If you can’t find you or anyone like you portrayed in an overblown, cartoonishly acted eight-part series about a time you remember living through, too, relax — it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Except for one month as a telemarketer my junior year in college (we sold memberships to the Hillsborough County Police Benevolent Association; if our prospects assumed I was a cop and it motivated them to buy a window sticker, I didn’t go out of my way to correct them) and a three-day stint the winter after college with a Japanese-owned market research firm where we all had to gather in a circle and tell something about ourselves (which was just before I quit), I haven’t had a job since I was 14 that didn’t somehow involve writing.
That makes me think I haven’t had a real job since I was 14.
I don’t always get to write what I want to make a living, but I get to do what I’d be doing no matter what, whether somebody’s paying me or not. I’ve always liked to say if I could do something useful like fix cars, I’d do that. But I can’t. All I can do that’s marginally viable as an occupation is write. Hard to believe writing can compose a job, let alone a career. Somehow just enough people read to make it so.
I began writing for publication when I was 15 and previewed the impending high school soccer season for the Long Island Journal (coach said the team would be good), which means I’ve been at this in some form or fashion for 29 years. Even if soccer was involved, I instantly decided I preferred writing to what I consider my last real job, which I haven’t held, like I said, since I was 14, thirty years ago this summer. I wasn’t bad at what I did, but I didn’t stick with it. I doubt it had much of a long-term future.
And what was the vocation I turned my back on in the heat of 1977?
Meet your local newsboy.
That’s the phrase we on the street used. “Carrier” was a management term. When I had to make collections on Thursday nights, I’d identify myself to my wary customers peeking through their screen windows and Venetian blinds as “newsboy!” Maybe “Newsday!,” the paper I delivered faithfully for 15 weeks in the spring and summer of ’77. Never “paperboy”. Newsboy sounded bad enough.
The irony — somebody who would go on to become a writer leaving the world of honest work behind after delivering what other people wrote — struck me even then (assuming that’s ironic…I know surprisingly little about English for someone who’s written for most of the last 29 years). But it wasn’t a foot-in-the-door situation. I didn’t think I’d be discovered on my front stoop inserting Part 2 into the main news section by an itinerant editor who needed someone to go cover that big city council meeting. It was just a rite of passage. You grew up where I grew up, you eventually delivered Newsday on your block. Nobody told you to do it, you just did it. Really, it was less vocation than calling.
I liked it at first. Then I liked it in theory. Then I liked it less and less. Then I gave it up, never to return to the trade as far as I know. A comeback isn’t necessarily out of the question, but I doubt Newsday has newsboys per se anymore. I had a shopping cart some thoughtless dolt left in our driveway which had been sitting in the basement for several years. I put it to work. Every day after school in May and June and then in the early afternoons of July and August, I got my 30 copies of the paper and I rolled my cart up and down East Beech Street between Roosevelt and Neptune boulevards and then the width of Roosevelt Boulevard between East Walnut and East Penn streets.
Not too many shopping carts full of Newsdays these days. Or kids on bikes (I had enough trouble riding one to attempt tossing projectiles from one). Newsday is no longer an afternoon paper. Where I live, I’ve never seen them delivered. They just show up around dawn, presumably dropped off by a guy with a van.
We had a guy with a van. A yellow van. He was our manager, Mr. Thiessen. Every cliché about vans in the ’70s materialized with this man, right down to mellow beach scene artwork that decorated the back windshield. Goodness only knows what the van was used for at night when he wasn’t doling out Sunday supplements. Seemed like an all right sort, though I learned instantly that supervisory personnel don’t much care for cleverness in the ranks. For example, there was a night I had some burning newsboy question that couldn’t wait for the weekly Long Beach Boulevard rendezvous Mr. Thiessen demanded every Monday. So I looked up his phone number in the white pages and called him. He wasn’t pleased at my garden-variety industriousness.
“Don’t ever call me at home,” he admonished me. No, of course not. You don’t call someone as important as Newsday route manager Mr. Thiessen at home. I’m surprised his number was even listed.
I didn’t care for that sort of attitude. I didn’t care for it from the guy at the telemarketers in college nor the guy who ran the Japanese market research firm nor, for that matter, almost every editor and publisher I’ve had to answer to. I now technically work for myself. I can’t say I necessarily care for me either.
