Story by Murray Schneider
Long ago, when I was 12-years old, I delivered the San Francisco Call Bulletin to Bobo Olson, the world middleweight boxing champion.
After school, I’d bicycle along 34th Avenue between Judah and Kirkham Streets and pull a patented Call hatchet fold from my paper bag, which I draped across my Schwinn’s handlebars.
Each afternoon I’d fling the Hearst daily onto Olson’s doorstep.
When it came time to collect each month, I’d ring Bobo’s doorbell. He’d answer, always well groomed, dressed in pressed slacks and a laundered Hawaiian shirt. Bobo tipped well, and I’d dutifully hand his gratuity and the other money I made to my mother.
She and I would walk each month to the bank on Noriega Street and buy a $25 U.S. Saving Bond with my collection money.
A decade later the bonds matured and I purchased my first car with the earnings.
I thought about all of this as I looked across the diner table at 12-year old Quinn Armentrout. Quinn relaxed near his mother, Reva Bhatia, at Tyger’s, the popular Glen Park eatery. Quinn isn’t the latest, but he’s certainly the youngest Glen Park News paper carrier. He’d recently completed delivering his route for the second time, and I wanted to meet and thank him at the restaurant where I’d treated my grade school daughters 30 years ago to stacks of pancakes whenever they made straight As.
I figured a Tyger’s burger, which Quinn downed with studied attention while his mother enjoyed a salad, was a small down payment for lack of monetary recompense. Quinn’s a volunteer, you see, as are the 25 other Glen Park News paper carriers who help distribute 3,900 copies of the neighborhood newspaper four times a year.
“Quinn talked with Rebecca when she delivered her route,” explained Reva, “and he offered to sub if she ever needed one.”
Rebecca Murray-Metzger lives in the Sunnyside, around the corner from Quinn, a seventh grader. His mother knows Rachel Gordon, the editor of the Glen Park News, and she’d brought Quinn to my attention. As the newspaper’s Distribution Manager, I needed a new paper carrier. One thing led to another and I enlisted Quinn.
“It’s not daunting,” he said, whittling his hamburger, now sculpted to the size of a half moon. “I knew I could do it.”
Having taught in the Daly City public schools for 39 years, I wasn’t use to running across a 12-year who serves up a SAT word such as “daunting.” I took a closer look. Quinn gave off an off-handed boyish insouciance. His delicate shoulder-length hair brushed his T-shirt collar. Behind owlish glasses, his eyes glowed bright and alert.
“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked.
“Philosophy and math.”
I raised an eyebrow. I could deal with math. Didn’t have much experience with philosophy, though, teaching California’s youth as long as I had.
“Quinn’s a voracious reader,” piped in Reva, the daughter of immigrants from India. “In his Humanities class his teacher uses Socratic seminars and discusses essential questions such as, ‘How to do the right thing?’”
“We read “Much Ado About Nothing,” Quinn added.
‘What sort of other fiction do you read?” I asked, wanting to keep the ball rolling.
“Wonder,” he replied.
Quinn seemed to favor monosyllables.
“It’s by R. J. Palacio and it’s about a boy Quinn’s age who lives on Manhattan’s Upper Westside and who is facially disfigured,” elucidated Reva, who was born in Pittsburgh, but raised in Houston. “His parents, who’d home schooled him, enroll him in middle school.”
“I like reading on our couch,” Quinn volunteered. “It’s solitary and I can ignore time.”
I could deal with ignoring time. Possibly Aristotle could, as well.
“Bird & Beckett,” he continued. “It’s amazing.”
“Amazing?” I fished.
“I like browsing the used book section. Its has atmosphere and it feels brown.”
I tried wrapping my mind around brown. Yes. Brown works. I definitely feel brown, comfortable and cocooned, in Eric Whittington’s book-filled sanctuary.
“It’s warm and friendly,” Quinn posited. “And I really like Sherman.” Sherman’s the bookstore cat, which was featured with a front-page photo in the fall issue of the Glen Park News.
“Do you read the Glen Park News?” I asked, continuing to troll, crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.
“It gives neighborhood news the Chronicle wouldn’t bother to print,” he said. “I can skim and switch articles.”
“Best of all,” he continued, “I can put it up to my face and hide behind it.”
Bingo! Rachel Gordon and Gail Bensinger, her Deputy editor, won’t be able to conceal smiles after such a declaration.
Quinn’s Glen Park News paper route takes him to Surrey and Arbor Streets, and actually “daunting” may be an understatement.
There are hills.
“I trailed him the first time,” said Reva, who gives no impression of being a soccer mom.
“It’s was sort of embarrassing,” Quinn whispered under his breath, presenting a snapshot of the 12-year old trapped in the body of a bespectacled philosopher-prince.
