Monday, March 26, 2018

Paper Drive

I shared this memory in 2017, in a slightly different form, on the Facebook page "Remember When? Growing up in Wellesley."

Not long ago, someone on this page mentioned the Marshall Spring lumber company (formerly located on River Street in Wellesley Lower Falls), and that got me thinking about something that happened back in the fall of, let's say, 1961. I would have been in 5th grade at Katherine Lee Bates School. My family belonged to St. James Catholic Church, and every fall the archdiocese would organize a paper drive, in which parishioners would tie twine around stacks of old newspapers and leave them out at streetside to be picked up. (Back when every household took a daily paper, your old newspapers would really mount up, usually out in the garage. A single Sunday Globe, folded, could be over an inch thick.) My guess is that the archdiocese got about a penny a pound (or $20 a ton) from its buyer for the newsprint.

I never gave "Cardinal Cushing's paper drive" much thought until I was 11 and my mother volunteered me for helping out on pick-up day, a chilly gray Saturday in November; at least, I assume she volunteered me, because I wouldn't have thought to do it on my own. About noon, I biked from my house on Mayo Road over to the St. James parking lot. (So, yes, I crossed the four lanes of Route 9, and probably not at a crosswalk.) There was a small group of kids waiting around, and a flat-bed delivery truck belonging to Marshall Spring, and at the wheel, a friendly but no-nonsense man whom I had only known up to then as Mr. Belforti, the custodian at Bates. From the truck, with Mr. B. sitting in it, I could tell that there was more to his life than mopping the floors at my school. From the size of the truck, I could tell that we were going to be at this for most of the afternoon.

We kids climbed aboard, using the rear wheels as ladders, and then clustered, seated, with our backs to the partition separating the flat bed from the cab and our legs splayed out. Mr. B. started the truck and pulled out into Route 9 traffic, and we were on our way to the beginning of our pick-up route. (A couple of other trucks were also starting out on their routes, elsewhere in the parish.) Already I was out of what we would call my comfort zone. I was not known as a "strong back," and my hands were soft. I also didn't like not knowing when I'd be able to go home. At the same time, it was fun to be riding around backwards on the back of a truck. (No, there were no seat belts or guard rails.) We were clearly a crew of kids being taken to a job somewhere, and grinning drivers honked and waved at us.

Pretty soon we turned off onto the residential streets, and from here my memory begins to blur. The truck would pull over by a stack of newspapers and the kids would hop off and toss them up, then clamber back on board before Mr. B. started the truck rolling again. Gradually, gray walls of stacked newsprint grew around the open perimeter of the bed, and the kids who had done this before made sure that we stacked the stacks to incline slightly towards the center of the bed. This became our chief preoccupation, to make sure that the load, as it grew taller, wouldn't shift (or slide right off, and us with it) when Mr. B. made a sharp turn or hit a pothole. Crevices would appear in the mountain of newsprint as the truck bounced along, and it became my job to help stabilize everything by wedging stacks vertically into these "grooves." So, Groovy became my name, for the afternoon: "Hey, Groovy, hit that groove there! Yeah! Groovy!"

We made many stops, and I gave up trying to keep track of where we were. This was my introduction to a form of work that is mainly physical labor, for little or no compensation, yet there is no complaining from the workers (unless one of them is noticed slacking off), but instead, a quiet pride in doing a job right, especially a dirty job, a numbing job. By mid-afternoon, the paper stack was as tall as we could make it and still ride it, and our hands were black from the ink. We had made no bathroom stops, and had nothing to drink or eat, nor did we expect to. And we weren't done yet.

Mr. B. turned the fully-loaded truck towards Linden Street, down to the Wellesley freight yard, which has since disappeared but was located about where Wellesley Volkswagen is now. He backed the truck carefully up to the open door of a rusty boxcar that the railroad had placed on the outermost stub track. There were more kids working here, mostly excitable older teens who had the job of loading the boxcar, and became short-tempered if you got in the way or weren't working fast enough. One kid was working inside the boxcar, on top of a mound of newspapers, wedging stack after stack into the little leftover spaces close to the ceiling. Outside, I took a minute to explore the freight yard. The sun had come out, low in the sky, and in the cold air the west end of the boxcar glowed with a hard orange light. To the east, the block signals beyond the Kingsbury Street bridge were lit up, and in a minute the yellow headlight of the New York Central's Chicago-bound "New England States" came into view. I don't know how fast it was going, but it flew by the boxcar we were loading and was gone in a heartbeat. (No, there were no fences, nor any adults around to supervise us and keep us from, say, wandering out on the active tracks. If anyone had given it any thought, they would have supposed that our common sense would keep us safe enough.)

I like to think that we made a second collection run that afternoon, and a second unloading in the freight yard, but dusk was coming on, and whether or not we did, we were soon back at St. James and I was biking home for supper. If my parents wondered where I'd been all afternoon and what I'd been doing, they didn't make a point of asking. It was a different time. These days, I enjoy thinking about trying to run a work project like this in the year 2017, and how many rules we would be breaking, all afternoon long.


The thud of a car hitting something, car tires squealing, the yelp of a car horn, and then some angry shouting: somebody had had an accident, out here on South Street, which runs by my side yard and carries considerable morning rush-hour traffic. I phoned it in to the police, then went outside. One car, a van, was pulled up into the front yard of a home that was for sale at the time, and was vacant. Another car, a sedan, was parked at the roadside nearby. A light drizzle fell. Neither driver was with their car. The air had that just-torn-apart feel that it sometimes does after an accident.
Long story short: the van, coming north and doing the speed limit or maybe a bit better, had struck a neighbor's dog that had somehow gotten out of its fenced enclosure two houses down, and had run out into South Street. The sedan, following the van, had gotten into a minor collision with it somewhere in the midst of the swerving and braking that followed the dog being hit. The dog ran off into some bushes; that was a hopeful sign. His owner appeared, went to gather him up from where he had hidden, and, I heard later, took him straight to the vet.

The driver of the van and the driver of the sedan returned to their vehicles and had a short, fierce argument about who had been at fault for what. The driver of the sedan was declaring "I just want to state for the record..." though there was no one around to record his statement; the police were busy elsewhere and hadn't shown up yet.

Finally there was just the unlucky driver of the van. She backed out of where she had parked, inched out into South Street, then turned up Rockland Street to where I was standing by that time with my wife and another neighbor of ours, along with our respective dogs; the two of them had just been finishing a walk out on the nearby rail-trail when the accident occurred. The driver seemed dazed. 

Her van seemed to be packed to the windows with plastic bags. It creaked in its joints and there was something wrong with the muffler. She proceeded slowly by us, made a Y-turn in my driveway, then pulled over next to where we stood, to plead her case with us: what had really happened just then, who had really been at fault. Then she drove away.

Later on, after my wife had fed the dog, I gave him a moosh (rhymes with "push"). We moosh him after every meal, which consists of giving his moustache a light scrubbing with a wet paper towel, to remove particles of food that tend to get stuck in there and can become kind of stinky over the course of the day. Even if we moosh him just once a day (and it's usually twice), we will end up mooshing him more than 5,400 times over 15 years, if he lives that long.