Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

Why do some parents drag their kids to the doctor all the time?



While I am in pretty good health for my age, when I was a kid, visits to hospitals and doctors were quite frequent.  Apparently, even though I felt well enough, I was a sickly child.  And my Mother dragged me from Doctor to Doctor until one day, well, I wasn't sick anymore.  Did she have Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

It was quite an odd experience, and when I asked my parents about it, they would become evasive or claim not to remember what happened.  You would think the hospital bills would have been memorable.  I am not saying that all off these illnesses were imagined, only that, well, let me explain, and you can draw your own conclusions.

To start with, my birth was apparently quite a trial.  When I was growing up, my Mother, after a few martinis, would start getting maudlin and tell me and my brother, "Well you know, when one of you was born, the doctor thought we were going to lose the baby!  I was in labor for nearly 24 hours, and the doctor at one point told your Father that we were going to lose both me and the baby!  Well, fortunately, it worked out OK.  I won't say which one of you it was, of course!"

And of course, we always assumed it was my brother who was the problem child.   After all, he always had (and still has) this goofy expression on his face, like a kid with Down's syndrome.   And of course, he ain't exactly the brightest bulb in the universe.   And he always was getting into "trouble" in his life.  So, hell, he had to be the one with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck - what other explanation was there?

After my Mother died, my Father gave me a box of books and papers which he didn't want.   One was my baby book, which was not filled out, but had some letters and cards in it.   Before throwing it all on the bonfire, I glanced at a couple of them.  One was a letter from a friend of Mothers, telling her to get well and giving her sympathy for the horrific childbirth experience.

Holy Shit!  I was the Malanga Baby!  And all this time I thought it was my retarded Brother.   Who knew?  In retrospect, of course, it makes sense - I have an enormous head and it must have just been like pulling a cork out of a wine bottle without a cork screw.

Well, anyway, they left the hospital, tossed me in the trunk of the car and drove home, no doubt smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini en route.   But my medical problems were just starting.

Mother always said I was a quiet, happy baby, and there is a good explanation of why.  She was concerned that I was "dangerously underweight" - apparently she forgot about my enormous head and what it had done to her.  So, anyway, back off the doctor we went, and he prescribed that she put a bottle of Guinness beer in a baby bottle and feed it to me.

Well, it must have worked, as I am no longer in any fear of being dangerously underweight.   And yes, if you Guinness people want to use that, be my guest.  Guinness - it does a baby good!

But it also explains why I was a placid, happy baby.   Must have been all those vitamins.

My Mother made one other weird comment about my early childhood.   She said that when I was an infant, they gave me phenobarbital, and it caused an allergic reaction in me.   Why you would give barbiturates to an infant is beyond me.  It is just another one of those bizarre, unexplained stories she told me.

Life was pretty good, I guess, for a couple of years - I don't remember much of that time period.  But at about age 4, I was hospitalized with a bizarre and undiagnosed high fever.  To this day, my parents say they never knew what caused it.   A doctor apparently thought it was meningitis.  I ran a high fever and they actually put me on a bed of ice, at the Pittsford hospital, near Rochester New York.  I do remember that time, particularly the ice part - and the bed pans.

Just as mysteriously as the fever came on, it went away.  And within a few days, I was sent home.  I am not sure what caused all that - was it meningitis?  Reaction to an immunization?  Household cleaning agents in the soup?  I will never know.

Shortly after that, we moved to Illinois, and the medical problems started up again.  I am not sure what the grounds for complaint were at the time - I don't remember feeling sick or ill.  But my Mother took me to one specialist after another.  I was getting shots and having blood drawn, and I remember giving urine sample after urine sample.  I became quite good at peeing in a cup.

During one test, they shoved a catheter up inside me, which was no Swiss Picnic for a six-year-old.  The injected some sort of chemical into me and then pulled the catheter out like they were pull-starting a chain saw.  "It hurts less this way," the Doctor told me.   The Doctor lied.  An intern noted that the procedure was not done properly, so this did it a second time - this time the memory of the searing pain was in my head the whole time, which made it worse.

I did get even with him - peeing on his X-Ray machine later on.  What they were testing for and why was beyond me - some sort of bladder infection?  I questioned my parents later on as an adult, and they feigned ignorance of the whole affair.

