A short story that captures some of my experience as a paperboy in Chicago. It demonstrates the quiet creepiness sometimes experienced in ordinary events, a la Hitchcock. It was not conscious, but I’m sure Jack London’s To Build a Fire influenced the intense description of cold.
It was really cold. Not just cold enough to see your breath. But cold enough to make your face numb if you didn’t stop to warm up in the front hall of an apartment building once in while.
Jack could hear the snow squeaking under the tires of his cart and the bottoms of his floppy rubber boots. The set of tags with all his customers addresses fluttered and banged around on a big metal ring hooked to the cart handle.
It was the coldest Jack could remember. But it was the harsh wind that really made you shiver. And the little bits of snow it picked up that made your skin sting.
He could feel the wind slap against the side of his cart. But it was a sturdy thing, built like a buckboard. A big, shiny yellow crate, reinforced with metal ribs, with a wheel on each side like the ones on a wheel-chair and a little swively solid thing at the front.
He tried to keep his mind off the cold. He just wanted to deliver his papers and get home as fast as he could.
But it wasn’t easy. The cold went right through his gloves after just a few minutes out. He tried blowing into the wrists, but that only helped for a couple of seconds.
And things just looked cold. Clouds of steam rushed out of all the manhole covers up the street and swirled up into the frosty streetlights. Then fierce gusts of wind drove them almost sideways and filled them with silvery bits of ice.
Some kid back at the agency said you didn’t want to go near them when they were like that. The covers could blow off and kill you. Jack didn’t know if it was true, but he crossed every street with a steamy manhole cover like he believed it was.
Normally there was nothing Jack liked better than the snow-laced trees overhead. But they were scary, too, now. The gusts of wind tossed the long, graceful branches into huge, sweeping movements. And there were creaking sounds. You couldn’t help thinking about one breaking off. He’d seen branches down after storms.
Even a nice neighborhood seemed a little creepy at five-thirty in the morning, especially on a day like this.
Almost all the windows were dark. And even where someone left the Christmas lights on all night, they looked lonely in the windy darkness.
There was always a cozy yellow glow from the front halls of apartment buildings. But this street was almost all houses. Anyway, you didn’t deliver in the halls. You only went in there to warm up. All the apartments got their papers on the back porches. From the alley.
That was the part Jack hated. The alleys. In the dark. Especially on a morning like this. The cold made everything slower and harder. If you had to walk one up, there was snow and ice on the back stairs. And the wind meant you couldn’t throw so good. And maybe you couldn’t hear someone creeping around.
It was funny, alone in the dark like that, especially with the wind howling, the scary thoughts you got. Jack put it down to being a skinny thirteen-year old. Nervous and not really tough enough. Raised by his mother. The manager’s words kept going through his head. The guy knew just what to say. This was a man’s route.
As much as he could, Jack had delivery down to a system. When it was warm, he rolled papers as he pushed his cart. That was the fastest way once you learned how to do it.
On bad days he rolled them all at once back at the agency. It took longer, but he couldn’t roll papers with gloves on. And that way they didn’t blow away. He could remember chasing fluttering sheets all over the street once and then trying to make them look like newspapers again.
Streets with houses went the fastest. He thought of it as kind of a performance really the way he lunged forward over the cart and grabbed a paper, then, letting the handle bar go, turned and threw it. He caught up with the cart in a couple of steps and started again. It felt good when it all went smoothly for several blocks.
But it didn’t always go smoothly. And this morning he found himself stopping the cart several times and loping across the fresh snow in a front yard to fish a paper out of some bushes. It wasn’t so bad, but the snow on the bushes at one place got pushed up his coat sleeve and left his wrist stinging.
Still, Jack got through the main part of his houses in decent time. He rolled his cart up to the side of an apartment building that went over some stores on 79th Street. The lobby was back near the corner of the alley behind the stores.
He’d warm up a few minutes before heading down the alley. The lobby was warm. There was a radiator under the mailboxes and beads of sweat on the door glass. But it was a couple of minutes before the heat penetrated Jack’s stiff clothes. Everything he had on seemed brittle.
He slapped his cheeks a couple of times. The stinging from the wind had faded, and he wanted to make sure he could feel something. He read somewhere that you should start worrying when you couldn’t feel things anymore. But it wasn’t so easy to tell in this kind of cold just when that was.
He jumped up and down a little. Those rubber boots over your shoes kept you dry, but they didn’t do all that much for the cold. Then he stood right against the radiator. He could feel a wave of cold leaving his body almost like cramps going away. Jack sat down on the stairs. The carpet was warm and thick.
From inside, the snowy night looked beautiful. The door’s heavy cut glass caught glints of Christmas lights and signs from stores down at the corner. Everything outside was shades of twilight. And the wind swept it with glittery bits.
