Monday, February 07, 2011

cycling newsies

Tom Vanderbilt muses about paper boys in the current issue of Time. I've enjoyed his writings, beginning with Traffic a couple of years ago. You don't have to be a transportation wonk to learn from and enjoy that book. That's true also of his articles in Slate and other press outlets, his tweets, and his blog posts. He writes about Americans' intense, but frequently absurd love affair with the car[1] but just as much about the silliness of traffic engineers and politicians who pander to us car lovers. And he writes about those of us, too, who, whether we're car lovers or not, yearn for more livable urban and sub-urb spaces for walking, jogging, and cycling.

The Time piece is The Rise and Fall of the American Paperboy. In it he says those of us who were carriers tend to have intense memories of that time. I agree. At 14 I was barely old enough for the required work permit and had never shouldered responsibility anywhere near that heavy. I'm pretty sure I signed up because my much-admired-but-never-successfully-emulated older sister had pointed the way. By that time she'd been earning what seemed big sums as a babysitter for a few years. I wrote once before about the paper route and my propensity to earn and save. The post is Secondat: Margaret Atwood and me.

My job was to deliver the Citizen Register weekday afternoons, in good weather and bad. My mom had cause to remember the bad because there were times when the route was either too wet or too icy to be bikable and I begged her to drive me (she did not like this task and I think I tried not to call on her too often). I can't recall how the job opportunity came my way, but I do have a vivid memory of the training session I received from the outgoing carrier, a one-time shadowing which left me on my own to work out a passably efficient means for receiving, counting, bagging my 60 or so papers and getting them into their roadside tubes over the ups and downs of the route's 3.6 miles. I carried Dogbone treats in a vain attempt to stay a couple of aggressive dogs in the first few houses I served. After the dogs my main challenge was a handful of steep climbs. I couldn't handle them in an American one-speed, like my old Columbia (which was less luxurious than this 1955 Schwinn Black Phantom[2]). You couldn't get an affordable 10-speed "racer" at that time[3], but fortunately my big cousin Carl was done with his English three-speed which looked like this.[4] I've a vivid memory of a guy in a truck yelling out "put it in low" one afternoon as I struggled up one of the steepest inclines. (Though struggling, I did have it in third already.)

Toward the end of my career in that work I was photographed and interviewed for the Register's annual carrier-of-the-year fluff piece. Needless to say I'd no prior experience of this kind of thing and I'm sure I failed to give the poor journalist a single interesting quote. It mystified me that the photog wanted a shot of my stringing my laminated, recurved yew-wood bow,[5] but I'm pretty sure a prop was needed to make me look even a little bit relaxed.

Here are some map images that show the route. I began my afternoon's ride at the circle on the right, rode west, then south and west until I reached the last customer. At that point I reversed myself and wheeled back to the beginning and onward to my parents' home nearby. Because examining these maps brings forth some memories, I've indulged in a brief nostalgic reverie somewhat further down the page.

Click these images if you wish to view them full size. The first is a USGS topo map from the later 1930s. If you're good at reading gradients, you'll notice that I start off in a little valley and don't encounter much climbing until the longish south-west straight (which you'll find when you scroll down is called Aspinwall Road). At that point I go up to the route's high point, then down and up again to a very steep but short little "Y" at the end.

{This is a detail from a map published in 1943 from survey data collected in 1936. It's the Ossining, NY Quadrangle, USGS 7.5 Minute Series, Latitude 41.1875 Longitude 286.1875, and I got it from Historic USGS Maps of New England & New York}

This topo map represents how the same area looked in 1964.

{This is a detail from a USGS topo map in the same series. It was published in 1979 from data collected in 1964. NYSGIS Clearinghouse}

This up-to-date contour map shows the ups and downs pretty clearly.

{source: Google}

This hybrid satellite image adds little to the other maps other than indicating how woodsy is this part of the world.

{source: Yahoo}


Here's the nostalgic reverie.

I was born the year before the first map was published. Population density was then quite low. There'd been less than a thousand residents when the village was incorporated in 1910. By 1940 the total has risen to near 1,500. At the time I had the paper route it was somewhere around 3,000 and the 2000 Census found it to be close to 8,000. As a paperboy and in my other local jobs (service station gas jockey, summer clerk in the high school, drug store stock boy, house painter, and doer of odd jobs) I got the sense that I knew maybe half of the 700 households, including their cars and their dogs.[6]

Many of the village's breadwinners spent their workdays 30 miles south in Manhattan, but many others worked locally. Some were wealthy, but others quite middling and less. This admirable diversity did not extend to racial or ethnic composition. We were predominantly white Protestants and Catholics with family roots in continental Europe and the British Isles.

