ride up past the grain elevator [above], over the tracks, across US 52,and down to 3rd street... as I sit here 30 years later, it's a little surprising to me that I could still do the route, maybe in the way that some people remember cheer leading routines or the Gettysburg address. I don't know where my checkbook is or when my siblings' birthdays are, but I could still do most of my paper route.

(I found a pic online here of roughly how I looked delivering papers - I was that skinny, definitely, but my bike was nowhere near that nice; and instead of "Houston Chronicle" on the white saddle bag that hadn't been this clean in years, it read "Indianapolis Star" in worn orange reflective lettering. )

We'd do a few houses on the other side of 5th, Fowler's high street, and then deliver to the businesses downtown. Growing up, Fowler supported two drug stores, Rexall's (closed) and Denny's (attractive, isn't it?); a men's clothing store, Muller and Muller (closed); a full service jeweller, Korbe's (closed); a bowling alley; a movie theater (still open; new pics here); two hardware stores, Western Auto (closed) and Dorsey's (still open!); two restaurants/cafes downtown (that I remember, there might have been more but two took the paper), the Flashing Arrow Cafe (long gone - the building has been razed but it would have been in the left foreground where the white car is parked facing the street) and Buc and Mason's (now Kidwell's Family Restaurant, still open); Molter's Mower Sales and Repair (closed); two insurance agents (it looks like there are three now, one of which you can see on the left [south] side of 5th Street, third building up); and a few taverns: Hank's, the Uptown Bar, and the Local Tavern. There were also three grocery stores, the Grab-It Here, Furr's Home Market, and the IGA.

(By the way, that first building on the left side of the street at 305 Fifth Street is the Fraser and Isham Building, built in 1895. More - much more, including photos of interior and exterior details - can be seen here. No tenant of the building ever took the paper, so I've never been inside.)

The Uptown Bar, Hank's Tavern and the Local Tavern all took the paper, and from as young as I can remember, every day, at a little past three in the afternoon, I'd park my bike in front of each, clomp in, set the paper on the corner of the bar closest to the door, and clump out, always very cognizant of the smell of smoke, of the men (always men) sitting around the bar, of the dark and the warmth. There was also a imbued atmosphere of the forbidden, as a kid delivering papers to the bars. My parents didn't drink, ever - no wine with dinner, no beer while working on a car, nothing - and while my older brothers may have it was never at home and it was never discussed. Here were people who clearly did. I was a very sheltered little boy, and I never thought anything about those men, or why they drank, and I don't remember ever thinking they shouldn't have been drinking at 3:00 in the afternoon every day, but I knew that going to bars was not something that every kid at Sacred Heart Fowler did, so that part of my route was always fun.

Well, but it wasn't my route, of course. Nothing too much belonged to any one kid, as I remember. Despite my father's politics we were definitely practicing Socialists in our house: the paper route wasn't mine, and though the labor was individual the profits were shared to cover household expenses. We'd collect door-to-door with our Collecting Book, held together by big metal rings, and we'd tear off little stubs from a perforated cardboard sheet, one for each customer in the order we'd deliver on the route, with dates printed on it as a receipt. We'd collect once every two weeks, and since it was the little kids' route I got to collect, too, once I got to be in 4th or 5th grade or so.
Can you imagine, sending a 5th grader around town by himself to take money from people and then ride away on his bike? We never thought a thing of it, of course. We didn't have bike locks, that I remember, or a house key for that matter, so it was definitely a different time.
When we had the money, we'd carefully count up all the bills and change, put aside what was due the J&C, and depending on how things were going we'd put the rest either into the empty band aid tins that served as our personal banks, if times were good, for our own savings, or into the Joker, a clear glass change bank that stood about twelve inches high with a metal screw-off top with a coin slot that was half Buddha, half clown. The Joker acted as a de facto petty cash for our family growing up, and I distinctly remember times when the Joker was raided to get staples. It wasn't often, but it happened.
I don't remember anything about the money I made from the paper route. I must have made some, and I'm sure my sisters paid me, but I don't remember what I did with it. Not surprising, really - thirty years later I still have no idea what I've done with the money I've made. I never did the paper routes - the rolling, the stuffing, the delivering, the collecting - for the money, it was expected and done in the same way that clearing the table or washing dishes or weeding the garden or any of the other innumerable chores around an acre of property with two out buildings and a house of questionable structural integrity were done. Money didn't factor into it, didn't motivate me, and didn't have too much of a hold on me, even then. I didn't really have any that was my own - never paper money, anyway, though I do remember gramma sending me a dollar for grades once a semester when I started school - but there'd usually be a nickle in my band-aid tin to get a piece of candy in town if I wanted one, or a few pennies to buy something from the concession stand at the Fowler pool during the summer. It felt good to contribute to household maintenance, I loved riding my bike and talking to people I'd see in town - sometimes to the point that I'd get in trouble for taking so long with the route - and I enjoyed the routine. It was part of what was done, and it was fun.