“He enjoys the challenge,” said Reva, “and I think this experience will teach him about responsibility and independence.”
My mother had gone a bit further when it came to independence. If she’d been old enough, she would have befriended John Hancock. Before I’d leave for another Tom Sawyer summer day, she’d ask me if I remembered my front door key and tell me to be home by dinner.
Afforded such license, I was never tailed along my Sunset District byways. She raised a free-range kid whom she permitted to hop the N-Judah to go swimming at the Sutro Baths and travel to Kezar and Seals Stadiums to watch football and baseball.
Back in the Eisenhower ‘50s, before helicopter parenting was ever a glint in a sociologist’s eye, my mother permitted me to explore the neighborhood at will, especially Golden Gate Park, a surrogate for our postage-size Lawton Street backyard.
She did, however, have one maternal admonition.
She’d wag a finger: “After you do your route, before you come upstairs, wash your hands with Lava soap.”
The Call Bulletin printer’s ink could be lethal to our living room furniture.
The outer Sunset is flat, and my Call Bulletin aim only occasionally misfired as I tossed copy after copy of it onto Doelger stoops. The Call, like the Glen Park News, had its distribution regimen. Driving a step van, a grizzled guy called Gus unloaded our bundles at the corner of 34th and Judah.
Each afternoon, I’d leave my sixth grade classroom at Lawton Elementary, skidding to a stop next to a mountain of Gus’s bundles, always secured by a metal tie. I’d flay away at each, finding mine and always remove a paper from the middle (a trick of experienced paperboys) and begin folding one after another.
Our paper bags had two sides and I crammed my papers into both. Other carriers coalesced around Gus’s gift that kept on coming, and if a kid had 50 customers he always stood taller. I had 61, and my route took me all the way to Pacheco Street where I’d double back to Ortega and deliver a copy to the firehouse on the 1900 block of 32nd Avenue.
One had to be tall because a paper corner rite-of-passage called for taking the new kid, the initiate, to Sunset Boulevard, relieving him of his jeans and throwing them on a pine tree limb where the neophyte had to scurry up after them.
Quinn boasts 80 customers, but he gets his bundle delivered directly to his Mangles Avenue doorstep by me, and the only initiation he’ll ever endure is my Tyger’s inquisition.
“I like my route,” he said, his burger now history, his interrogation now history, too. “It has all sorts of different and interesting houses.”
My instructions are simple: No hatchet folds, or putting papers into mailboxes. Deliver only in the sunshine, place each paper on a step away from any wind, and if you have any remainders leave them in one of the village coffee shops.
Our lunch over, we rose to leave. Reva battled me for the check, but I didn’t let her win. I toyed with submitting it for Glen Park Association reimbursement, but decided not to. Lunch was on me, sort of a karmic closure.
With October 31 rolling around, I suggested we walk to the house between Brompton and Lippard, the one with the other worldly Halloween decorations. Quinn is tall for his age. Following him up the block, I wasn’t surprised to see he’d encircled his mother’s shoulder with his arm. Reva doesn’t hover, and I was warmed she made no attempt to shrug off her son’s display of filial affection.
Like my mother did, Reva green lights Quinn to ride Muni, allowing him to walk to Santa Rosa and San Jose Streets where he catches the J-Church to school each morning. They continued on in companionable silence. Earlier, they’d walked to Chenery Street from their house and they now wanted to return because Quinn’s 10-year old sister, Anya, waited.
Thinking I might have candidate for a future carrier, I asked him about dragooning his sister into a journalistic endeavor that informs citizens with core news, original content, spot-on editorial opinion and interesting columns.
“You have to like walking,” Quinn said, smiling.
I like walking, which is why I kept my paper route. Not the San Francisco Call Bulletin route, the one I gave up after leaving A.P Giannini Junior High School, but my other one, my Glen Park News route. I never surrendered it when I took on the role of Distribution Manager three years ago.
My route takes me along Chenery for a block. I descend Mateo, deliver both sides of Arlington and then huff and puff up Roanoke.
Unlike 34th Avenue, Roanoke is a bit of a hill.
Quinn’s route is on the other side of Glen Park. I probably won’t see him as he and I deliver our December newspapers.
I know it’ll take him some time. But after awhile, like me, he’ll acquire a skill that will never abandon him.
He’ll stand in front of a Glen Park house, and he’ll pull a newspaper from his paper bag. He’ll study the angle from street to doorstep, measuring its acuteness. He’ll twist his arm and release a parabola, and then he’ll watch the newspaper sail high over the steps, tried and true. He’ll see the Glen Park News land in a perfect rectangle, plum with the front door, not one page unfurling. And if he’s lucky, he’ll see the house’s occupant open the door, kneel down and collect the best neighborhood newspaper in San Francisco.