I had so much blood drawn and so many injections that I had needle marks on my arm.  As a teen, one doctor saw these and accused me of being a drug addict!  It was bizarre, to say the least and even more bizarre that my parents cannot remember the nature of the illness.  But it gets weirder.

About that time my Mother decided I needed to see a podiatrist - a foot doctor.  She was convinced I had flat feet (I did not) because I "ran funny" (due to other reasons).  So off to the foot doctor I went - many times.  He was a very nice, friendly man, and he would have me strip naked, alone in the examining room while he examined my feet, which seemed to take a long, long time.  He prescribed special foot exercises and ordered a set of prescription shoes, to correct my "fallen arch".  My memory is a bit hazy here, but I think he may have given me one of those injections as well.   Memory can be tricky, though.

I do remember one very odd thing - because it was very odd.  When we went to get the shoes, he had my Mother drop me off at his house, not his office, after hours.  I was led down to the basement where they had a family room and his children were there.  We ate cake, and I remember his kid saying I was one of his Father's boys.  I remember being led into another room to have the shoes fitted, but I don't remember much after that. 

Very odd.   Odder still, the prescription shoes were wingtips, and needless to say, I was the only kid in the neighborhood wearing wingtips all the time.  If I ran funny before, well, now, I couldn't run at all.

Shortly after the shoe-fitting incident, I remember being examined by a doctor in my bedroom.   They made housecalls back then, and he had his finger up my arse.  The doctor said he wanted me in the hospital.  So off I went.

All the other kids were in there for tonsillectomies, and they all said how great it was, because you got to eat all this ice cream.  But I was not in for a tonsillectomy.  The doctor explained they would operate, but not by cutting into me, but by going up my arse.  Sort of a tonsillectomy for the other end.  I remember being wheeled into the operating room and the sickly sweet smell of nitrous oxide.  And I remember waking up in the recovery room - and yes, they did give me ice cream.

Again, as an adult, I asked my parents what that was all about, and they got nervous and evasive.   I mean, what the fuck?  Doesn't a person have a right to their own medical history?   But they said they didn't remember what it was all about (seems to me the kind of thing you'd remember, again, getting the bills and all) so it remains a mystery.

At that point, my Father lost his job and we moved back to New York.   The mystery illnesses went away, and when I outgrew the wingtips, my feet were declared cured and no more was made of it.  I later met a friend who really had flat feet and realized that, while I have large feet, they have a perfectly acceptable arch.

My Mother moved onto other hobbies - alcoholism and a few other -isms.  And she seemed to latch onto my older Brother as the "troubled child" now (as well as herself) dragging the both of them to psychologists and psychiatrists in an effort to "get well".  And she found attention in this manner, and in her histrionics and of course, failed suicide attempts.  But, by and large, she pretty much left me alone, at least in the Doctor department.

My Grandfather, the only other Lawyer in the family, had diverticulitis, gout, and a profusion of nose hairs.   I remember sitting on his lap as a kid, looking up, and seeing that forest of camel hair in his large proboscis.  I remember at the time saying, "Gee, I hope I don't grow up with THAT!"

But apparently I inherited things other than his legal skills, including gout and diverticulitis.  And it was the latter than lead me to investigate the strange childhood operation that no one seems to be able to recall.   Was it juvenile polyps or something - or something else?  I may never know.

But I am fortunate to be in relatively good health, today.  A high-fiber diet, including supplements, keeps the diverticulitis in check, and a minor amount of alopurinal keeps the gout from flaring up.  Both can be very painful illnesses.  I have been fortunate (knock wood) not to have any problems for at least a year or so.  Both can be triggered by stress, and being debt-free has reduced my stress a lot.

But I  look back on my early childhood now and say "What the Fuck was that all about?"  Because at the time, as a kid, you don't think about things like that much.   And as an adult, I always thought of myself as fairly healthy and having a healthy childhood.   But then you connect the dots and these random incidents start to string together, and you wonder what it was all about.  And confounding the mystery of the whole thing is the absolute silence I got on the matter from my parents - I just got sick, no one knows why, no one remembers why, no one remembers what all the tests and operations were about, or why I needed special shoes or barbiturates or indeed Guinness.