When we moved into Lafayette, I asked Ma if I could get a paper route to make a little money. She said, without thinking, "NO!" When I asked her about it, she said "You're never off, you have to find a substitute if you're ever going to go camping or see grandma or anything, and there are better jobs out there." I had never thought of any of that. All those years tied to a paper route that simply could not have been particularly lucrative would have to have taken their toll, and moving into town was a great chance to give it up.

That was one more thing that I missed about Fowler, though - knowing everyone, and going on a sanctioned bike ride by myself everyday at 3:00. Walking into Hank's, and the Uptown, and the Local, smelling the smoke, dropping the paper on the counter and walking out. It was so safe that we didn't think about safety, and so natural that we didn't think about not doing it - at least I didn't. It's almost breathtaking in its innocence; before cell phones, you'd let your 2nd grader load up his bike or a shoulder bag or a sled and set off by himself for an hour around town to deliver papers or collect money or walk into every bar in town. And you'd be confident that he'd - eventually - come home, if he didn't get plied along the way with hot cider or candy or "visiting."
I loved Fowler, and while I didn't always love the paper route it gave me access and confidence and conversations that I otherwise would never have had. It was another thing that made the move into town the line between my childhood and my adolescence. Like great literature often points out, changes in innocence are only ever one way.

Why Palo Alto is awful - errata

After my first post on this topic I received some thoughtful feedback from a respected friend, and I've been reflecting on it since.

In the past week we've seen a Muslim physician go off the rails and kill 13 people; we've seen Mormons support a gay rights law in Salt Lake City; we've seen a Republican House member of Vietnamese descent support health care legislation because it was the right thing to do for his constituents; we've seen all kinds of people do all kinds of things against type.

In my first post on the ill-mannered and pretty uniformly awful people in Palo Alto, I attributed behaviour to class, and no matter where that's done it's wrong. I was wrong. I started to get at that when I said

Here let me say that, yes, of course, there are exceptions. I have met people from families with great wealth who are level-headed, hard working, polite and thoughtful.

But that's not enough.

In my bedroom is this poster (Copyright Clyde Keller, 1968):

Robert Kennedy is one of my idols, a man who I believe truly understood, on a human level, the toll of poverty on so many in this country and who worked to fight injustice and racism wherever he could. He was a good and thoughtful and decent man. And he came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the history of this country.

I firmly believe that many from the wealthy classes in this country are unpatriotic, craven and avaricious beyond comprehension, but my facile conflation of class to behavior does not help hold anyone accountable or do anything, really, except buttress my smug belief that I have better manners and was raised better than the people with whom I'm slated to share an office space and civic life. Great wealth does not make one a boor; boorish behaviour does.

So, Mike, thanks for holding me accountable and being a thoughtful BrensLeftCoast reader. And, implicitly, for thinking I was better than that. Wealth is not related to boorish behavior anymore than praying for rain is to thunderstorms, than physicians are to murderers, than Mormons are to no civil rights for queers, than Vietnamese members of the House are to all progressive legislation (well, wait, there's only one, so...) - and I was wrong to have made the error.

Boors are boors, and if there is some Venn-diagrammatic overlap, it's incidental.

In future, I'll be more thoughtful about my polemicism.

BrensLeftCoast apologizes for the sloppy thinking and the error.

08 November 2009

The Den

There was a small plaque up in the den in the Fowler house – and if you're picturing "The Den" as looking like the room in which Mr. Brady worked, or where Bob Newhart wrote his how-to books in the Inn in Vermont, well... the Den in the house in Fowler was different. It was a brightly lit, worn-linoleum-covered room on the southeast corner of our house. It had windows along the east and south sides, an arch into the living room on the north side and a squared – as much as anything was truly squared in that settled farmhouse – entrance into the dining room on the west side.

