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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Slave children at dawn

If you're Superman, you just might make the minimum wage.

May 1st, 2007

BY GREG ROBERTS

Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for having alerted us to the appalling scourge of child labor. Your good work helped end the abomination of children picking rags and bones from the banks of the Thames, or walking the filthy streets with a bucket, collecting feces for the tanneries.

What’s that, I spoke too soon? You say the slavery continues? Quite so, governor —thousands of children are slouching through the snow and rain, hard-pressed and sleep-deprived, scrounging for coolie wages.

They are newsboys. They ride their bicycles through the dark streets at four a.m., when the methamphetamine addict is still tacking out at 3,000 rpms, when the angry drunk is pulling the tab on his fourteenth beer, when vicious dogs are at the peak of paranoia.

Their princely reward for delivering a newspaper in this war zone is ten cents, one thin dime. That is what most of the big dailies pay their delivery people. Dimes are what John D. Rockefeller used to hand out to the kids in a crowd in 1900. Even then, this amount was considered paltry, and people sneered at the skin-flinty old codger for his stingy offerings.

More than a century later, the newspaper publishers are sticking to the dime, whether it takes thirty seconds to deliver the thing, or three minutes (the time spent unlocking gates and trudging up steep drives).
It is lucky for the newspaper publishers that the public seldom sees their miserable untouchables at work. Most of us are asleep. But I’ve seen this underworld, have been in the thick of it.

Like many baby-boomers, I have the mental defect of trying to appear too nice, of not being able to say “no,” even to people who are the most insidious of users. I was suckered by the family of a twelve-year-old boy, our son’s friend, who was going on vacation for two weeks. And of course the newspaper route could not rest — it is a beast that must be attended every morning, the same as a cow that needs milking.

The poor dairy farmer has no choice, but how do you explain our city friends hobbling themselves with this awful enterprise? They were college professors living in a million-dollar mansion, who further lined their pockets through rentals and other investments.

The paper route was foisted on their boy in order to instill a work ethic, but that was a farce, too. Most of the time the old man ended up driving him up and down streets because the weather is so awful in winter. No matter, I told him that our son Cassidy and I would do the route for the two weeks.

That first morning I was shocked to find that we were delivering papers to just two or three houses per block, a sure sign that the newsprint business is going the way of town-crying and sail-making. A good thing, too. Think of the vast forests that are cut for each morning’s glut of day-old news and insipid real estate ads. And why do the ecologically rabid intelligentsia continue to receive the pulp instead of the electronic version? I don’t know. Maybe their brains are addled by the same spirochete that allows them to fly on jets and buy beach houses as they valiantly recycle yogurt lids in order to save the planet.

As we trudged through the gloom, we were met by the happy sight of a house all lit up, every room. But as we came nearer, we heard death metal music pouring from the walls, and in the window was shadowed a man staring out at us. He’s a valued customer, a forty-year-old psychotic on welfare who has never been laid, who seeks some sort of human contact. Why don’t the neighbors ask him to turn down the boom box? I guess because they’re afraid he’ll kill them.

After dodging this guy, a few insomniac geezers, and some barking Dobermans the size of okapis, we scurried to the safety of our car, where we regrouped in order to take on the next block. It was a long morning. One down. Thirteen to go.

On the ride back to the house, eight dollars richer (wait, make that three dollars — we spent five bucks for gas), Cassidy told me about a guy in town who was a legend among paperboys, a man now in his thirties who had done the same route so long, he had it down to a science. He was said to be super-fast on his bicycle, finishing his route in record time, so that he could get back to his artist’s studio where he painted with acrylics.

Great job. If you have the athletic abilities of Lance Armstrong and the organizational talents of Steve Jobs, you can make minimum wage.

One morning I was listening to a talk show on the radio, and an editor from the daily paper came on as a guest to talk up the rag, something that is happening more and more as the dailies realize they are dying. I called up and asked why the newspapers were the only business in the country that were legally paying less than minimum wage. The editor said he had no comment, this was not his department. Is there still a courthouse in Nuremberg? That sonofabitch needs a trial date.

And what about the rest of the masthead? The writers couldn’t care less. These compassionate crusaders go hysterical as they flay Phil Knight and Nike for being so evil as to pay the highest factory wages in Asia, and they fight like cornered badgers to get the highest possible salaries and benefits for themselves, even as their paper loses circulation faster than a hemophiliac in a knife fight in Macau, but they never talk nor even think about their little brothers schlepping papers in the fog for a dime a pop.

There’s an old song by A.P. Carter called “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”: “I sell the morning paper, sir, my name is Jimmy Brown. Everybody knows me, I’m the newsboy of this town. You can hear he hollerin’ Morming Star, runnin’ along the street. Got no hat upon my head, no shoes upon my feet.”

What’s the problem, Jimmy? You’re surrounded by friendly townspeople, in broad daylight, and it isn’t so dangerous that your dad has to drive you around. You’re not likely to be mauled by pit bulls or psychotic methers. You’re lucky to have such a secure gig, Jimmy. Today’s newspaper carriers envy you. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Roberts | Link to this Entry

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