In Tennessee, a late February Sunday morning brings with it a number of certainties.
- The weather will be uncertain. It may fool Nashvillians into thinking Spring has arrived, or it might pelt us with furious and icy raindrops, and remind us that we shouldn’t really do any hoping until March.
- The New York Times will lay, wrapped in blue plastic, on my dearest companion’s front walk. If I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll carry the Times into her house, separate its many sections, and read our favorite columns aloud in a particular order.
- Most of the South will be in church.
- I will, in all likelihood, not be.
The Sunday Times is the newspaper, of course. When I was a newspaper boy in Barrington, Rhode Island, I had one or two customers who wanted the Sunday Times, in addition to the heavy Providence Sunday Journal. In those days, it was 50 cents. The Sunday Journal was 35. My brother and I each had a paper route, and if we’d gotten along better in those days, we might have realized that we had a monopoly in the neighborhood. Who knows what possibilities that would have led to?
Dave was clearly the better paperboy. He was organized, and competent, with his mind on the work at hand. I doubt that he took more than an hour a day to get his papers delivered.
I, on the other hand, took my time, waylaid by a friend here or there, occasionally even paying a neighbor girl named Carole 25¢ to finish the job for me. My mind was on music, drums in particular, and I marched to the cadence of a waking dream, mindless about the papers I delivered.
The paper route was the vehicle by which my parents assumed I would finally learn responsibility and organization.
I might have learned something. I just can’t remember what.
Sunday mornings, long before Dad was getting ready for church, Dave and I were out on our bikes, filling chrome baskets with fat newspapers, careful lest we tear them on the woven wire. Once torn, a marred newspaper would be reserved for a non-tipping or generally grouchy customer.
My least favorite customer was Mrs. Lewis over on Brook Street, whose side porch was a toxic container of cat stench and cigarette smoke. Sometimes, the odor would be so completely overpowering that I couldn’t stand in her house long enough to wait for her to count out the 42 cents for her Monday through Friday subscription. Her terrible lack of hygiene paid off, for her, I guess. I always saved the most ragged newspaper for her.
Another customer, whose name thankfully escapes me, had a small but dreadfully violent dog, probably named something innocuous – Fluffy or Bubbles. Every time I would approach its house the dog would charge me. Once, it bit me, tearing my pant leg and the skin on my thigh. The owner came out and cheerily said, “Oh, he doesn’t mean anything.” I yelled, “He BIT ME!,” to which she said melodiously, “Oh, of course he didn’t”.
On winter days in Barrington, you could expect snow, and on snowy Sunday mornings, my father would wake with his sons, lower the tailgate of his Ford station wagon, and drive us through the deep and drifting snow. We would ride on the tailgate with stacks of Sunday Journals, jumping off and back on, quite literally relaying the news.
Those were good days, which still bond me to my father and my brother. Dad was delivering something of a message to his sons, as we delivered the news.
All those years ago, I never perceived myself as a messenger, carrying the Sunday Journal to sleeping customers. Indeed, we are all messengers of one thing or another.
I don’t know if such a thing as a newspaper boy still exists. Someone delivers The Times to my dearest companion, but I suspect it’s a grown person who needs the extra income, not a boy saving for a new set of drums.
Newspapers are shrinking in size and in circulation. The smell of newsprint, the scanning for a favorite column, folding the pages in a particular way, the sound of a rustling paper- moments our senses take for granted- they are already from an age past, heaped upon the junk pile of yesterday with the scratching sound of a vinyl record, the static of a transistor radio, and the mechanical sound of a radio dial.
Damn, we are getting old. I wonder if our grandparents came to mourn the absence of clippity clops on cobblestone streets? I wonder if my mother misses the crackling sound of electric streetcars; (I can remember that sound, which I identify with the city Providence, but not enough for it to have made a real footprint on my aural landscape).
I miss the sound of recording tape running off the spool, flapping wildly, wreaking havoc. I miss the sound of tiny hammers whacking ink onto white paper as typewriter keys are being struck, the imperfect rhythm of a furious mind at work.
Yet, some people don’t. I think about Mrs. Lewis in her stagnant sty on Brook Street, cigarette butts piled high in receptacles on her closed in porch. What a metaphor! The Closed In Porch sounds like a Tennessee Williams title. And the clueless dog owner, unwilling to see the evidence that her pooch had indeed bit me. It’s odd to me that the recluses and the clueless even want a paper, although Mrs. Lewis’ cats certainly could have made use of it.
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovksy the news.
On a recent Fat Tuesday morning, I was startled awake by an incessant knocking on my bedroom wall. It was early, and I was groggy, but I recognized the haphazard rhythm of a woodpecker, insistently head-banging, something that I would, of course, take personally.
I pondered as he pounded. I wondered about God’s creature visiting my home, and I decided to embrace this quite natural occurrence with a sense of spiritual openness. No, the woodpecker wasn’t prophesying, but I took its knocking as a friendly wake-up call to seize the day, to expect a full measure of effort from myself and to listen to the world around me. And what better timing than for Woody to be knocking away on the day before Lent, that season in which my senses would be heightened, and I might be at my most contemplative and receptive.
Just the fact, that I didn’t get out my pump-action Daisy air rifle and end the hammering signified that perhaps I was still in flux, still changing, shifting, and embracing another way to look at life.
I sent a haiku about my morning visitor to my Southern Born Woman, who promptly researched the meaning of the species in mythology and folklore. Among those who pay attention to the family of animals, woodpeckers symbolize the need to allow for a change of attitude, and the embracing of opportunity and creativity.
It wouldn’t be the first time an animal has taught me something; you may have read other chapters in which I speak of the horse or the owl quietly reminding me that my journey is not over; there is more to learn and more to change.
So perhaps, I could learn from this tenacious, insistent creature, to keep knocking on doors, to continue to pursue dreams and excellence, to strive for those who depend on me, and to stay open-minded.
Good morning, Brother Woodpecker. I’m listening.