The excellence of the school system was a major draw for many who moved there, including my parents. Following a couple of part-time stints in local nursery schools, I spent my K-12 years in one building. Sometimes on bike, but mostly on foot, I'd work my way the mile and a half to and from school, municipal pool, playing fields, and tennis courts, or (if cold enough) the iced duck pond that adjoined. You walked by the side of the road and cut through friendly back yards to paths that snaked through the woods. If there were no golfers about, you could cut the trip down by crossing the fairways either to the village stores (for candy mostly) or the school. This detail shows the long route in green and the two shorter ones in burgundy and blue.

This little piece of map shows a lot of my young universe, from the village park, school, and pond, to the village stores, golf course, and, on the opposite ridge, steeply wooded hillside leading up to the Lodge (which had become Edgewood Park, a college for upper-class girls when I was growing up and, after some years' vacancy, King's College, an evangelical Christian school). One of my earliest memories is a kindergarten "class trip" to the little-used single-track Putnam Line that shows on the right of the map. We saw the semaphore, the bags of mail, and inhaled the special train smell of the station; then watched a steam engine pull a couple of cars on a south-bound route.

Until I got involved in high school sports and took on some part-time jobs, I'd lots of free time to spend with friends. We did sports together — shot hoops in each others' driveways, found some favorite fields for tag football games, and played ice hockey on the iced over swimming pool. Lots of neighboring kids would get together for glorious softball games on the golf course fairway and a one or two of us would bring a few old clubs so as to play a few holes when we thought we could get away with it. We'd fish in the Lodge Pool and create Huck Finn rafts to navigate it. We'd climb tree vines and run helter-skelter down the wooded slopes. There was a big open field down the street that was a constant attraction for romps.

I'd one friend with whom I'd like to set out on random adventures. We'd climb the golf course hill and pick a distant landmark then try to walk there in a straight line, going into people's yards and over their fences. Mostly we'd find ourselves in woods but never to such an extent that we lost our way. Sometimes we'd end up where there were boulders and tall trees to climb. Once we found ourselves at an old quarry whose face we proceeded to climb as far as we could (it was a bit icy then and I'm happy now to have survived that feat). Once we kept walking until we got to Millwood some two towns distant. We wore sneaks and had no water or snacks and the trek back was, that time, a sore trial.

I didn't know then what a privilege it was to grow up in that place and that time.


Fair use claim: To the best of my knowledge my reproduction of images on this page complies with fair use provisions of US copyright law. I'll remove any for which fair use does not apply on being shown that I've infringed.


Some sources:

Paperboy, in wikipedia

Village of Briarcliff Manor, the village web site

10510 Zip Code Detailed Profile, i.e., Briarcliff Manor, on

Briarcliff Manor in wikipedia




[1] "Car" is used for so many different conveyances that it's use as synonym for automobile always demands some context to be properly understood. As well as motor vehicles, cars are what locomotives pull down the track, what's strung under a hot-air balloon, what carries people up and down skyscrapers within elevator shafts, and what carries tourists and skiers to the top of the mountain (and, some of them, back down again). Formerly, it was a favorite conveyance for poetic beings — as in the fiery carr of Phoebus, the weary Sun's fiery car, or the Carr of Jove's Imperial Queen, or, as might be, a special type of horse-drawn cart or carriage (jaunting car), car as hansom cab, a kind of drag used in making road repairs, or yet even seven stars in Ursa Major (as in "Pleiads, Hyads, and the Northern Car"). -- OED.

Americans distinguish cars from trucks, but a high proportion of these cars are officially (by the government) called light trucks.

[2] Which I found on, as seen here:

[3] I got this image of a Fuji Deray from

[4] My image comes from flickr. So's you don't have to leave the page, here it is.

[5] I still have the bow. It looks like this.


[6] This shows the village's growth in population. The yellow bars show the information we're interested in. The blue and burgundy show numbers of people in each of the two townships in which the village is located.

{source: the village web site,}

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