Well, I still drink the Guinness - it does make me a happy baby.  And given the amount of gin my Mother drank, it does taste like Mother's milk to me.  And hey, it's loaded with Vitamins!

I suppose everyone has a weird childhood.  Various strange incidents and oddball things happen.  I just wanted to write it down, though, before I forget.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mother's Overdose

Mental Illness is not fun to deal with, when it strikes a family member.  When you are just a kid, it is even worse.


My Mother was not a happy person.  She tried to commit suicide many times in her life, and she also suffered from bi-polar disorder, alcoholism, and probably a few other things.  She was a closeted Lesbian for most of her life, in an era when being Gay was not only frowned upon, but ostracized.  I am not sure if that is what made her crazy or not, or maybe it just made it worse.

She and my Father argued often, and loudly, nearly from the time I was born.  It was very typical that they would come home from a cocktail party screaming at each other.  Or some argument would start once they had gone to bed.  And with each passing year, it got worse and worse.

I had largely forgotten, or tried to forget, the episode I will relate now.  I only recalled it recently, after several bottles of champagne with friends down in Florida.

I was about 13 years old at the time, as I recall.  I am not sure how the whole thing started - perhaps an argument she was having with my Father, perhaps something else.  I was home with my Father and my Brother.  My older Brother and Sister had graduated from college and were out on their own and no longer lived at home.

For whatever reason, my Mother decided to "end it all" and down a bottle of her tranquilizers, Librium.  I am not sure if you can O.D. on Librium or whether she was making a grand gesture (she was quite fond of the latter).  All I do recall is that my Dad decided "I'm out of here!" and he left. 

My Brother shortly followed suit, taking his clapped out muffler-less Chevy with him, to go visit his girlfriend.  And yea, he took his pot with him.

So, here I am, home alone, 13 years old, with a Mother who may or may not be dying in bed, with an empty pill bottle of Librium on the nightstand.  And of course, I am freaking out a bit and don't know what to do.

So I pick up the pill bottle and dial (yes, we had dial phones back then) the number of her doctor, using the red kitchen wall phone.  After talking to the receptionist, I am finally put through to the doctor and I am crying.  He sounds slightly annoyed by the whole thing.  It reminds me of when my dog died, and I tried to call someone about it, watching her convulse on the front porch - people being mildly annoyed by the whole thing, wondering what all the fuss was all about.  Maybe we should have had them both put down long ago.

He writes a prescription for syrup of ipecac, which was what killed Karen Carpenter and has since been outlawed.  Today, making people puke is not seen as the proper response in such situations.  Ipecac causes heart problems, which was what would eventually kill my Mother 25 years later.

I get my bicycle out of the garage and pedal off to the pharmacy, about 3 miles into town.  I pick up the Ipecac, which the pharmacist hands me with a grim look, and pay for it with my paper route money.  I wonder what he is thinking, this kid trying to get his Mom to puke after she OD's.  It is all a bit surreal.  And maybe he has seen this before.

So I pedal back home and give the medicine to Mother.  She is remarkably pliant for someone overdosing.  Perhaps she didn't take that many pills, perhaps she is enjoying playing out this little scene.  I am not sure which.  All I do know is, that someone is suppose to do something, that is, other than to go off and see their girlfriends.  And I am the only one left.  Perhaps they were hoping she would die?

She takes the medicine and a few minutes later heads off to the bathroom to vomit.  I ask her if she needs anything and she says no.  "I'm so sorry..." she says, and I tuck her in.  Before long, she is sleeping.  I call the doctor to see what to do, and he says to let her sleep.  So I go off to the living room and sit and wait.  There is damn little else to do.  No booze in the house, and my brother took all the pot.  So I read a National Geographic while sitting in the easy chair, and before long, I too, am asleep.  I dreamed.
Mental illness is an odd thing - and can be quite annoying to the people that have to deal with the mentally ill.  Throughout my life, I have known a number of people with fairly serious mental illnesses - they seem to be attracted to me like flies.  Roommates, Girlfriends, Boyfriends, acquaintances, coworkers - you name it.  Or perhaps mental illness is more common than we think, and having even a tenuous grasp on reality is something to be thankful for.