On my watch, the Newsday readers of E. Beech between Roosevelt and Neptune and Roosevelt Blvd. between Walnut and Penn were taken care of. They wanted their paper between the doors? They got it between the doors. They wanted it in the mailbox? It was probably the province of Emile the mailman by law, but they got it in the mailbox. They wanted it under the WELCOME mat? Actually, nobody wanted it there even if that’s where Mr. Thiessen said it was supposed to go. It got wet there, so I learned to leave it elsewhere.
The route was strange for me, particularly on East Beech where I’d lived since a few days after I was born but had taken myself, unlike Newsday, out of circulation. I had no friends to speak of on the block since first grade and here I was finishing eighth. I had to reacquaint myself with neighbors I (and my parents) mostly avoided. Some of them were pieces of work.
East Beech was a weird mix. It was, on the face of it, a quiet suburban street but it managed to play home to some ramshackle houses filled (illegally) with multiple ramshackle families. I’m not passing judgment on the income levels, mind you, just the class aspect. East Beech’s residents, whatever their financial situation, had a prevailing lack of it. The kids were monsters, the mothers and fathers were cranks — occasionally anti-Semitic cranks at that. But the worst neighbors were, improbably, the best tippers. Maybe they appreciated a workingman more than a quiet, studious adolescent. I don’t know. I delivered their paper where they wanted it and when they wanted it (though Sunday mornings were always a struggle) and they were good for a “keep the change” when their tab was $1.55 and they handed me two bills.
A forty-five cent tip was hot stuff in the summer of 1977. I had one friendly, upscale older lady who couldn’t have been nicer, loved to chat, offered me the occasional glass of water…but never went for more than a dime. It was like a code with her I think. The best tip I ever got was from some couple that rented the upstairs apartment at the house on the corner of Neptune. They probably had a yellow van, too, and were too mellow to be bothered counting out the 35 cents for their Sunday-only subscription, which they were like four weeks late in paying. When I finally got ahold of him, Dude emptied an ashtray of change into my hand and told me to keep it all. The tip amounted to $1.85. I could swear there was an Eisenhower dollar in there somewhere.
That Newsday route was mine for exactly 105 days. On 104 of them, I did my job. I did it on the 36th day, same day I took my first Regents exam, in algebra (and somehow got an 88). I did it on the 60th day, the day after the great blackout of 1977 (with the city papers in understandably short supply, a man asked to buy one of mine, but I had to decline, the relationship among me, my cart and my customers a sacred bond). I did it on the 98th day, a Sunday when I was anxious to get it out of the way so I could watch Tom Seaver pitch against Jerry Koosman in a matchup previously unimaginable, at least until the 31st day — June 15.
On only one of the days I was a newsboy for Newsday, the 87th, I sublet it. It was Wednesday, August 10, that I entrusted the afternoon paper habits of my clientele to my friend Noel. Overpaid him for the privilege, too. Think I gave him five bucks. But I needed that Wednesday off. I was taking a portion of my singles, my quarters, my dimes and my nickels and I was going, for the very first time, on my own to Shea Stadium.
Yes! Day game! I’m 14! I’m responsible, or a reasonably close facsimile thereof! A new era is at hand! If there’s a Mets game, I can go to it! There are trains that will take you there! I learned that going with my sister the last few years. Now I’m going to pull it off without any adult supervision. Just me and two friends and my wits.
Good lord that was exciting. My entire existence, then as more or less now, revolved around wanting to go to a Mets game. These days, I go to many. That year I went to one, just one. That one. Me. I had to ask permission but I didn’t have to ask anybody to take me or ask anybody to pay my way in.
On the 87th day I held it — and the only day I didn’t personally operate it — that Newsday route paid real dividends.
Even if seeing the Mets in the summer of 1977 meant seeing the 1977 Mets, it was a thrill. The ’77 Mets minus Seaver and Kingman were sorry sacks of sugar. I handled enough newspapers that season to know that wasn’t news. If I’d handled a few more, maybe I’d have gotten to see more Mets games.
When you delivered Newsday, you were encouraged to sign up new subscribers. The more subs you secured, the more points you were awarded for putting toward valuable prizes. Frisbees. Beach towels that declared Long Island was Newsday Country. The only prize that ever caught my eye was two tickets to a Mets game. Having signed up no new subscribers other than my reluctant parents, I wasn’t eligible, but I can still remember the piece of paper included with delivery stack alerting us to the possibility that we humble Newsday carriers could use our points toward seeing the Mets on such-and-such night, the Mets featuring “stars Kranepool and Henderson”.
