Writer’s Workshop: Flash vs. Streak

Somehow the word “final” reminded me of the days as a paperboy. I worked an afternoon route, which meant delivering the Chicago Daily News. There were two editions of the afternoon paper: the Red Flash, which had a single red stripe down the side of the front page, that was the “late markets,” and the Red Streak, which had two red stripes down the side of the front page, that was the “final markets.” (There was a third edition, the Blue Streak, that came out in the morning, but we had nothing to do with that.) I remember asking Chuck what it meant by “late markets.” He took a couple of puffs on his green cigar, took the cigar out of his mouth and pointed at me with the masticated end, and said, “stock market, you idiot.”

Anyway, my first route was delivering the Red Flash around the neighborhood. Chuck would get the newspapers at 2:00 in the afternoon, and by the time we got there at 3:30 he had counted out all the papers and distributed the “starts,” “stops,” and “complaints.” Starts were for a new or returning customer, and if you got them to sign the start notice and brought it back to Chuck, you got a dime. Stops were a customer who no longer wanted the paper, or who was going on vacation, and complaints usually came with a chewing out by Chuck. “Why dinya deliver this lady’s paper?” or “why’dya bust their winda?” Complaints were like strikes: three and you were out, i.e. terminated, canned, fired, however you want to put it.

I had the pleasure of delivering a copy of Der Abendpost to someone on my route. Never met the person(s) who took it, but I did learn the days of the week in German (Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Samstag, und Sonntag) from reading the date on the front page.

Mom didn’t like me delivering the papers, because it involved walking through alleys, pushing a cart, when it was dark and snowy. Dad, on the other hand, was proud of me and wanted me to stick with it, so I did. He went into the hospital (and never came out) after Thanksgiving, and Mom told me to quit, because neither she nor Grandma Holton wanted me out when it was dark and cold (which it was in November). I told Chuck, who was his usual grouchy self about it, but he paid me and said “see ya,” which might have been the nicest thing he said to me.

A couple of years later I needed money and went back to Chuck and asked him if he had any routes. It so happened that someone had just quit and he needed someone to work that route, delivering the Red Streak to the “four plus ones” on Sheridan Road. (“Four plus ones” were four-story high rises with a ground floor vestibule.) I and a friend of mine, also named John, would wait in front of Mertz Hall at Loyola for the Daily News truck. The driver would dump a bale of papers, John and I would split them up, then he’d go south and I’d go north. The great thing about that was we only had to deal with Chuck on Saturday when everyone delivered the Weekend Edition. That is, unless he needed to see you, in which case he’d come and meet you in his sky-blue Cadillac. Usually the only time he needed to see you was to chew you out about something. Like the time the elevator in a building malfunctioned and I ended up ringing the alarm, and the building’s manager called the Daily News downtown and complained. Chuck and I ended up going to see the guy together. At least he would stick up for you. Still, I got tired of that in a few months, and left again, never to return.

Funny story: When I was working for Chuck, there was this redheaded girl a couple of years younger than I who delivered papers. I only saw her on Saturdays, but I remember she was a pain in the ass. Anyway, I forgot all about her when I quit. Fast forward about twenty-five years: I’m in the San Francisco Bay area, and I’m going to dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house with my brother and his wife. I turned in my rental car and my sister-in-law comes and picks me up. I had never really had a chance to talk to her before then: they had lived in California for several years. Anyway, we’re driving in typical Frday night traffic, and we’re talking, and somehow we got around to talking about things we did when we were kids, and she said she used to deliver newspapers for Chuck. And all of a sudden, it dawned on me: she was the girl. I turned and said “that was you? You were a pain in the ass!” We had a good laugh about that…

29 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Flash vs. Streak

  1. I’m way behind and catching up so sorry for the delay in comment. What an amazing story. Definitely a small world. Also nice to hear a bit about your early working life. Other than cutting lawns, Dominick’s was my first official “pay taxes” paycheck. It’ll be 30 years next year. I still rely on things I learned there today.

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  2. You’ve heard of “6 degrees of separation” right? That’s the idea the people are 6 or fewer social connections away from each other. Yours is a good example.

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  3. Wow! I feel like you painted a movie for us with this one. I helped my sister with her paper route a little bit and that job is NOT easy. I can’t imagine how brutal it might be with those Chicago winters. And I love the Small World story at the end where you actually had a run in with that blast from your past. So funny!

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    1. Ever start writing something and it just sort of takes off on its own in a totally different direction? This one was like that.

      Thank you for saying the thing about painting a movie. It was a real clear memory and I could even smell the grease from the Sinclair station across the alley from “the barn.” The finding out that my sister-in-law was the snotty little girl from there was like a bonding experience…

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  4. Great, great story, John!

    The part about Der Abendpost had me thinking back to my father’s cigar and newspaper store. Aside from publications like the Daily News, Daily Mirror, Journal American…there was a huge clientele for Il Progresso, an Italian newspaper. Sadly, it shut down in 1988 but journalists from the closed publication regrouped and formed America Oggi, which is still an active newspaper.

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    1. There was a newsstand in Evanston, Illinois that sold newspapers from all over the world, and the place was always hopping. I’m sure it’s long gone now, but people wanted to know what was going on in the rest of the world, and people who came from foreign countries for whom English wasn’t their original language wanted to stay in practice and teach their kids how to read and speak it. That’s probably a lot more common than we think…

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    1. That they did. Good lessons as well as bad.

      The funny thing was that she had been married to my brother for at least ten years before it came up. It might never have come up… the planets must have been perfectly aligned…

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  5. A few years back we delivered newspapers to bring in a few extra dollars, I wonder how many people actually get newspapers now. When I started work and would ask clients how much they spend I. Subscriptions, we were always thinking newspapers and magazines. Now, subscriptions mean Netflix, Spotify etc… that’s funny that you ran into the red head years later…that’s funny.

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