My Mother's case was pretty sad.  She attempted suicide a number of times in her life.  She went to the St. Catherine's School for Girls, and from what I understand, had to leave due to some sort of incident, which was either a suicide attempt or was followed by one.  A similar thing happened in college, where she was forced to drop out and continue her degree elsewhere.  Oddly enough, she would browbeat me later in life for dropping out of both prep school and college, although in my case, it was just a matter of too much partying, not dramatic suicide attempts.

Although, in prep school, my roommate, who was a little unbalanced, did try to do himself in, and I think one reason they tossed me out was to try to find someone to "blame" for this.

I never figured out why my Father married her.  After all, a psychotic, alcoholic bi-polar closeted Lesbian is not the first choice for most Men.  Perhaps she hid these tendencies very well.  Or perhaps my Father thought he was marrying into money.  Or perhaps he was a fool.  I sometimes wonder about this, trying to fit different pieces into the puzzle, before putting it aside like a half-finished Sudoku.  It was either a 3 or a 9, or possibly a 7.  I'll get back to it later.  But we never do.

Of course, her suicide attempt would not be the last, nor the last in a long string of craziness that I would have to endure, often alone at home.  I learned how to quickly and discreetly disable the car by removing the ignition coil wire, to prevent her from driving drunk.  How to water down the booze to prevent her from getting too drunk too fast.  How to disconnect the phone so she wouldn't call all her friends at all hours of the night.  But of course, none of these worked very well.  And eventually, I just let her go, perhaps secretly hoping she'd drive the Vega into a tree and save everyone a lot of trouble.

The incidents usually were the same.  My Father would call around 5 or 6 in the evening.  If I answered the phone, he would say "Just tell your Mother that I'm working late" or perhaps that he was "playing tennis".  When I offered to put Mom on the phone, he declined.  I quickly learned that it didn't pay to be the bearer of bad tidings.  And often this was enough to set of a drunken tirade, a fugue state that could go on until all hours of the morning.

"He's seeing that woman!" she would cry out, and then things in the house would start to get smashed.  My Mother had a large collection of faux Egyptian ceramics and other artifacts, as well as other tchotchke, such as ceramic birds - which would often take flight.  I became very adept at gluing things back together, after a time, and her collection of faux ceramics started to look like actual reconstructions from an archeological dig.  Paintings and wall hangings suffered a similar fate.  I ended up inheriting many of these, with dented and scratch frames and missing glass, which I have since had re-framed.

In her fugue state she would go off on several sorts of crying jags - "No one loves me" or that sort of thing.  At first, I would try to console her, "Well, of course we love you" - but that never worked.  No matter what you said, it just triggered another tirade.  As an experiment once, I tried agreeing with her.  "Yes, you are right, no one loves you!" I would reply, but the net effect was the same.  She just needed an emotional punching bag to beat on, and since I was the only one in the house without a driver's license, I could not escape.

Her violence would escalate over time, and she eventually developed a taste for knife play.  I recall one incident, as an adult, when I had returned home to go water skiing, got a little too tipsy to ride my motorcycle home, and decided to spend the night in my childhood bedroom, which of course, was a very bad idea.  Before long, the shouting began, and I heard my Father run up the stairs and barricade himself in my Sister's bedroom.

Suddenly, my bedroom door burst open, and in the thin moonlight, I could see my Mother in her nightgown, holding a kitchen knife in one hand, and a martini-on-the-rocks in the other, along with a lit True cigarette.  The moonlight glinted off the knife.  I could hear her congested breathing, "snuck, snuck" as she inhaled her own snot.  The ice in the glass tinkled as she swayed back and forth.  Amazingly, she spilled not a drop of her drink, nor dropped a single ash from the cigarette.  Priorities.

She peered at me in her alcoholic haze.  She was looking for a man to kill.  But I was not that man.  Not now, not tonight, at least.  I could almost see the mental process going on in her brain.  She wheezed and spun around and ran down the hall.  I could hear pounding.  I got up, closed the door, and locked it - and went back to sleep.  In my family, this was not a very remarkable event.