The door’s heavy wooden frame and piston on top made Jack feel secure from the wind and the cold, but you could hear it move just a little with the big gusts. A slight rattle and a whooshing sound.
Jack thought nothing was prettier than the city coated with snow. But he didn’t like this kind of cold. He wished he didn’t have to go back out. He didn’t even want to think about how much more he had to do. Four blocks of houses didn’t make the stack of papers go down that much. Most of his route was apartments. He’d stop in several lobbies before he was done.
At least there weren’t any starts this morning. He didn’t have to search around in the dim light for the numbers on any new porches. He could just go by memory.
His old afternoon route sure was easy compared to this. In the daytime alleys weren’t scary places at all. He played in them since he was a little kid. They honeycombed the old neighborhoods with shortcuts and secret passages, with roofs and porches to climb and hide on.
And it used to be fun on a sunny afternoon, rolling his cart down the alleys, seeing if he could make all the third floors on his first try. But that was about sixty papers. Now he had more than two hundred.
He used to get invited in sometimes. One lady baked gingerbread. But no one baked gingerbread at this time in the morning.
He got up after just a few minutes. The first blast of cold air made him stop thinking about anything like gingerbread. He turned his cart around and headed into the alley that ran behind the stores. He quickly left the umbrella of street light behind.
The alleys weren’t completely dark. There were lights on some of the telephone poles. Not bright, modern ones, but they made these little pools of yellowy light down the pavement. And a lot of porches had dim lights on the stairs. So you could see your way around. But they were still places with all kinds of dark shapes. And there were all those dark gangways between the garages that led to dark backyards and dark basement doors.
Jack turned again, halfway down, to the alley that ran behind the side street he’d just come up. It was all apartments on the other side of the block.
He noticed the wind wasn’t as bad as it was on the street. The buildings were blocking it a little. Throwing wouldn’t be as bad as he thought. Except for the third floors. With the snow blowing around on the roofs, lighted dimly from the street, it was like you could actually see the wind whipping over the buildings.
If you had a decent arm, you could throw most of your papers from the middle of the alley. But stairs and porches came in a lot of different shapes. And with things like telephone poles and wires you couldn’t always get a good angle. You had to go through the gangway and lob them from the back yard. Or, in some cases, walk them up.
Most porches were pretty small targets. You had to get it over the banister. Without hitting the back windows. And hopefully not the garbage cans. The garbage cans didn’t matter when you delivered afternoon papers, but they sure did on mornings.
If you roofed it, you’d be short. That meant bringing another paper back from the agency when you were done. Usually, on big morning routes, the guy down at the agency would run one out for you in his car. But not always. And you didn’t like asking.
Jack missed his first third floor. The paper bounced off the banister and spun down. At first, he thought it was in the yard. He pulled his cart over in front of the garages in case a car came by and went looking around the gangway and the backyard.
He couldn’t find it. So he was pretty sure it was on the garage. He thought about climbing it and looked for a place to get a boost. Some garages were easy to climb. But there was nothing that looked easy with the snow and ice. And it was just too cold to be heroic. So he’d be short.
Jack had done a couple of blocks of alleys when he saw some car lights turn in about a block ahead. They were moving slowly. That made them look more sinister. He never liked meeting up with cars while it was still dark back there. It was scary the way they put you in a spotlight. With your eyes all adjusted to alley light, they just about blinded you. And you just never knew.
Jack pulled his cart over before it got very close. He’d lob the next couple of papers from the backyard. Hopefully the car would be gone then. He could always wait there a minute if it wasn’t.
Jack had no trouble lobbing the papers. A second and a third floor. But the car lights were still there. He could see the glare from them over the top of the garages. He decided to wait. The lights weren’t moving.
Jack walked slowly back through the gangway. He peeked nervously around the corner of the garage. It was hard at first to see anything in the glare but blowing bits of snow and some steamy exhaust.
Then he could see it was a station wagon. It looked like Larry’s car, the manager from down at the agency.
Suddenly Jack felt silly about being so suspicious. He walked over to the car. Larry rolled down the window and yelled through the wind.
“How ya doin’, Jack?”
“Oh, I’m a little behind with the cold. But I’m fine.”
“Well, I was just takin’ a check aroun’, bein’ so cold an’ ev’rything. Jus’ wanna make sure nobody’s in trouble.”
“Oh, no, I’m jus’ fine. Thanks.”
Larry held out a white paper bag full of something.
“Ya wanna doughnut?”
“Oh sure, thanks.”
“Okay, Jack, we’ll see ya back down at the agency.”
He rolled up the window. Jack remembered the paper he roofed and started waving. The window rolled down again.
“Say, I forgot. Ya got an extra? I’m gonna be short.”
Larry reached over on the seat and handed Jack a paper.
“Thanks, Larry, see ya later.”