Ohmigod, I thought. Our stars used to be Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman. Now they’re Ed Kranepool, who doesn’t even start, and Steve Henderson, who just got here.
It makes me wonder what second prize was that week.
With Seaver and Kingman gone, I had a whole new slew of Mets to embrace and it never occurred to me not to. Wasn’t Henderson’s fault that he was going to be thrust into being our version of George Foster (or Dan Norman’s that he’d have to be Ken Griffey once he came up) to compensate for the trade that made him a Met. Steve actually made a good first impression. I don’t know if he rated “star” status so soon, but by the end of ’77, we were making straight-faced arguments for Hendu, not Andre Dawson, as N.L. Rookie of the Year. If you prorated Steve’s performance for a full season, it wasn’t so crazy, even if being a Mets fan in 1977 was.
The four guys who came from Cincinnati are always the pawns discussed in the after-the-fire aftermath of the Midnight Massacre. But let’s not overlook who came for Kingman from San Diego. There was a pitcher, Paul Siebert. Siebert was on the Padres? I thought he was with Houston. And a utilityman, Bobby Valentine. He hasn’t been with the Angels all this time? Though I knew both men from their baseball cards, I hadn’t kept up with them prior to their Met incarnations.
I can’t say I remember a blessed thing about Paul Siebert other than he wore No. 43. But Bobby Valentine…there was a name to remember, huh? I vaguely recalled him as a promising Dodger and a severely injured Angel. Had no idea he was ever in San Diego. But now he was a New York Met and in certain minds he never stopped being one. Bobby V, as we would come to know him, was a Mets player in the 1970s, a Mets coach in the 1980s and the Mets manager in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. A pennant-winning manager of starting players like Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Timo Perez, all of whom you could imagine, in your darker moments, being quite at home as 1977 Mets.
Other than Bud Harrelson turning this trick from the ’60s to the ’90s, I can think of no other person who wore a Mets uniform across four consecutive decades besides Valentine. Though his playing tenure was undistinguished in less than two seasons at Shea, it didn’t seem at all odd to me when he reappeared as a coach in the mid-’80s, just as his detours to Texas and Japan seemed like marking time before he inevitably became our skipper in 1996.
Without the overshadowed portion of the Massacre, the Kingman-related violence, Bobby Valentine probably doesn’t become part of the Met legacy. He has his detractors, I know, but it’s a very different team history if Bobby V doesn’t take things over and shake things up when he does. It may not have been worth trading Tom Seaver, but for long-term purposes, I’m willing to give up Dave Kingman for Bobby Valentine.
Let’s be real, though. It wasn’t the trade of Kingman (or Mike Phillips for Joel Youngblood, a gem of a steal) that hung over Shea like a cloud from June 1977 until new ownership delivered CPR to this brain-dead endeavor. It was Seaver for Henderson, Norman, Doug Flynn and Pat Zachry. Flynn was sold to us as a great gloveman. He was, first taking over from Harrelson at short and then, when Felix Millan’s career ended with an Ed Ott-induced thud in Pittsburgh, second base. Dougie won a Gold Glove for us. I really, really liked Doug Flynn. I borderline loved Steve Henderson. I waited a long time for Dan Norman to pan out.
But Pat Zachry. Geez. You don’t want to be the righthanded pitcher who replaces Tom Seaver in the Mets rotation in 1977. You could be the righthanded pitcher who replaces Tom Seaver in the Mets rotation in 1984, because then you’d be Dwight Gooden. That was fine. But Zachry? Even with his Rookie of the Year award not yet a year old (they made him share it with Butch Metzger, a prototype of Blas Minor as if you would need two cracks to create one of him), he was doomed. His legitimate All-Star selection in 1978 notwithstanding — he made the same team as Tom Seaver — Pat had no chance in New York. I never realized just how bad he had it until this past June when Bill Madden unearthed this anecdote in the Daily News:
“One of my fondest memories of New York was when I tried to use Getty Gas certificates I’d gotten for being on ‘Kiner’s Korner’ at a Getty station on Roosevelt Avenue near Shea. The attendant had no idea what they were and he came after me with a ball peen hammer.”
