Paper Route Is Not For The Faint Of Heart

I love animals; well, all creatures. I couldn't pour salt on a slug. So why was I plotting to kill a schnauzer?

The aggravating, ferret-size beast lived on my paper route, a cluster of middle-age homes draped imperiously off the west slope of Queen Anne.

And every day at about 4 p.m., the brat and I would meet, its demonic bark resounding across Interbay and surely reaching the crest of Magnolia.

I hated this dog and I yelled at its owners. Maybe one night, I thought, I would toss a chunk of tainted meat over the fence and the wretched creature would lie still by dawn.

Anger can be quick to build when you're not feeling well and pounding the street to make a hard-earned buck. But, at least in this case, decency prevailed. I grew accustomed to the menacing, maddening verbal assault from the mongrel, and I learned to laugh about it - a little, at least.

At the time they were aggravating, but numerous disasters on the route are now painted in humor by hindsight.

I took a Seattle Times home-delivery route earlier this year in a somewhat hopeless - and ironic - attempt to supplement my Social Security. I had given up a significant part of my income when I was forced to leave full-time work as a daily-newspaper reporter in Walla Walla and move to Seattle after my AIDS diagnosis in February 1989.

Hand-rolling, banding and tossing newspapers under eaves - or whatever specific location the customer requests - I believe is one of the most grueling physical jobs an adult can tackle.

There's the cold, driving rain, maybe a bit of snow and dreaded wind. On Queen Anne, there's the added challenge of steep streets. Some of these residential enclaves are harrowing, particularly from a car with a standard transmission and a moody floor brake.

To maintain speed so everybody would get his paper by 5:30 p.m., I would leave my car running in the middle of the street while I tossed the wares at individual domiciles. In my case, that meant leaving the car in neutral, not park.

This, I was warned, can lead to accidents. I was nearly severely mangled trying to rescue my car after such an incident:

I was covering a 30-odd paper route for a boy on Magnolia as a favor for my supervisor, and picking up an extra $5 a day - the going rate for a route that size.

The hills were steep and rain fell fiercely this particular afternoon. I was running late because I had to finish my two routes on Queen Anne first before running the kid's Magnolia route.

On the average route day, I pulled up the floor brake well more than 100 times. Unfortunately, out front of one regal home on Magnolia, which featured a nice view of downtown, I neglected to take that simple action.

I turned from the house across the street where I was placing a paper, and suddenly thought something wasn't right; a sharp pain shot through my stomach and then my body flew into panic.

In the pouring rain, wearing an oversize 1970's Alaska parka with fake fur hiding my face I ran screaming downhill to catch my compact automobile.

It was too late. My late-model Honda careened through several rhododendrons and then dove down a rockery adorning the home's front lawn. It stood nearly straight up on its front end on the well-manicured lawn patch that lay before a central living room window.

A couple of neighbors towed my vehicle back up to the street, thinking I was seated in my car to steer as they pulled. Instead, perhaps because I was dazed by the incident, I stood by my open driver's door, which knocked me to the ground as the car was dragged back up over the rockery.

In the end, I personally reimbursed the homeowners for several sprinkler heads my car sheared off their property. The plants survived.

All of this for an extra $5 per day.

Tossing a route is a tough way to make a living.

There's the independence of being your own boss, but that only means you're responsible for everything. On several occasions my car broke down midroute, and I walked to my mechanic's shop and begged him to loan me a car.

Although it's not a common problem, one of the most challenging parts of the job is cajoling dogs, which in most cases are penned behind fences or left indoors.

But once in a while you come face to face with an angry canine on the loose. On one Sunday morning at about 4 a.m., I found myself in the most ridiculous position. A large dog was chasing me back to my car, but I wasn't certain I could open the door and climb into safety before sustaining a bite.

So I did the only reasonable thing: I tore off the car's rear windshield wiper and fended off the mutt with wild screams of panic and my new-found, albeit wimpy, weapon.

It worked.

Four months of tossing The Seattle Times was enough for me, especially since I faced increasing health problems. I never reached the point of turning much profit, mostly because of extensive car repairs and failing health. But I knew other carriers on the route raising families on the money they earned.

And there are peculiar advantages. You meet interesting people.

When I told one customer I was quitting the route, she revealed that she was psychic. And at 3:30 every afternoon, the approximate time I delivered her paper, she would send me cosmic vibes.

After enduring the challenges of feeding the west slope of Queen Anne with news for four months, cosmic vibes sounded like just what I needed.

I thanked her and headed back to my car banding and bagging a newspaper for the next house. It was still raining, and you have to keep the papers dry.

Living with AIDS, by Robert O'Boyle, a Seattle freelance writer, appears every other Sunday in the Scene section of The Times.