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Wandering Billy

Tales of a Fisher Park Paperboy

What was once a way of life is now unthinkable

By Billy Ingram

“The newspaper carrier hasn’t time to get into trouble. He finds it fun to hold a job, to earn money and learn to meet people. He may not be aware of it, but he is developing individualism and learning to accept responsibility.”      – J. Edgar Hoover

Can you imagine allowing — no, encouraging — your preteen to leave the house unaccompanied during the twilight hours before sunrise, meet up with some random stranger in a pickup truck, then roam the neighborhood going door-to-door before your alarm even goes off in the morning? Inconceivable? Yet, that was a common occurrence in my youth, no less than a Norman Rockwellian cultural touchstone . . . the hometown paperboy.

Technically, I suppose Ben Franklin could be considered America’s first newsie as he handed out the Pennsylvania Gazette he published in the 1700s, but in truth that distinction belongs to 10-year-old Barney Flaherty, who was hired in 1833 to deliver The New York Sun. At that time, child labor was an accepted practice in factories and sweatshops around the country. That now unthinkable practice was outlawed a century later, but employing schoolboys to distribute the local news continued unabated by simply labeling these pint sized couriers “independent contractors.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Tom Cruise, our current President? All paperboys at one time, as was a friend I met at Mendenhall Junior High in the late-1960s, John Hitchcock. 

Being a morning person as a youngster, I would occasionally tag along on weekends, when bundles of newspapers were tossed off a truck at 6 a.m. for 12-year old Hitchcock and another nearby paper carrier, Norfleet Stallings. Pick-up was at what was once a spectacular 1920s-era, California Art Deco-inspired former firehouse once occupied by the City and County Council of Civil Defense. It was not in the best of neighborhoods, located alongside the railroad tracks on Church Street between Hendrix and Bessemer.

After rolling the papers, then fastening them with rubber bands, Hitchcock would throw a Greensboro Daily News-branded canvas bag over his shoulder and slide onto his silver Stingray 3-speed bike’s banana seat. Then he’d peddle and fling that morning’s edition onto dewy lawns across a seven-block route bordered by Bessemer Avenue, Church Street, Elm Street and North Park Drive.

His take for the week was 5 or 6 bucks, around $50 adjusted for inflation. “I was the richest kid in town,” Hitchcock says, perched behind a crowded counter at his shop, Parts Unknown: The Comic Book Store. “I could buy all the comic books I wanted and, if it was cold, get a bowl of chili, a bag of Fritos and a drink at Woolworth’s for like 35 cents. Then I’d high tail it home.”

Hitchcock still lives in the Fisher Park Craftsman-style home on Olive Street his family has owned since the 1930s. One recent evening, the two of us wander the neighborhood while Hitchcock points out houses and mentions some of the customers that lined his route.

“Mrs. Coble lived there forever. She was the sweetest old lady,” Hitchcock tells me as we approach 904 Olive. “After her kids were grown, she started renting out rooms.” Behind her house sat a square cinder block hut, no longer there. Word has it that back in the early-’50s, “for about a month, legendary Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle and a couple of bonus babies [rookies] lived in that house when they were sent here to get seasoned for playing with the Yankees.” After the games as those ballplayers would hang out drinking beers, Hitchcock’s uncle would join them. “He said they were really down-to-earth guys.”

This former paperboy had his share of eccentrics along the route. “My friend, Ken Edwards, came to my house one day and he says, ‘Look what I’ve got,’” showing Hitchcock a stack of early Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics. Edwards explained that one subscriber on Hendrix was selling 12-cent Marvels for 10 cents apiece. “I slowly ended up buying all of them from him. What was weird about the guy, and I mean really weird,” says Hitchcock, “is he would give you a comic if he could spank you with a paddle. I never did it, but Ken did, and he said the guy didn’t hit worth a damn compared to his dad.”

A couple of blocks west at 113 Hendrix sits a large two-story duplex. “Alan McLeod had one of the greatest butterfly and moth collections anyone ever saw,” Hitchcock recalls. “He would buy cocoons, hatch them and mount them for display.” McLeod’s grandmother resided in the adjoining unit. “There was a welcome mat in front of her door. The paper had to be placed directly on the mat. If it wasn’t there, she would call and tell me to ‘bring my paper in.’ Sometimes it would be just a foot away. And I never got a tip.”

On the corner of Hendrix and Church, there’s a house Hitchcock remembers well. “Behind that house was a square metal cage where this guy kept squirrels,” he says. “Don’t ask me why, but he did.” Crossing the bridge over the railroad tracks to the other side of Hendrix was a dwelling with a more exotic habitat. “They had monkeys in a 5-foot by 8-foot pen. We’d bring pecans for the monkeys to eat and the homeowners would yell at us to get the hell out of there.”

In a charming bungalow at 1005 Magnolia, “There was a wonderful woman, Mrs. Noah. She lived by herself,” Hitchcock recalls. “She had a framed lithograph of Robert E. Lee, must’ve been passed down through the family. She told me that her daughter was seeing a guy and when the boyfriend walked in, saw the picture of Robert E. Lee, he says, ‘Why, General Grant! I’m glad you have such a nice place in this house.’ Mrs. Noah looked at her daughter and said, ‘He’s got to go.’”

In the 1980s, papergirls joined the carrier ranks. During the next decade, falling circulations and rising liability costs spelled the end for an American childhood tradition stretching back to the pioneer days.

Perhaps J. Edgar was right. John Hitchcock’s business on Spring Garden will be celebrating its 35th anniversary next year, so that entrepreneurial spirit did indeed start early and stuck.  OH

When not wandering, Billy Ingram can be found on Tuesday afternoons behind the counter at Parts Unknown, where one of the shop’s best-sellers is Brian K. Vaughan’s acclaimed graphic novel series Papergirls, which he highly recommends.