You can keep your images of extraneous boroughs burning and mass murderers on the loose and Lenny Randle stranded in the dark at home plate on the night of July 13 when he was sure The End was nigh — “God, I’m gone. I thought for sure He was calling me. I thought it was my last at-bat.” There is, in retrospect, no sadder metaphor for the decline and turmoil of New York in the summer of 1977 than this poor bastard Pat Zachry who was traded for somebody they called The Franchise trying to redeem petroleum vouchers personally bestowed upon him by a Hall of Famer and being not only denied proper credit but threatened with a tool.
To be a Met in New York in 1977 was not to be a prince of the city.
If I’d had the Newsday carrier points, maybe I would have gone to the Newsday carrier game. Instead, I chose August 10, the Mets and Cardinals. I chose to go with Stephen, a lapsed Mets fan with whom I hung out almost daily that summer (even though I would have been hard-pressed even then to tell you why), and Todd, my oldest friend in the world, dating clear back to fourth grade. Todd was a Yankees fan before there was any reason to be. Stephen had switched local teams that spring. Todd was honorable if misguided. Stephen was a bit of a creep when it came to baseball. But I apparently couldn’t find any Mets fans that week.
It didn’t really matter who I went with. It mattered where I was going. First, to the LIRR station in Long Beach, to the ticket window. “Round trip, Shea Stadium, please.” It was explained to me that I’d have to hold onto this ticket because after changing at Jamaica, I’d have to change again at Woodside for the train to Shea. I tried to keep that straight in my head, for me and for Stephen and Todd. This was my adventure. I couldn’t lose them even if I wanted to.
The beauty part about presenting a ticket marked Shea Stadium to an LIRR conductor is there’s no doubt as to your destination. “Going to the Mets game?” he asked as he punched. Yup, I said. “Who’s pitching?” he asked. I was ready with the answer having bought a competitor’s paper at the station: Craig Swan. I loved knowing the answer.
I wish that once a day somebody would ask me who’s pitching.
All connections were made and we arrived safely at Shea. I led our party to the ticket windows on the third base side. I wanted to sit in the field boxes and be able to stare into the Mets dugout. I was a pretty big shot with all that newsboy change rattling around in my pocket. With a field box going for $4.50 a pop and attendance going pretty much in the toilet, this was an achievable goal. We got our tickets and we sat fairly close to the field. Close enough to see Lenny Randle had survived the blackout intact.
Of course I had to pick up a yearbook and a program. I did that every year even if “every year” only covered every year since 1973. I got the revised edition of the yearbook, the one that expunged all evidence of Seaver and Kingman. Joe Torre was on the cover, sitting in the manager’s office, making out a lineup and maybe dining out on that “if Felix hadn’t gotten four hits…” story again. He looked reasonably happy. Even though I’m sure I was trying to act as cool and casual about all this as a 14-year-old could — as if I went to a Mets game every Wednesday — I’ll bet I looked reasonably happy. I was at a Mets game on my own recognizance, on my own nickel, on my own, on my day off from Newsday. It was Craig Swan and the Mets versus Tom Underwood and the Cardinals in the middle of the afternoon. Why shouldn’t everybody look happy?
I found the least happy person at Shea Stadium. Before first pitch, after buying the yearbook and the program, I remembered that I wanted to replace my souvenir batting helmet, the one I requested my father buy me at Nathan’s of Oceanside in 1971 because Lindsey, Ralph and Bob made it clear it could be purchased there. It had been damaged in the course of eighth grade when Stephen would come over after school and we’d indulge in a contest of what could best be described as “break things in Greg’s room.” The helmet, adjustable, plastic and (as the announcers reminded us) not intended for actual game use, was an easy target.
There was a concession stand behind our third base seats. I asked the man behind the counter for a helmet. He grumbled something, looking all the while like a baseball stadium, even beautiful Shea Stadium, was the last place he wanted to be today. He handed me the helmet and told me that it would be three dollars. I handed him a ten and thanked him. Wow, I thought, I got a new batting helmet right here at Shea!
“Hey!” the voice croaked out. “You forgot your change.”
Indeed I had. So much for my 14-year-old cool. I was a little embarrassed by my error in the transaction. Score it E-Fan. I thanked the vendor again. He went back to grumbling.
