It was 4am and I was driving in my car with the front windows down in the dead of winter. I had to in order to have a clear shot when I flung bagged up newspapers to their respective owners. Throwing papers seemed like such a meager task, something that you see only 12 year-old boys do on a bike in their neighborhood, toting a canvas sack full of rolled-up morning editions, ready to be tossed by hand. But here I was, 22, in college, tossing papers out the windows of my Datsun B210, with a mountain of Atlanta Constitutions piled high in my backseat.
It was good money, that's why I did it. They paid by the volume, not by hour, so the more I threw, the more I was paid. And they paid according to the type of route that was assigned me:
1 - meant that it was an easy route, never having to get out of the car
2 - meant that there were some getting out because of apartments, condos, etc.
3 - was all footwork; all apartments
I took on two routes, a "2" and a "3". I loved the "3" route because I enjoyed getting out and running around with all those papers in my arms, listening to the flap the paper made as it made contact with the floor, the sign of mission accomplished. I took great satisfaction in knowing that my customers were getting what they asked for each and every morning. It was pretty easy, this running around. And after memorizing who got what, I had it down to a science: I'd double-check my notebook, grab the correct amount of papers, get out of my car, lock the door (I had two keys, keeping the car running with the second key), run through the building, deliver the goods, get back into my car, move onto the next building. It became a dance, a carefully choreographed performance each and every morning, starting at 2am and lasting until around 6.
Sometimes I'd run into an early morning riser, startling them with my hurried motions as I wove my way through their apartment complex. I'd apologize for my presence and move on. No time for chit chat. Gotta deliver the papers. Oftentimes, I'd fret about getting mugged. There were stories told at the main warehouse where we put the papers together during the first part of our shift of deliverers being approached by desperate thieves with gun in hand and asking for their money. I was told to carry some cash with me, just a little bit, to appease the mugger. Because if I didn't have anything to give them, they'd get upset. And you don't want to upset a mugger. I was always aware of my surroundings. I checked and double-checked my route each night, poking my head down passageways before traversing them, carefully going around corners with bushes, cautious of hidden nooks and crannies. We worked during the dead of night so I couldn't be complacent. Any slip up could mean being a potential victim.
During my "2" route, I was happy to hop into my car and roll through neighborhoods, flinging bagged newspapers out the window, left and right. Hanging off my rear view mirror by an altered wire hanger was my route notebook. In it, cryptic directions and a full list of all the addresses that were to receive a paper for each and every street for my route. Some numbers were circled which meant that they only subscribed for the weekend edition. After a while, I could do my route without looking at the notebook, having memorized each and every address listed for each route. If you were to open up my route notebook, it would read something like this:
Left on Indian Creek
Right on Taylor
There was a pattern to the numbering, of course: odds on one side, evens on the other. For apartments, my notebook would have notes on a particular building, like this:
17, 18, 19
Basically, my schedule was pretty much the same:
1. Sleep from 10 or 11pm until 1:30am.
2. Get to the AJC (Atlanta Journal & Constitution) warehouse by 2am.
3. Receive my "mail": pieces of paper that tells me if there are any changes to my route, like new subscriptions or cancellations. At the bottom of the page would tell me if there were any mistakes from the previous night. Mostly, this would involve papers being stolen, which, at that point, I would go over to an area in the warehouse that had papers from previous nights and grab the necessary amount in order to make my customers happy. My goal for each night was to receive a "0": no mistakes or missing papers.
4. The truck arrives around 2:30 (sometimes later if any important news break forces the printing to be delayed).
5. Grab the necessary amount of bundles of paper and start putting the paper together, slipping in ads or various promotional items. (We were forced to do this. Sorry.)
6. Bag the papers.
7. Fill car up with papers.
8. Off I go to deliver the papers.
It was a fun job, repetitious and routine that it was. I enjoyed making my way through streets and neighborhoods that I soon became familiar with, imagining who lived in these homes, since I never really saw any of my customers. I was able to play my music loud (I seem to remember listening to U2's "Actung Baby" a lot) and I enjoyed the fact that I didn't have any boss hovering over me, telling me what to do. My superiors were back at the warehouse, going over the numbers, far away from the drivers. Far away from me and my little world, papers and all. I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I made the deliveries, and was done before 7am. If I finished up by 5, then I was free to go home and get some rest. No need to go back to the warehouse. 3 hours and I was done. That's it.
Sometimes the elements came into play. We double bagged the papers if it was raining, and we still had to deliver if there was snow or ice.
On this particular morning, it was freezing cold. I had a big coat on, with a hoodie that was pulled tight. I wasn't wearing any gloves because I couldn't grab the papers in time to throw. My fingers were starting to turn red. I could see my breath in the air. It didn't help that I had my two front windows rolled down, but how else was I going to toss the papers out on each side of the street?
I was slowly making my way through the neighborhood when I caught a glimpse of headlights coming down the street. Nothing too serious, but since it was 4 in the morning, it did seem odd. Cars are a rare thing at that hour, so I kept a mental note on it while I continued with my route. Perhaps it was a cop? Doing a neighborhood check? Yes, perhaps.
Oh, crap. I missed a house. I'll have to go back.
I pulled into a driveway to turn around and as I was about to put it in reverse, I noticed that the slow moving car was getting near. So, I paused and waited for it to pass by. The car stopped. I waited. Nothing. Okay, I thought. I'll just go ahead and back out. Maybe I'm in their driveway? I backed out and shifted it into drive and made my way towards the house that I had missed. Going the opposite way of my route jilted me somewhat and I almost felt lost. I was so used to going one way, it was like a completely different environment going the other direction. Like I was in an entirely different neighborhood. As I approached the missed house, I paused and then noticed that the car was still behind me. Odd. Why won't they go around me? I turned on my hazard lights. Nothing. As I looked through the rear view mirror, I stuck my left arm out the window and motioned the car to pass. It didn't move. For pete's sake. Maybe they're confused by my actions? I moved over to the left of the street and tossed out a paper really high, giving a nice big arch on my throw, so whoever it was behind me would have no problem seeing that I was delivering the papers. Again, nothing. Just two bright lights behind me. I felt like Roy Neary in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS for a moment. Only this time, I wasn't dealing with aliens.
