At 2:30 a.m. my husband brakes by the Belfast Hannaford store. John opens the rear door of our Subaru Legacy as I leap from the back seat and fetch a shopping cart. Together we unload bundles of the Bangor Daily News. Nearby, a welder repairs the rusted car wash as the smell of gasoline floats from a truck filling tanks. As we pull away, we wave to the men repainting stripes on the store's empty parking lot. We share in the camaraderie of Maine's late-night world.
Finally off on our rural route, John strives for maximum driver-side deliveries. The police are few, the roads empty, and he swerves side-to-side or drives British-style for short stretches to reach his newspaper tubes.
Usually John delivers alone, but on weekends[for the rest of this story, see the January 2008 issue of Down East]
I meld the fat sections together, stuff the paper into a plastic sleeve, and slap each into his hands as he brakes by a box. He slams the paper home and veers away. John says, "These things are slick and heavy as loading mortar rounds."
He plots his route for views and weather. In winter, skeletal trees appear to rattle their branches on the hilltops, but snow-covered evergreens muffle the back roads. In half the houses windows glow yellow from nightlights, but a few blaze under giant vapor lamps. All year, Robbins Lumber looks like its own busy downtown.
Every snowstorm we sleeve papers, park in the road, stomp over plowed drifts, and deliver by hand. Trips change with each storm depending on which roads are plowed first, but if a road is impassable, John must warn the paper to anticipate subscribers' calls. After John learned that one customer used a walker, he began shoveling off her back porch and steps before dropping her paper.
Spotting the green newsboxes, anybody would think paper delivery is a drive-by job, but customers also may request boxes placed at the house end of a driveway or that papers be hand-carried to a door. As new customers are added, routes are altered, and John reworks his route for the man who says he'll drop the paper unless it arrives
before 5 a.m.
As days lengthen, deer and rabbits leap along the road. Skunks, along with porcupines, dark as tar patches, seem to expect our car will avoid them like any other sensible animal would. We pause to identify a road kill, then lift the dead otter to the shoulder. Standing in the empty road, we speculate on its thinking as we listen to the rushing stream on the left and to frog splashes from the starlit pond on the right.
Turkeys scamper across the roads, grouse scratch at the shoulders, and one pheasant greets us at her regular corner. On one rare occasion at 3 A.M., we encountered a car coming from the opposite direction and both cars halted for a pair of ducks to march their six babies across the road. Las Vegas couldn't run the odds on that.
We ride through the dawn pointing out new houses as we peer for the tiny reflective green dot of a box marker. Customers gain nicknames like Mr. Duct Tape and the Christmas Lights, the Sculptor and Kubota Man.Customers also become known for their tips - a welcome surprise since we are independent contractors. Our route covers one hundred miles, and gas prices remain staggering. We note the irony of the regular tipper in the unpainted old Cape compared with the folks who rarely tip yet request we circle their Lexus for a porch delivery. People who have held this job or similar ones know the value of our labor.
All through summer the early sun lights up Appleton Ridge or fog settles onto scenes from Japanese paintings. An hour later our route drops down by Marshall Shores in Liberty and we check the weather by the surface of Lake St. George. Hard winds break the sun into speckles, but at 6 a.m. this morning, a wide, flat golden strip of sunlight tracks us all the way around the lake. We have more boxes ahead, but John parks and pulls out his camera. He says, "My first job was paperboy. After a forty-year career in computers, it's fitting that my last should be, too."