It also had the front door to the house, at the top of five concrete steps leading down to the pitching sidewalk which led out to the gravel driveway. It was a balky old wooden door that was simultaneously hard to open and completely ineffectual at keeping out winter drafts, so once it was shut up in the winter it was seldom used except for first time guests, Father Froehlich, and our District Manager from the Journal and Courier paper route. In warmer months we'd use it on our way out to the bus in the morning as it was closest to the road and we could see the bus crest the hill from there, but we didn't often use it to come in - afternoons, we'd troop past the flag pole, past the faded statue of Mary in her small but well tended grotto, past the bikes sitting out in the side yard, and past the tire swing - and enter through the back door, where we'd kick off our shoes.

The den housed both the toy cabinet and the gun cabinet. The glass-faced gun cabinet was in the southwest corner of the room, behind the door, and it always contained at least five long-barrel guns including a .22, a .410, and a rifle with a scope. After my brother returned from the service it also contained a Colt .45, but the way that gun was talked about and handled was very different. Shotguns were guns, but the handgun was different, and possibly sinister, and definitely locked away in the bottom drawer, with the ammunition. The upper part of the gun cabinet was locked too, of course, but since the key was IN the lock at all times so as not to be lost, and as the house itself was never locked, you couldn’t really say that this was highly effective security.

The gun cabinet was to the left behind the door as you entered and the toy cabinet was to the right, in front of all of those windows. It really was a shelf unit, a converted bookcase, about three foot high, two foot deep and four foot long, homemade of plywood with one lateral shelf about halfway up and painted light blue. Like most kids, I'd guess, I thought it was fantastic. It’s where I kept my barn and the plastic model animals, and the fences that I'd set up to keep them penned. The Silly Putty and the Play-doh, when there was any to be had (usually shortly after Christmas), were there (when they were put away), and also, later, my tub of BrixBlox (Sears' answer to Legos) and two big yellow Tonka trucks which were pressed into duty when I would play in the driveway.

On top of the toy cabinet was a round goldfish bowl, which you probably are picturing correctly if you’ve ever seen a fishbowl in the comics. If it were close enough after the Benton County Fair for the goldfish that was inevitably won to still be alive, then it would be a goldfish bowl with a goldfish; otherwise, it was housing for any vaguely water-based animal unfortunate enough to have been caught. Baby rabbits whose moms got run over by the mower went into a box with rags and were fed with an eyedropper of milk, but tadpoles from the Fowler pond and crawdads from Schwartz’s creek inevitably went into the fish tank, and were largely forgotten. (And, sadly but unsurprisingly, the fish tank was often their last residence - all died shortly after being moved in. It was on the top shelf of a southeast facing room that got lots of sunshine, so in the summer months when they were likely to be caught, vaguely water-based animals didn't stand too much of a chance.)

To the left of the toy cabinet in the corner there was a wooden rocker – just wood, no cushion – which was said to have belonged formerly to one of my grandparents and which was displaced for the Christmas Tree on the 24th of December. The goldfish bowl was put someplace else during Advent as well, since by then it wouldn't have housed anything living anyway, and that was where the cardboard Advent Calendar was placed. Opening one door at a time for each day that passed, revealing a different scene in the tiny window behind it in the story of Jesus’ arrival, was very effective at building anticipation for Christmas. The calendar didn't change from year to year, and by the time I came along it had tape on top of tape, and I was well enough versed in Christian mythology to remember from year to year which window had The Visitation, for example, so it wasn't suspenseful in that regard, but it was one of my childhood's rituals that marked the passage of time.

The den also had the desk of the house, which, looking back, probably earned the room its label. And which probably should have occurred to me before now, but as a kid it was just "the den" in the way that it was just Fowler or just Sacred Heart Church; the power of naming being opaque and bestowing that degree of inevitability. There was a ridiculously heavy old Royal typewriter for older sibling on the desk which I was not allowed to use. It sometimes had a black-and-red ribbon in it vs. just black, which I thought was especially cool. I would try to surreptitiously type on it, playing with the red and black settings, but I would always get quickly caught - it was a manual typewriter sitting on an oak desk on a linoleum floor in a room with plaster walls, so no surprise there.

The desk was a beautiful old oak desk, with shelves on either side, a foot board that ran the length of it that I could first reach in 5th grade, and a drawer that pulled out in front holding, inexplicably, a small red box with “Dennison” written on the cover diagonally in cursive on one side and three circles, like Cheerios, of white on the other. Inside the box were adhesive hole reinforcers. They were small circles of white paper with the equivalent of envelope glue on one side. When I was a kid I was mystified by these Cheerios, but eventually I learned that if you made a mess out of three-hole punching something, you could lick one of these babies, slap it over the hole, and you were all set. Some bored sibling had licked three of them and placed them exactly over the three circles that ran diagonally across the bottom of that box, and then that same or another sibling tried to circle the three adhesive hole reinforcers with a ball point pen and had failed, so that one tangent of pen line went off to the side, which I remember, even then, bugging me. That box was in the top desk drawer, always, even after we moved into Lafayette when I was thirteen. And I never thought it odd, from before I knew what it contained until after I found the box in its accustomed place when I was home on break from college and I was scrounging for an envelope. We never, as far as I knew, had a three-hole punch or a single-hole punch, and I can’t imagine what we would have done with one if we had it.

