Looking at how close it was to my home, it seems strange that, even though I went to school with kids who lived on the Island, I don’t recall ever setting foot there until I was a freshman in high school, when I got a Detroit News paper route that covered about a third of the Island. It was in fact the largest route in the district. I’ll get back to the paper route, but first let me tell you a little more about the world of that neighborhood.
The first thing that always comes to my mind is the black squirrels. They were present in great numbers on the Island, which really isn’t all that noteworthy until you consider that I lived 3 blocks away from there for over 20 years and I never saw a black squirrel until I set foot on the Island. Oh, we had plenty of squirrels by our house, but they were all brown. My best guess regarding that is that the black squirrels probably lived on the golf course that ran right next to the Island, and there was probably something different about their habits and preferences that made an urban neighborhood far less suitable for them than it was for the brown squirrels.
The next thing that comes to my mind is how different one street was from another, even in that small area. The houses (and the people) who lived on the western streets, Gunston and Malcolm, were generally far seedier and far more run-down than those at the eastern end on Norcross. My paper route covered that eastern end and I ran into quite enough trouble there, thank you very much!
The most memorable family there, for all the wrong reasons, was – well, you know what, I’m not going to use their real name. I feared them 30 years ago, and if I met any of them today, I would still fear them. Let’s call them the Crater family. Even that word “family” doesn’t feel quite right. The Craters lived in a big corner house that was a scandal of filth and disrepair. I never saw any evidence of a mother or a father, or of any daughters, for that matter. But there were brothers. Plenty of them. Four or five by my count, ranging in age from about 14 to about 20, plus one slightly older guy who lived there who may or may not have been related to the rest of them. More than once, I watched as one brother or another would pick up stones and send them whizzing through the air, shattering neighbors’ windows. It seemed particularly sinister to me that no one would ever raise a voice in complaint to the brothers. They apparently knew more than I did about the Craters, and it was my fondest wish that I might maintain my ignorance. My worst run-in with them came one Friday, collection day. Their house was near the end of my route, so I had quite a bit of cash on me. And while the Craters may have been evil, they were, alas, not quite stupid enough. They knew I had cash and they wanted it. Two of them stopped me and held my bike. Two more stood at the ready if needed. And their buddy from four doors down, who was a psycho-in-training prone to violent outbursts, reacted to my lack of cooperation by running into the house to get a weapon. As he emerged from the house with a baseball bat in his hands, I realized that life was about to get a whole lot worse for me if nothing changed, and I made my break. It is amazing what a jolt of adrenaline can do for a person at such a time. I instantly threw off the two boys who were holding me, each of whom was almost my size. I grabbed my bike away from another brother and pedaled for all I was worth. They all hopped on their bikes and took off after me, but it would appear that I was more motivated to get away than they were to catch me, and I escaped. My father drove me back there a little later so that I could finish delivering to that last block. The Crater boys were still out in front of their house, and my father pulled the car right up to them and gave them a pointed lecture on how they had best not try this again. They stood there smirking and said nothing. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the Craters were customers of mine! When I came by the next day, they took their newspaper and paid me the $1.20 they owed for that week.
But let’s allow the Craters to fade away and talk about some other aspects of the job. The single most lasting lesson that I took from the job was taught to me on Sunday mornings. The Detroit News was an afternoon paper during the week, but an early morning paper on Sunday, so I was out delivering at 7:00 a.m. on that day. It became something I really looked forward to. There would usually be a quiet mist rising on the golf course, and I saw very few people. Well, there was that one Sunday when I rounded the corner and saw crazy old Mr. Juper sweeping the street and dancing with his broom as if it were his partner, crooning to it softly all the while. I don’t know whether he saw me go by, as I tried hard not to be noticed. But Sundays were a time to be alone with my thoughts in a serene setting, and that was a very good thing for this adolescent boy.
I kept the route for two years, leaving midway through my junior year of high school. Winter was coming and I just didn’t want to slog through the snow on my overladen bike for another season. They had trouble finding someone who could stay with the route after that. They kept getting hassled and robbed, and in fact, that following summer, the district manager showed up at my front door unannounced one evening specifically to see if he could talk me into coming back and taking that same route again. But I remember looking into his eyes and seeing the fear and desperation in them. That scared me more than any of the Crater brothers ever had, and I declined. Within a few years, the News stopped delivering to the Island altogether, so maybe I got out just in time. Looking back at the socially inept egghead who took that route so long ago, I feel as if I were either terribly ignorant and innocent to have stayed there for two years, or perhaps I was simply desensitized to the dangers. But it was a hell of an education for me, at a time in my life when education needed to happen. To some extent, I feel as if I walked through the valley of the shadow, and I didn’t just get through it; I also brought some treasure out of there with me.