I used to deliver newspapers.
First the Chicago Daily News, then the Chicago Tribune. I was 11, 12 years old, growing up in Lake Bluff, IL, north of Chicago.
I had a papergirl's bike with a huge metal basket and metal panniers -- if I didn't assiduously keep the papers' weight even, the bike would topple over, newspapers slithering out. Sometimes it toppled over anyway.
I always placed each newspaper carefully between the storm and front doors; if the storm was locked, I found another place to tuck it. By the end of my route, my hands would be blackened, a smeary black that dried the skin and transferred itself onto anything I'd touch.
I hated it.
Not just the filthy hands -- the whole experience. Wow, I hated delivering newspapers.
I remember promising myself I'd never allow my kids to do it -- because if they did, I might have to help, and I was never going to deliver papers again. This from a girl whose mother only ever took over your job if you were literally incapacitated. It was my job. Unlike some namby-pambies, my mom didn't throw me in the station wagon in the mornings.
That was the worst of it. The mornings.
I didn't like the Daily News' afternoon route -- it was lonely, and boring, and kind of embarrassing, if you ran across someone you knew. I would talk to myself, tell stories, play make-believe at an age when I think most kids didn't anymore. It was on the streets of Lake Bluff that I was Magna Woman, a superheroine whose powers came from a mysteriously exotic ring I'd bought on a field trip to the Field Museum of Natural History.
But the morning route? That was a different level of misery. For a Midwestern child, it meant not only early rising, but also: Dark.
Even if dawn arrived while I was out, I started my day in pitch black, a lighting scheme that still frightened me. I recall having to talk myself down nearly daily from some inchoate fear.
And the cold! I don't have a single memory of not being cold on my morning route. Surely there were spring and summer mornings, but they don't remain. Just the cold, the dark, the lonely streets, and the whirligig mind of an imaginative kid.
One day, in January or so, when I got to the Currens' house, I found a note. "Emily - Ring the bell. There's hot cocoa waiting."
The Currens were my grandparents' friends, but it's my sense they would have made hot cocoa for anyone who arrived in sub-zero weather. When I think of them, pretty much all I see are belted robes, broad smiles, and eyes like welcome signs.
I sat, I drank, and Mr. Curren took me around the rest of my route. If memory serves, they did this for me another time as well, each time saying "You're welcome, Emily! Anytime!"
I know they meant it, because the one time I knocked in spite of there not being a note, in spite of the fact that it was a balmy 17 degrees or maybe 23, they wiped the sleep from their eyes and put the pot on the stove. They were good people, the Currens.
Wow, I hated that route. But there remains within me a powerful sense of pride that I did it, that I was good at it, and that I later got a chance to actually write for the paper I had delivered. For the girl with the topple-over bike, that was quite a heady thing.
And the Currens gave me cocoa and smiles, in the middle of coldest, darkest winter.