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The Paper Boys are Bigger

and the beggars have corporate backing

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 18, 1997.

Not too long ago, I was walking down a rural road before sunrise when a car coming towards me at a high rate of speed suddenly crossed the median and locked its brights into my eyes. My carefully honed reactions notified each other by mail of the need for an emergency session. They had just taken their seats to decide whether I had had enough coffee to jump the ditch to my right or to follow the majority opinion which was to continue going incontinent and scream a carefully phrased obscenity, when sensors on the bridge said Never Mind, Prepare for Contact. Just before contact - and I do mean just before - something emerged from the window and hit the driveway before the car turned back to its side of the road and sped away, warming me in its exhaust. I got through the obscenity part - a light went on in a house across the road - but all plumbing held, for some reason, and when I resumed my walk I realized that the car was delivering newspapers.

This may have been obvious to you, but this is I, after all, and I do receive threats now and then, so it was not inconceivable that someone would try to run me down or off the road. I remembered the face and the car. The face was of a man not many years younger than me. Late thirties, early forties. Sparing you my first thoughts, I latched on to the fact that paperboys were now grown men driving station wagons, dangerously and loudly, through the suburbs before dawn. I also started wondering if he made more than I currently do. He couldn’t be making less, surely.

Later on, I noticed that grown men are standing on the medians where 28th and the Diagonal meet, and they sell various newspapers to drivers. They’re there every week, so it must be successful. I cannot believe that this is legal. Surely, they must constitute a hazard and distraction. Why are private businesses, like the media, allowed to hawk their wares from public property? Well, perhaps there is a license fee. If so, it becomes more ridiculous, because the net profit could not possibly compensate for anything approaching a fee worth processing. Still, there is something upsetting about grown men doing what any twelve year old could do forty years ago, and for a lot less. What is also upsetting is that it is a false job. It is a job of image, not of necessity or demand.

Those of you who have had the joy of a solicitation phone call from a newspaper at nine at night already know that they do not seek your subscription for your money - they pretty much give them away - but for brag rights about their subscription base to latch in advertisers. And the competition is so fierce that you can get a seven day a week subscription for about a couple of dollars a month. What these successors to the newsboys have become is akin to what the ragmen of New York are. You pay them to go away, and they leave the paper as a token of their gratefulness. They are, in fact, proxy beggars for the newspapers or like the boys in Spanish railway stations trying to shine your shoes. Twenty centavos. No? Ten. This was a satisfying image to hold, I felt, since one had almost killed me.

I clearly remember the year that America first thought that teaching its children to beg was a good idea. Well, no, actually, I don’t recall the exact year, but I was in elementary school, which makes it the middle 1950’s. We were sent out to beg on Halloween for UNICEF, and even after 40 years you’d be hard put to find even a Militia member who couldn’t find something nice to say about UNICEF. In fact, it was such a good idea that it was hardly begging, was it? Everybody gave a quarter to their kids and the neighbor’s kids to haul to school the next day - hopefully - and give away. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

But then the local Cub Scouts needed a new den mother or something, and the blue little creeps would hide behind bushes at likely intersections and approach drivers with their official begging cup. And while it was hard to be annoyed with Cub Scouts, at least the Girl Scouts sold cookies, and these little squirts just wanted the cold hard cash, and Judas Jenny, won’t one of them get killed running out in the street like that? (Well, yes, they would, and some did eventually, but it became a crisis of driver safety in the media, not of begging for money.) And they got more brazen. They would wait on the safety islands so they had direct access to the driver’s window, and they could look so deserving in their uniforms. Then it was the school band. Then a thousand others, all working the streets and intersections as zealously as any Bangkok beggar. Sometimes they offered services: car wash, lemonade. More and more, it was just cash for some project. Maybe.

So when people get upset about transients or Hare Krishnas or Christian zealots hitting on them for cash in the streets, I can only conclude they have selective memories. America instructed its young years ago, in the middle of family value decade, to beg for money. When public radio and pledge drives came along, the flock had been inculcated. Again, I draw the distinction between cake sales run by school boards and churches and simply asking for cash.

The syllogism weakens considerably, here, but I am still not certain that pretend benefits - like a newspaper subscription you don’t really care about, because we all get the news from TV and radio - offsets what is really a thinly disguised orgy of begging, and all this not for a public benefit, but for private gain. As we pass from the Industrial Age into the computer era, that may be the most important and least discussed social problem, because nobody likes to admit their job, perhaps their occupation across the board, is a sham. The standard of living for the entire nation could be maintained by a small workforce. Most jobs are pretend jobs, necessary neither to neighbors, self, or nation, but exist only as a way to fill time and distribute cash to buy products. Technology makes us less necessary to each other, and that is a cause of deterioration in our mutual regard. That deterioration takes many forms, including an early morning incident of screamed obscenities and screeching tires along a rural road.

There were a number of E-mails last week I could not return because the computer I use went down, rather hard. Probably lightening. If you were one, I apologize for my inability to get back to you, and I request you try again. Also, the June - July issue of the Boulder Lout will be out about the first of the month, so if you want a free copy, let me know as well.