The next day, I woke up late and went down the hall.  The door to my Sister's bedroom was gouged with a series of scars - as if some animal was trying to claw its way in.  The kitchen knife was embedded squarely in the middle.  Both of my parents were nowhere to be found.  I quietly got dressed and started my motorcycle and left.

I grew up and left home.  My parents sold the house, needing the money for an unplanned early retirement.  They built a new, less expensive house in Maryland and retired there.  And on at least on occasion, she acted out her knife attack yet again, resulting the replacement of a bathroom door.
My Father endured my Mother's tirades for nearly 15 more years - which was poetic justice.  I really didn't feel sorry for him at all.  I wondered, sometimes, why he stuck it out.  For a while, they had talked seriously about divorce, when I was in my teens, but nothing ever came of it.  And perhaps they could not really afford it.  Mother did come into a small inheritance, and perhaps that is what kept them together in the end.
Over the years, her personality sort of eroded - washed away, leaving in its wake something that was an image of my Mother, but only a shadow of what was there before.  The Mother who made my school lunches and taught me how to tie my shoelaces was long gone, replaced with something far different and far less.

By the time she died - of congestive heart failure, after living two decades on a diet of cheap white wine and ice cream, and no exercise - I had already grieved for her loss.  The actual death was little more than a relief.

I  dreamt.

I awoke with a start.  It was dark out now, as the sun had just set.  There was still reflected light coming off the lake, which seemed to almost glow in the early evening dusk.  I went back to my parent's bedroom and hear my Mother snoring - making that 'snuck snuck' sound she would make for much the rest of her life as she suffered from constant post-nasal drip.  Still no sign of Dad or Brother.

I went back to the kitchen and made something to eat and then headed off to bed.  Tomorrow there would be school, and a book report due.  I would try to write it during early Study Hall.  Perhaps I could ask the teacher for an extension.  Although I wonder if using the excuse "My Mom tried to kill herself" was really wise - or whether she would believe it any more than "my dog ate my homework".  I decided not to say anything at all.

My Mother and Late Sister, in happier times...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My First Job, 1973

My first job was at age 13, delivering newspapers.


Even though I came from a fairly well-off upper-middle-class family, at a very early age, I wanted to make my own money.  My Dad never gave us "allowances" like other kids had, so as kids, we were always broke and begging for money from our parents.  Money, as I have noted time and again, is control - power - and if you don't have any money, you have no control or power over your own life.  It is as simple as that.


Of course, employment opportunities for 13-year-olds are not very plentiful.  So when a classmate suggested to me that I "take over" his paper route, it seemed like a golden opportunity.  For only a small buy-in, I could be a teenage entrepreneur!



Nowadays, the vanishing job of "paperboy" has been replaced by "paper delivery person" who often is an adult and drives a car.  And as we shall see, there is probably a very good reason for this.  Paperboys were routinely exploited, back in the old days - a lingering legacy of exploitative child labor.


My first paperboy job was for the Syracuse Evening paper - the Syracuse Herald-Journal.  We delivered this paper six days a week, and then delivered the heavy Sunday edition of the Post-Standard on Sunday Morning.

The way the system worked, you were not paid a wage, but rather were considered an "independent contractor" which I suppose was one way around child-labor laws.  We bought papers from the local distributor and then re-sold them to route subscribers - in theory, anyway.  And in many instances, we had to "purchase" our route from the previous paper-boy, in effect purchasing the unpaid collectibles and the right to run the route.  It was like running a small business, in miniature.



The local distributor was also the local undertaker, and their house was creepy-weird, to say the least.  It was almost an exact replica of the home in the TV Series Six Feet Under and the family was about as odd.


Every day, after school, we would race down to the garage behind the funeral home to get our papers and go off to deliver them.  We would race, as we had to get there early to make sure we got all our papers.  If one or more paperboys felt they were short-changed on papers (by the funeral home director) they would swipe papers from your pile.  If you were short a paper, you could complain to the funeral home people, but they usually were conveniently not available when you arrived.  What usually ended up happening was that you would go to a paper vending machine and buy papers out of that box, if you were short some papers.  And rarely would you get reimbursed.


Compounding the paper problem was that the paper came in at least two editions - the City Edition and the County Edition.  And since there were several counties surrounding the city, there were even multiple County Editions. 