In the top desk drawer of the desk in the den was one of my favorite things in the Fowler house: a ruler. It was from my Grandpa M-- (and grandparents were simply grandma + surname and grandpa + surname, done, no nicknames) and it had inset across its face squares of different wood species, from light to dark, from pine to walnut, labeled to help the user identify them. I memorized it in the hopes of being able to recognize the wood of a piece of furniture and say it correctly, out loud, in the presence of one of my six older brothers, my parents, or my grandpa M--. It wasn't the kind of thing I was thought to have known. I loved that ruler and those beautiful wood grains; I thought it was the second most beautiful item in the house.

That desk felt majestic, almost regal, and when I would sit at that desk in the den as a kid, with the dining room to my left and the gun cabinet over the left shoulder and the toy cabinet over the right, even with my feet not touching the foot board, I felt very grown up. I would read the dictionary there, and write letters to my siblings who were away, and haul up encyclopedia volumes so I could flip back and forth between the beautiful topographical map and the no-nonsense political map of whatever state or country I was reading about, and quiz myself on flags and principal industries and largest cities. I didn't read fiction at the desk, it was a serious place for serious endeavours.

And as I'd sit there I'd often look up to my left, in the corner, above where the dictionary and thesaurus stood, and up almost to the ceiling, from my point of view, there were two rounded shelves snugged into the corner. The top one was empty, as I remember, but on the second one there was a thin rectangular wooden plaque – pine – with a perfectly fit rectangular piece of aged paper mounted on it with three words written in brown ink and in all capitals: “I AM THIRD.” I learned to read when I was very young, thanks to my sister who read to me incessantly, so I could read it for long time before I asked what it meant. “God is first, your neighbor is second, and 'I am third,'” I was told, when I asked. I wished I hadn't. I was terrified. Already I was 10th, and now I was third, too?

I didn't often think about it, and I never intentionally looked at it, but sometimes when I'd be sitting on the floor in my favorite hat, playing with my train set - maple - or sitting at the desk, swinging my feet, thinking of a word, it would catch my eye, and I would quickly look away, aware that I'd been caught not thinking about God first again.

04 November 2009

Missed story of the week -

Perhaps with all of the media coverage of the "Obama Referendum" you missed the following news item, but relations between Thailand and Cambodia are worsening. Fast.

The Cambodian government has just appointed ousted and indicted former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra to be a personal advisor to Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, according to a story in the Singapore Straits Times.

This is a problem because Thaksin is legally on the lam from Thai government officials, and his supporters have rallied across the country repeatedly in the last few years, disrupting transportation in Bangkok and prompting counter demonstrations that shut down the international airport and significantly affected tourism, a major industry there.

This is also a huge "Screw you" from Cambodia to Thailand.

Civil society in Thailand is deeply divided over the coup that threw Thaksin from power in 2006 - the coup was urban and middle class, for the most part, while Thaksin is supported by poorer urban Thais and those in the northeast and east. A little bit of a Berlusconi figure without the buffoonery, Thaksin is a gazillionaire several times over and owns many media outlets in Thailand. He briefly owned Manchester City Football Club in Britain. He is politically populist, instituting universal health coverage for all Thais but also waging a bloody "War on Drugs" with extrajudicial killings, and he led a crackdown on those segments of the press he didn't own.

There has been residual unrest from the coup for the last three years, and a weak government is in place now, the third since his ouster in '06. Add to that the border tensions of Cambodia and Thailand, who have been shooting at each recently over an ancient temple that both claim (and I'm sure the resident gods whole-heartedly support THAT), separatist unrest in Thailand's Muslim south, and the Thai King's failing health, and things in Thailand could go very bad very fast.

If the Thai King's health continues to worsen, or if Thaksin makes mischief by rallying supporters from just across the border to demonstrate, overtly or covertly or tacitly, or if any of the fully armed troops from either army patrolling the border get trigger happy, the situation along the border could deteriorate into a hot war with disastrous consequences for both nations and regional stability.

Sources: The Nation and The Bangkok Post (Thailand), The Straits Times (Singapore)