At that point, I had enough. So, I pulled up a bit, shifted it into reverse, backed into the driveway of the house I just delivered a paper to and sat and waited for the car to drive by. You have the street all to yourself now, buddy, I thought. I looked closely and realized that it was not a cop, but a small, white pickup truck. Probably a Toyota. It slowly pulled forward and then stopped once it cleared the driveway I was sitting in. The truck was to my left now, so I leaned my head out the window to see if they needed help or something. Maybe they were lost?
Suddenly, a small flash of light and a chHHKK!!!
It was a pop, like a crack of a bat, only it wasn't wood. It was metal. Like a gun.
The truck peeled out and took off down the road and immediately, the synapses in my brain fired up and began to register what just happened. I, too, peeled out of the driveway and took off down the road, in the opposite direction. As I roared down the neighborhood, my emotions caught up with me and I started to yell out loud, "OH NO OH NO OH NO!!!" My voice had a deeper sound to it, as if my throat suddenly opened up and I was now yelling from the inner depths of my soul. The sound that came out of me that cold, frozen morning was not me, but it was me. A truer me. A me that I had not met before. A me filled with adrenaline and fear. A me that was foreign. The sound was almost guttural, animal-like. I sounded like I reached another stage of puberty, although this time I wasn't looking forward to it.
I just got shot at.
The severity of the moment clung to me like a wet towel. I was shaking, trying to catch my wits about me as I flung the car around the turns and bends of this claustrophobic suburban maze, frantically searching for the main road. I had no idea what to do next. I couldn't think straight. I kept saying to myself, I just got shot at I just got shot at I just got shot at... Finally, I reached civilization, or a reasonable facsimile of it, since it was still 4 in the morning. I pulled up to a phonebooth and called my superior at the warehouse.
"Ken, this is Ward. I just got shot at."
"I was doing my route and some guy just shot at me."
"Are you serious?"
"Are you okay, hurt?"
"I'm fine, I think. What should I do?"
"Did you call the police?"
"No, not yet."
"Did you finish your route?"
"Well, can you finish the route?"
Now I'm thinking: Is he serious? I just got shot at by some dude WITH A GUN and he wants me to finish my stupid route? The nerve of the guy.
"I don't know. I'll try."
I hung up, opened the door to my car and sank into my seat. I was a ball of nerves, a weary, shaking wreck. And I still had to finish my route. Still tingling from adrenaline, I drove over to the Police Department which was a block or two down the street. I got a hold of an unsuspecting officer and told him my story. "Why didn't you call it in?" A blank stare. "I don't know, I was scared. I didn't know what to do." He reluctantly headed back into an office, wrote up a report, and then came back out to tell me that he put a call out to all units in the area to look for a small, white pickup truck, possibly a Toyota. I then sauntered over to my car with a feeling of having absolutely nothing accomplished. That was a waste of time.
I sank into my seat again. I turned the key and...nothing. My car sputtered, trying to turn over but nothing was happening. Oh no, what NOW? I tried again and again. Finally, my trusty Datsun came to life, albeit, very feebly. As I was heading over toward the neighborhood where the scene of the crime was, I noticed steam coming out from under the hood. The car then conked out while sitting at the next stop light. Nervously, I got it started up again, but now, the car was lunging erratically, moving in fits and starts. I found my way over to the same phonebooth where I had called my boss before, and once I stopped, my poor car then dies on me. I tried to turn the engine over and over again. Nothing. I got out of the car and walked up to the front of it to open the hood. But before I opened it, I happened to see a gaping hole in the black plastic grill. With steam engulfing me upon lifting up the hood, I noticed a hole the size of a bullet in the radiator. Oh great. This is just PERFECT.
"Ken, it's Ward again. My car is dead. I can't get it started."
"What? Your car is dead?"
"Yeah. There's a hole in the radiator where the bullet hit my car. What should I do?"
(Sighing) "Well, I'll send Track out to help you finish your route."
"Alright. I'll wait."
The sky was turning blue. I was exhausted. I went back to my car and waited for Track. Track. Track was an interesting character, to say the least. Track was pretty much a fixture at that particular AJC warehouse. An older guy, probably in his late 40's, Track acted as my guide on my very first outing, to make sure that I knew the ropes to delivering the papers and how to go about my route. I use the term "acted" because all Track did on my inaugural night was sleep in the back seat with all the papers. "Hey, Track, is this right?" "Mmmuh huh...zzzzz..." (He was given the nickname Track because he liked to bet at the Alabama dog tracks.) He had this whatever attitude about himself. Easy going and just didn't give a stink about what anyone thought of him. I liked the guy.
But when Track finally came to help me finish up my route, he grumbled and complained the entire time. This apparently was forcing him to do some actual work and he wasn't too happy about it. It didn't help when he downplayed my whole shooting ordeal, too. "Oh, those were just some kids having fun. Nothing to it, man." Kids? Playing with guns? At four in the morning? I don't think so. Maybe gunshots in your neighborhood might mean kids having fun, but in my book, it's something FATAL. Track apparently could care less about my life being threatened. Nice. Good to see that you got my back, Track.
As the sun was starting to come up (it was so rare to see it during my route), I stared off into the distance, my mind wandering, trying to gather up what was left of any thoughts I had about the night.
The following day, I went up to Ken and asked him to transfer me to the day shift.