Some subscribers wanted the City Edition, others the County Edition, and woe be to the paperboy who delivered the wrong edition to the wrong subscriber!  Many folks felt no compunction about calling up and bitching about this, even if they had not paid the paperboy in a month or more.  But more about that, later.


So you show up at the dingy garage behind the funeral home and get your papers.  And you pedal off on your route.  A study old one-speed 26" bicycle was the vehicle of choice for paper boys.  I used my oldest brother's old bike, fitted with side baskets in the rear (purchased from another paperboy) and a "Sunday Edition" basket in the front.  I also had the canvas shoulder satchel that is de rigeur for such work.  All loaded up, the bicycle and papers could easily weigh 80 to 100 pounds.  It was like pedaling a sled.



Now, on Television and in the movies, they portray the paperboy as a carefree individual, who pedals lazily down the block, folding the newspapers into nice tight packages and then tossing them onto porches as he goes along, hitting the doormat with unerring accuracy.  That is the fantasy.


The reality is, that with advertising supplements, there were few days a week you could fold the papers that way - most time they were too thick to fold.  So you had to use rubber bands to make them into nice tossable packages.  And since it rained a lot in Syracuse, you'd need plastic bags around them.  And it took nearly a half-hour to package all the papers that way, if you wanted to do that.



But the point was moot.  In addition to requests for City and County editions, most subscribers had detailed delivery instructions on where and when they wanted their paper.  Some wanted them placed on small clips under their mailbox.  Others, in apartment buildings, expected us to dismount, climb a set of stairs, and place the paper on their doorstep inside (One apartment building in particular had a smell in it so nasty that I tried not to breathe in there.  I was certain one of the tenants had died in there!  Perhaps they did).  And yet others had complex instructions on placing the paper between the outside door and storm door, or inside the house itself! (many folks never locked their homes back then).  Tossing a paper on a front porch was always problematic, as high winds, rain, and the like could ruin the paper in short order, and you'd have another angry subscriber calling the funeral home to complain.


So delivering papers was not a matter of pedaling and tossing, but constantly mounting and dismounting your bike, walking or running large parts of the route, and following and remembering obscure delivery instructions for the version of the paper and where it should be delivered - and when.


Yes, there were people who insisted that they get their paper earlier than others, particularly the morning paper, which I would deliver later.  This made things trickier, as you would have to re-arrange the route, sometimes crossing back on yourself, to serve these early-birds first.

And of course, on top of this, you had to keep track of people leaving for vacation, requesting that you "stop paper" for a week or so.   If you delivered the paper by accident, they would get upset, and of course, you couldn't charge them for those papers. 



So it was hard work, particularly for a young kid.  But hey, the money was worth it, right?  Well, not exactly.  Back then, if everyone paid their bills you might expect to make $10 to $20 a week, if that, delivering papers for about two hours every afternoon, plus four hours on Sunday.  Do the math on that, and it works out to about a dollar an hour, if that.


And that was assuming people paid - and tipped.  An enormous number of customers felt that it was OK to stiff the paperboy, for some reason.  And the subscription department would not let the paperboys drop customers for non-payment.  Circulation for newspapers was already down during those days, and lower circulation meant lower ad rates, so if someone didn't want to pay, well too bad for the paperboy!


And non-payers would accumulate on your route, until they owed you $20, $30, or even $40 or more.  On Saturday afternoons, we'd go to do "collections".  During the week, we would leave an envelope for payment.  Less than half would put the money in the envelope and leave it for the paperboy.  Old ladies usually were the most conscientious, leaving a quarter tip, sometimes tipping a dollar or more at Christmas.  But others never paid, until you knocked on their door.  And even then, they would say they "had no money" and to "come back later" even if you could see loose pocket change on their hallway table.  It was a Catch-22 for a young kid.


And of course, there was always several characters who would come to the door in their bathrobe and ask if I wanted to come in for a soda and candy.  No, seriously!  And that is probably another reason why they don't send children out, door-to-door anymore, delivering newspapers.


