Please join us in welcoming deb friend and fellow debut author, Therese Fowler as our guest blogger today. Therese’s debut novel Souvenir is a February Target Bookmarked Breakout title, a March Book Sense Notable, a Featured Alternate Selection for Doubleday and Literary Guild book clubs, a Romantic Times Book Reviews Mainstream Fiction Top Pick, the Barnes & Noble New Reads Book Club selection for May, and is now or will soon be available in ten languages and eighteen countries.
A Midwest native, Therese transplanted herself to Raleigh, NC, where she lives with her husband and, depending on the month, any or all of their four sons. You can learn more about Therese at her website and also through her fabulous blog.
I started my working life as a paperboy. And yes, I do mean “boy.” (Which isn’t to say I’m a surgically altered male who’s now a woman writing women’s fiction. If only—what a great publicity hook!).
It was winter 1979, a time when feminism had lost its radical edge and moved mainstream enough to enfold even my rural Illinois life. Though society as a whole was a long way from catching up, the concept of equal rights—of all kinds—was ingrained in me. I had already single-handedly taken on our area Little League and broken their gender barrier, so when I was looking for a way to supplement my babysitting income (to finance my Skate Ranch addiction, you understand) and a boy I knew quit his paper route in a nearby neighborhood, I snagged the job. I was twelve that winter; I didn’t think of myself as a feminist, I thought of myself as a tomboy—even had a nickname, “Terri,” to match. But if feminism allowed me to be me, bring it on!
When people heard I’d taken over a paper route, they’d say things like, “Hey, then that makes you a papergirl!” They seemed to like the sound of the new term, as though with my getting the job we had all become more mod, real leading-edge-of-society. But I wanted nothing to do with any “girl” label; if word got around to my customers that the new kid bundled up in the army-green parka and navy moon boots was female, I’d get treated like a girl. I didn’t want to be treated like a girl. “Are you sure you can handle those heavy papers?” “Should you be out after dark alone?” I stood firm: Like every kid who’d had the route before me, I was the paperboy.
Do paperboys—or papergirls—exist anywhere inside the US borders today? I can’t think of the last time I saw a kid with a grungy canvas bag slung around skinny shoulders, tossing specially folded newspapers onto doorsteps. What kid nowadays does what I did then: tromp a mile through cinder-blackened snow piles in winter’s early darkness to the corner where the newspaper distributor dropped a banded stack, or two, or several? What kid spends an hour crouched at that corner, fingers freezing (but feet cozy in those cushy space-age boots), folding papers into that time-honored tuck, then stuffing the bag full and spending another two hours going door to door to door to door?
There were always a few customers who had “special instructions” for where to put their paper. In the mailbox. Inside the storm door. On the back stoop on top of the third weed-filled flower pot to the left of the milk box. (Milk boxes: Another anachronism.) I hated those special instructions, which came from the office attached to my bundles, and seemed to always be changing. If the instruction was wrong or came too late, I’d hear it from the customer on dreaded Collection Day. I hated Collection Day even when all was going right; asking people for money—even money they owed—was the worst (but most necessary) part of my job.
Maybe you remember Collection Day—Thursdays, when I was doing it; maybe you answered the door to the mittened rap of someone who appeared to be a long-haired boy with chapped cheeks and an expression of apology mixed with dread.
“Collect?” I would say, holding up my two-ring binder filled with pale pre-printed payment stubs that I would trade for the two or three dollars that a week’s subscription cost.
My route was in an old, rundown area abutting a four-lane highway. Narrow, uneven streets featured ramshackle houses where people on fixed and/or minimal incomes lived simply. Hard as it is to imagine in our four-bucks-a-coffee world, these folks often didn’t have the subscription money at hand. On one particularly bitter mid-December evening, an old couple who had to put off paying until the next week invited me inside, to warm up before facing my mile walk home. I was an ice-block by that point and gratefully accepted. The minute I lowered my parka’s zipper a little, revealing the flowered long underwear I’d forgotten I was wearing, my paper-“boy” cover was blown.
I could tell the folks were surprised, but they didn’t mention it, talking instead about Christmas and grandkids—the reasons they were short of money that week. After a few minutes, I left, relieved not to have been peppered with questions or concern. It wasn’t until the next week that I knew word of my true identity had spread. As I did the route on Monday evening—Christmas Eve—I found small gifts awaiting me on some of the stoops. I suppose that the paperboy would also have gotten gifts, but probably not the “diamond” earrings, the Hello Kitty note pad, or, from the kind old couple, a plush, red-ribboned teddy bear. I tucked the presents in my emptying paper-bag as I went, and then smiled the whole way home.
Every job teaches us something—about other people, the world, ourselves. With that first one I started to see that I could be “me” and also be a girl; likely that epiphany saved me from long years of psychotherapy, and may in fact have inspired the movie “Yentl.” I have only one regret: that if someone ever makes “Therese,” Barbra Streisand will be too old to play the lead.
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