BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
Some synonyms for “bleak”: black, gloomy, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, dark, darkening, depressive, desolate, dismal, dreary, glum, gray, miserable, morose, somber, sullen, sunless, wretched…
Not every snowy and cold winter in Chicago is/was “bleak.” But delivering papers in the cold and dark afternoons of my childhood often seemed bleak.
I could not often use my bike because of the snow. So I had a sled to haul the papers from the distribution point at 69th and Racine. I had to walk there after school (still in grammar school), fold my papers, then begin my route. No easy summer bike ride with a paper bag on the front of the bike, no easy travel “to work” and then back home. Winter brought the cold after school. Then dark–and colder.
My little brother Tom was often there with me, slogging along, making my duty and responsibility to my customers less bleak.
My original route began with 39 customers. I was the young kid delivering the afternoon paper during the week, with some Saturday and Sunday (early Sunday morning) customers. I was the paperboy for the Chicago Herald American.
We began our undertaking at 69th Street and Loomis Boulevard, working our way north. Crossing 67th Street–Marquette Boulevard–we delivered only on the west side of the street. Ogden Park, with its paths and hills and summer rec swimming pool, now covered with snow, took over the east territory to Racine Avenue.
At the corner of 63rd and Loomis sat our winter oasis: Rexall Drugstore.
Sitting in the shadow of the elevated train, the “L,” back then the end of the line for A trains south, was Our Rest Stop. Our Watering Hole. It provided us with our favorite nourishment after that cold Windy City walk opposite Ogden Park.
My brother sat in a booth, snow melting from his boots and mittens. I ordered and paid at the soda fountain: “Two hot chocolates with marshmallows, please.” (I always was polite to the person making our delicious creamy drink. More marshmallows for the polite. Big marshmallows. Two, maybe three.)
We sat, joking and laughing, perhaps recounting our Snow Warrior battles along the route, or counting money collected. I always paid for his drink, his reward for helping me. Then we had to return to the bleak midwinter to finish the route. Once again my brother and I trudged along, to customers on Ada, Throop, and Elizabeth, from 64th back to 63rd, up and down both sides of the streets, the wind now blowing across the park, from the south.
Finished. Then home: from 64th and Elizabeth to 67th and Marshfield, rarely though the wind-swept snow-piled paths in the park, down to 67th , then west, crossing the frozen streets of dirty snow and slush, sled bumping off the curbs, to wide Ashland Avenue, then to our home refuge.
Sometimes, though, on our way home, we stopped at a neighborhood grocery store, getting a five-cent pie, our snack for a job well done. Cherry was always my favorite, or lemon–or maybe coconut cream. Small pies, easily shared, or gulped down by one. I still long for those pies, now more crust than filling (and with no whole cherries).
When I grew older, when winter turned to other seasons, and my companion found other activities of his own, the winter-time paper route had grown from 39 papers to a route of 73. It became too big; it was split. The drug store was no longer on the route. Those warming cups of chocolate were no longer needed.
I no longer stopped at Our Rest Stop. (Besides, I hated sitting alone.)
© James F. O’Neil 2014