The Sunday edition was particularly onerous.  We had to get up in the morning (which, as afternoon boys, we were not used to doing) about 4-5AM and head down to the funeral home to get our papers.  The papers were huge - and thick.  And since the volume was at least four times heavier than the heaviest days (Wednesday ad supplement days) we had to make two to three trips back to the funeral home to get papers.  It was backbreaking work, trying to pedal a bicycle loaded with these papers and carry a satchel as well.  And of course, everyone wanted their paper before Church or morning Mass, so there was an incentive to hurry (or  have yet another phone call made to the funeral home!).


I enjoyed the work, however, despite all the setbacks and difficulties.  However, I was not an astute businessman, which is not surprising for a 13-year-old.  Tracking down non-paying customers was a particular chore, and if enough didn't pay, well, at the end of the week, you wouldn't have enough to pay off the funeral home people for the papers.  You'd work like a dog all week long and end up owing them money!



And of course, the number of papers that I counted as delivered was always less than what the funeral home people counted.  They played games with the numbers and always seemed to have me delivering five more papers than my records showed.  They were not nice people.

Perhaps, now that I think about it, the smarter paper boys - the ones who stole papers from my stack, had subscribers on their routes they didn't tell the paper about - and pocked the full amount for the paper from them.  There were undoubtedly ways to play the system, but they never occurred to me.  I suppose if I had befriended some of those nice men in their bathrobes offering candy, I could have made some real money.  But I was a pretty naive kid - like most are.



So after a couple of years of the evening paper route, I jumped at the chance to switch to mornings.  One of the other boys told me about it, and it sounded like a sweet deal.  No collecting, no "buying papers" and re-selling them, just delivering the papers, and getting paid - on a salary, plus tips.  And the best part of all?  No Sunday delivery!  Which meant I could sleep in, at least one day a week.


I took the job immediately, abandoning my evening route (I was unable to find a chump like myself, who would "pay" to "buy" my paper route.  But by that time, the idea of delivering papers was considered pretty uncool to most kids, anyway).  The enjoyable aspect of this was that it put the funeral home people on the spot, and they had to deliver the papers themselves, until they could snooker some other kid into doing it.  So, while it cost me some money, it was worthwhile to stick it to the man, so to speak.  I could only hope that the old witch who ran the place keeled over dead of a heart attack doing it.



Their funeral business wasn't doing very well, as it turned out.  They also had the ambulance business in our small town, and people got tired of being taken to the hospital in a hearse.  I think also many folks thought this was a conflict of interest.  So the townspeople got together and formed a volunteer ambulance squad, effectively cutting the funeral home's income in half.  The folks running the home were none too popular, which I think killed off the rest of their business.  Today, the home is a private residence.  Needless to say, I have no desire for a funeral - just cremate me, or whatever is cheapest.  I don't want any of my money going to these sorts of creepy people!


The man I went to work for, delivering the Syracuse Post-Standard, was a fellow from Camillius named Charlie Pilger.  Charlie was a sweetheart of a guy and very understanding and friendly.  I had to trust him to pass on the tips to me, but he was easy to trust.  Plus, getting that weekly pay without collecting made it all worthwhile.


Charlie started me out on a small route, about $15 a week.  I had to get up around 4 AM and dress warmly, and then pedal my bicycle into town.  Four in the morning is an interesting time, as everyone, even the drunks, are asleep.  And it is quiet as a mouse.  It was an introspective time for me, and I used the time to think, while I delivered the papers.


Charlie moved me around to different routes, over time, and at one time or another, I had delivered papers to nearly every house in town.  Some times I would take on other boy's routes while they were on vacation.  Who the other boys were, I do not know, as we did not all meet at one location every day.  In fact, I never met another Post Standard delivery boy the entire time I worked for him.  I think he had a "older" guy who delivered papers from his car, but I never saw him.


I enjoyed the morning route, but getting up in the AM was hard to do, particularly when I had an older brother who liked to have loud beer-soaked and pot-stewed parties every night in our shared two-bedroom apartment over the garage.  Trying to sleep with all that loud music was not easy.  I had previously caught him stealing my route money when I was doing the evening paper, which was one reason I never made much money at it.  Between that and the partying, I moved out, into the main house, which made things a bit easier.


However, Syracuse winters are nothing to be laughed at, and let me tell you, it gets cold at four in the morning!  During the months of January and February, I would put on two pairs of long johns, two pairs of blue jeans, two pairs of socks, and then wear a t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, parka, hat, scarf, and sometimes two pairs of gloves!  It was freaking cold!


