The Bicycle

The Bicycle

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Bicycle

When I was nine I needed to earn some money, so I asked Mr. Miceli, the Herald-American’s man in my Albany Park neighborhood, about an after-school paper route. He was old, about thirty, but he spoke to me as though I was a grown-up, and I liked that. After a while he said that if I would show him my bicycle, he’d give me a route. My dad was then working four jobs: He built neon signs in a sheet metal shop during the day, delivered flowers until eight o’clock in the evening, drove a cab till midnight, and on weekends sold insurance door-to-door. He bought me a used bike, but right after that he was hospitalized with double pneumonia and couldn’t teach me how to ride. But Mr. Miceli hadn’t asked to see me ride, merely to see the bike. I walked it down to his garage, showed it to him, and I had a job.

At first, I filled my delivery sack with rolled papers, slung it over the handlebars, and walked my bike down the sidewalks. But pushing a bike with a load of papers was very awkward; after a few days I borrowed Mom’s two-wheeled shopping cart: a folding, steel-mesh device.

Delivering papers from a bike is tricky. You get one chance to throw each paper, and if it misses a porch or stoop, too bad. Delivering from Mom’s cart, I left it at the sidewalk and carried each paper to its proper destination. If there was a second-or third-floor porch, and I missed the first throw, I retrieved the paper and threw again. Sundays, when the paper was big and heavy and I couldn’t throw it above the first floor anyway, I carried all of them up the stairs. If it was raining, I put my papers inside the screen door or, at apartment buildings, in the entrance hall. The cart was especially useful in rain or snow, because I could put Dad’s old raincoat over the canvas bag to keep everything dry.

It took me longer to deliver the papers than if I was on a bike, but I didn’t mind. I got to meet everyone in the neighborhood. These were solid, working-class people, many of them of Italian, German or Polish descent, and they were invariably kind to me. If I saw something interesting while walking my route, such as a dog with puppies or a rainbow of oil on wet asphalt, I could stop to watch for as long as I wanted.

When Dad returned from the hospital, he resumed his job in the sheet metal shop, but he was too tired and weak to work his other jobs and had to give them up. Now we needed every dime we could raise to pay bills, so we sold my bike. Since I still didn’t know how to ride it, and I was used to Mom’s cart, I didn’t object too much. Mr. Miceli must have known I wasn’t using a bike, but he said nothing about it to me. In fact, he rarely spoke to any of us boys, unless it was to give us hell for missing a customer or leaving a paper in a puddle.

Eight months after I began delivering papers, I had built my route from thirty-six subscribers to fifty-nine, mostly because customers sent me to their neighbors, who said they wanted to take the paper. Sometimes, people stopped me on the street to tell me to add them to my list. I earned a penny a paper, Monday through Saturday, and a nickel for each big Sunday paper. I collected every Thursday evening, and since most customers gave me a nickel or a dime extra, soon I was making almost as much in tips as I got from Mr. Miceli. That was good, because Dad still couldn’t work as much as before, and I had to give most of my wages to Mom. She usually let me keep a dollar, if I agreed to share some of it with my younger brothers and my older sister.

On the Thursday evening before Christmas, 1950, I rang my first customer’s doorbell. While the lights were on, nobody answered the door, so I went on to the next house. No answer, nor did anyone respond at the next family on my route, or the one after. Soon I’d knocked and rang at every subscriber’s door on the first of the two blocks of my route—but not one person was home. I was very worried; I had to pay for my papers every Friday. And while it was almost Christmas, I never thought that everyone would be out shopping. So I was very happy when, going up the walkway to the Gordon’s house, I heard music and voices. I rang the bell. Instantly the door was flung open, and Mr. Gordon all but dragged me inside. Jammed into his living room was almost every one of my fifty-nine subscribers! In the middle of the room was a brand new Schwinn bicycle. It was candy-apple red and it had a generator-powered headlamp and a bell. A canvas bag bulging with colorful envelopes hung from the handlebars.

“This is for you,” Mrs. Gordon said. “We all chipped in.” The envelopes held Christmas cards from every subscriber, along with their weekly subscription fees. Most also included a generous tip—I counted over $100 when I got home, a windfall that made me a family hero and brought our household a wonderful holiday season. I was dumbstruck. I didn’t know what to say. Finally, one of the women called for quiet, then took my shoulder and gently led me to the center of the room. “You are the best paperboy we’ve ever had,” she said. “There’s never been a day when a paper was missing or late, never a day when it got wet. We’ve all seen you out there in the rain and snow with that little shopping cart, and so we thought you ought to have a bicycle.” All I could say was, “Thank you.” I said it over and over.

They must have called Mr. Miceli, because when I got to his garage the next day to pick up my papers, he was waiting outside. “Bring your bike tomorrow at ten o’clock, and I’ll teach you how to ride,” he said, and I did. When I had begun to feel comfortable on a bike, Mr. Miceli asked me to deliver a second route, forty-two papers. Delivering both routes from my new bike went faster than delivering one from the shopping cart. But when it rained, I got off my bike to carry every paper to a dry place. If I missed a throw to a high porch, I stopped, put down the kickstand and threw again. I knew my subscribers expected nothing less.

I joined the Army after high school and gave my Schwinn to my younger brother, Ted. Now I can’t recall what became of it. But the Gordons and my other subscribers sent along with that bicycle and their cash another gift, a shining lesson about taking pride in even the humblest work, a Christmas present I try to use as often as I remember the kind Chicagoans who gave it to me.

Marvin J. Wolf

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