The alarm would ring at 5:30 AM, waking me from a sound sleep. It was still dark but the quiet night was in the process of giving way to the sounds of morning. The birds began to chirp at about the same time and I imagined that my alarm clock had awakened them too. A short while later whistles from the steel and glass factories that surrounded our neighborhood sounded in the distance ending the night shift and calling the early morning shift to work.
Before long the Diamond Dairy milkman and the Omar Bakery bread man would be making their rounds delivering the daily staples of bread and milk from their odd shaped and colorful trucks. The milk bottles would clink together as the empties were carted away and replaced with the daily allotment of cold milk and the occasional pint of cottage cheese or pound of butter.
Little did I realize at the age of 13, I would become a part of this early morning mobile commerce. As a matter of fact, I was an essential part of more than one hundred families’ early morning rituals – I delivered the morning newspaper.
The Citizen Journal was one of two independent daily newspapers in Columbus, Ohio in 1964. My entrepreneurial spirit was born when I realized that I could make money by depending on myself – more money than I could imagine and certainly couldn’t afford allowances. So, I applied for and got a morning paper route to deliver the Citizen Journal. I was ambitious so I also got an after school route to deliver the evening paper, the Columbus Dispatch, which incidentally was delivered on Sunday morning – the one morning the Journal wasn’t. My media empire covered about 150 families and every morning for three years, until I got hooked on sports in high school, I was up at 5:30 bringing people the first news of the day.
I use the word “bringing” in its most liberal sense. Most of the time, I delivered the newspaper to their front door. Usually it was within easy reach without anyone having to venture out of the house clad only in pajamas or boxer shorts and sleeveless T-shirts to retrieve the paper. I could toss a carefully rolled Journal from my bike onto the smallest of porches while barley slowing-down.
These early morning forays into small business provided a sense of accomplishment that I cherish to this day. I was on my own. I was responsible, in my small way, for doing something upon which people depended. I began to associate early mornings with new opportunities and responsibilities. Each day was a fresh start regardless of what I had done the previous day.
My recollections of those early mornings are filled with memories of adventure, intrigue, hard work, and early life-lessons. I recall how wet the grass was from the dew and the occasional rainstorm as I walked to my route from Southwood Avenue. I had developed a shortcut to my route through a large field that was a part of Lincoln Park at E. Markison between 18th Street and Ann Street. It was about the size of two football fields and stood between my grandparents’ house where I lived and my paper route. I saved about ten minutes going this way but more importantly I shaved about a quarter-of-a-mile off my trip each way. I usually carried about 65 or 70 papers stuffed into a large canvas bag with a shoulder strap looped from one corner of the bag to the other. When full, the bag easily weighed more than 50 pounds. At the time I didn’t weigh more than 100 pounds so shortening the distance from point A to point B was important.
It would still be dark when I set out papers in tow. There weren’t any streetlights in the park to illuminate the way but there was a narrow, well-worn path that stretched diagonally across the field. It seems that I wasn’t the only one that had discovered the advantages of the hypotenuse. Even with this reprieve from the tall grass of the field, my shoes still somehow managed to find the dew soaked grass or the puddles left from an early rain. It seemed like my black Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars were always wet.
Without knowing it at the time, I began to appreciate the natural refreshing process that goes on at night. I slept and got refreshed. The dew refreshed the grass. The night sounds gave way to the sounds of morning indicating that the cycle was starting over. There was always “news” in the newspaper and I was the one responsible for getting that news on each porch, of each house, to each family on my route. I brought the news when John Kennedy was killed; when the Apollo 1 astronauts died on the launch pad; when Martin Luther King delivered his I have a Dream speech; and the daily recital of boys from the Southside of Columbus who were killed in Viet Nam. Early mornings became my first time in life to feel important.
For a year I walked my paper route. Just the distance I had to go and the number of papers to deliver made these early mornings a challenge. It dawned on me that I needed to invest some of my earnings in equipment that would make life easier and more rewarding. My first investment was to buy a bicycle. I bought it from Vince’s Bike Shop, a small business in the garage behind Vince’s home – nobody knew Vince’s last name – on Hinman Avenue right behind Nagy’s Shoe Repair on Parsons Avenue.
I thought that Vince was Hungarian but he could have been Italian for all I knew. He was the first grown-up I was allowed to call by his first name so I didn’t really care what his last name was. Vince was about 100, probably more like 50, but at 13, everybody seemed older. His garage was packed with used bikes and bike parts. When you walked in the front door you could barley squeeze through the dozens of bikes he had packed together on the floor and you had to duck to avoid hitting the ones he had hanging from the rafters. It was barely passable.
One Saturday morning after I had collected the weekly payments from my customers and I had paid my bill to the Citizen Journal, I had a few dollars of profit for a hard week’s work. I went to Vince’s to see what he had in the way of used bikes. He wasn’t much of a salesman but did point me towards a group of bikes he had refurbished with paperboys in mind. I saw a used red 30-inch Schwinn with a new wire basket set over the front wheel and attached to the handlebars and with a chrome carrier over the back tire. The combination was a paperboy’s dream.
A handwritten price tag dangled from the front handlebars with $28 written in pencil. I had $10. Before 10:00 AM that early Saturday morning, I had made my first purchase on credit. Vince sold me the bike for $28 with a payment plan of $10 down and three weekly payments of $6. I rode it home that day. Sunday morning I delivered my route on my new bike. For the first time in a year, I came home with dry shoes.
Many early mornings have passed since those days on the Southside of Columbus when I was a teenager experiencing life for the first time. Those neighborhoods have changed. Many of the families that I knew by first and last name no longer live there. The houses seem smaller and far less cared for. Vince died many years ago and his shop is just another garage in an alley full of dilapidated buildings, overflowing trash containers and overgrown weeds. Adults who can’t find work in the factories that have shut down now deliver the newspapers from their cars with mufflers that are too loud and with attitudes that reflect the embarrassment of not having a “real” job. The factory whistles don’t call men and women to work any longer. The milkmen and bread men have long ago been replaced by convenience stores and express lines at the grocery. The Citizen Journal went out of business in 1985.
Early mornings however, are still special to me. The dew still covers the grass. The birds chirp at 5:30 and the morning sounds still replace the silence of the night. As much as things change, they remain the same.
Early mornings are my time to discover what life holds. In 1964, they were the windows to life. I could see opportunity. I had the chance to be somebody even if it was just a paperboy. I knew that I had the ability to make each morning something special. I felt that I could make a contribution.
Today early mornings are still my window to life. I awake to the sounds of early mornings and know that I have been blessed with another opportunity to do better – to impact others through the way I choose to live each day. Everything starts early in the morning.