People today try to tell me about how cold it is where they are, and say folks like me, living in the South, have no idea what cold weather is like.  Well, buddy, get up at 4 in the morning and spend a couple of hours delivering papers sometime!  You'll know what cold is, then.  And it sucked!


Of course, riding a bicycle in the snow is also not very fun, but there was really no other way to get into town.  My parents flat-out refused to ever drive me on my route (as they did my oldest brother a decade prior, on rainy days).  I think they wanted me to quit.  Well, in fact, I know they wanted me to quit, which of course gave me the incentive to stay on.  I think they thought it was "lower class" behavior to be delivering papers.  It was a stick in their eye to keep doing it, so I did.


I actually made a set of tire chains for my bike that worked, sort of, providing adequate traction over snow covered roads.  But for much of the routes, in snowy weather, I had to walk my bike.  Adding some excitement to the job was the prospect of snow plows, who often would not yield to me as they tore down the main highways in the early morning.  On more than on occasion, I had to scramble up a snow bank while a "wing blade" passed by, inches from me.


But despite the hardship, I stuck with it, as I enjoyed having the money to spend.  What did I do with the money?  Squander it, of course.  While $10 or $20 a week might not sound like a lot of dough today, for a kid with no expenses, it comes to $500 to $1000 a year.  Now bear in mind that back then, you could buy a brand new Pinto for about $2000.  And a nice used car could be had for $500 to $1000.  So it was not chump change.  In theory, I could have saved up for a car.  In practice, I spent it all on candy, soda-pop, record albums and other junk that I probably didn't need.


And as I got older, I started spending the money on other things.  My Brother, who by then was nearly 18, wanted to go out to bars with his friends.  Problem was, they were all broke.  His initial reaction was to steal my paper route money, but that approach didn't last long, as I previously noted.  So they ended up taking me along, and I would buy pitchers of cheap draft beer and throw a few gallons of gas in his car.  Back then, the drinking age was 18, and if you were 15 and were shaving, you could "pass" in most bars - particularly the sort of bars that needed the business and were all too happy to look the other way.


But by that time, drinking and drug use was taking its toll, and getting up at four in the morning just wasn't in the cards, so I had to tell Mr. Pilger that I could no longer do the paper route.  I did go back and do a driving route for him when I was 16, albeit illegally on a learner's permit.  In an effort to promote the Post-Standard, the paper decided to deliver the paper every day for two weeks to everyone not on the subscription list.  It was an odd job, as they gave me a list of subscribers and had me deliver papers to everyone not on the list!  It was only a two-week gig, though.  I piled my brother's broken-down station wagon to the roof with papers and set off every morning for nearly four hours, delivering papers.



By then, minimum wage jobs at the mall were opening up, and even though they were ten miles away, they promised more hours and more pay.  And that's when I started my second job, as dishwasher at the ill-fated "1890's Beef 'n Reef" restaurant (which was about as bad as the name implies).  But that's another story.


Since those days, as I have noted, few papers have "paperboys" anymore.  Dwindling subscription rates and issues with child labor (as well as the increased perception of risk to children) have pretty much done away with the job.  Nowadays, adults handle the routes, and put the papers into plastic tubes attached to people's mailboxes.  The nostalgic image of the freckle-faced paperboy, baseball glove dangling from his handlebars, tossing papers on to front porches with carefree accuracy, is now long gone, if in fact it ever existed.


I look back on all that hard work with mixed emotions.  I am glad I had the gumption to start working at an early age.  I am sorry I did little more than squander the money at the time.  At that age, until I was well into my 20's, I viewed money like most people do - as something that passes through your fingers - and the more than you have to spend, the wealthier you are.


And perhaps in part, that was the most valuable lesson of the paper route.  Later in life, I looked back and said to myself, "That was a lot of hard work, and for what?  I never saved a penny of it or spent it on anything of value.  I was as broke as I always was, just having more money to spend!"  And because of that lesson, I started looking at money in a different way - as something worthwhile to own, in and of itself, at least for a part of your life.  Something that can be accumulated, not squandered.  But that lesson would be a long time in coming!