I’ve engaged in probably thousands of exchanges with hundreds of Shea vendors since August 10, 1977, thirty years ago today, but this one stands out. The vendor, I’d learn over the winter, was an NYU student. He came to my house, not to give me the rest of my change (for all I know, I asked him to break a twenty) but because he had by then become my sister’s boyfriend. Eventually, he would become her husband, my brother-in-law. Because Suzan said the guy she was dating had been a vendor at Shea Stadium, I recognized his face as soon as I saw him. He actually recalled me, too, so few were ticketholders in 1977.
Mark said he must have liked something about me because usually he wouldn’t tell 14-year-olds they forgot their change.
Of course the Mets didn’t win. The best they could hope for was to be blacked out like Lenny Randle was in the bottom of the sixth on July 13 (the Mets were losing to the Cubs when Con Ed was hit and lost officially once they resumed play in September…natch). The Mets won only 64 times that year. Think they were going to waste one of those precious commodities on us? Swan pitched what would become known in the ’80s as a quality start: 3 earned runs over 8 innings. Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad for any season. He held Lou Brock and Garry Templeton in check, but Roger Freed — replaced for defense late by young Keith Hernandez — reached Swannie for a two-run homer in the second. The Mets were down 2-0. Imagine the Mets of 2007 losing 20-0 in the second inning. That’s what the Mets losing 2-0 in a second inning in 1977 was like.
Despite Lenny Randle driving in Doug Flynn and keeping his average well above .300 (he was probably glad to be playing in daylight) and Bobby Valentine going 1-for-3 as starting first baseman (Valentine, not Kranepool) and Steve Henderson collecting yet another Rookie of the Year credential with a base hit, Tom Underwood silenced Mets bats pretty handily — him and not-yet-Met Butch Metzger, who collected the save.
Ted Simmons batted cleanup for the Cardinals. Mike Vail batted cleanup for the Mets. Yet we only lost 3-1. There should have been a column in the standings for moral victories. But there wasn’t.
Todd, Stephen and I reversed the commutation process back through Woodside and Jamaica all the way to Long Beach. Todd lived way on the other side of town from me and Stephen and was in a bit of a panic mode about getting home. I think I decided that since I had gotten us back to our starting point, I wasn’t responsible for him any longer and sought out the eastbound bus with my remaining change before I could grow gnawingly concerned over his fate. (Don’t worry; he made it to ninth grade with the rest of us.) By the time I got home, I think I was down to a few coins in my pocket and the five-dollar bill my mother insisted I stick in my shoe. Plus my yearbook, my program, my batting helmet, my ticket stub from my first Mets game I went to on my own and my recollection of the first day I ever took off from the first — and, by my writerly reckoning, last — real job I ever had.
The next day, Thursday, I was back on the Newsday beat. Newspapers had become a big deal overnight. The Post would sell a million copies on August 11. Not because of a surge of interest in the Mets game. It was Son of Sam. He was arrested a few hours after I came home from Shea. He was front page news. Noel, however, was the lead story for my customers. I got five separate complaints that my substitute didn’t place Newsday right where they wanted it. So much for relying on a caddy. To this day, I almost never trust anyone to pick up the slack for me. I wonder if it’s all Noel’s fault.
Though I did effective enough damage control, I wasn’t long for the route. I’d gotten tired of delivering Newsday, of playing possum with the local miscreants, of leaping back from German shepherds who went nuts at the sound of a doorbell, of waiting for well-meaning dowagers to ceremoniously fish dime tips from their purses. I didn’t want to be a quitter, but I did want to quit. I’d made up some cover story about not wanting my paper route to interfere with my schoolwork and my parents bought it. I couldn’t get them to buy a full week’s subscription to Newsday (they wouldn’t take the Sunday edition since they thought Newsday was a waste of paper — which I half resented and half respected), but that I could sell. I bothered to tell my best customers, for some reason, that I would no longer be their newsboy now that I was starting my final year of junior high. One of them was thoughtful enough to tell me to “wait here” and get me a dollar bill. It was like “put this toward your education, son.” I may sound snarky about it now, but notice that I remember it distinctly.
Having made my decision, I turned my little green account book over to Mr. Thiessen who would find another newsboy or newsgirl to take my place. I guess I left him in a temporary lurch, but there was always another kid to deliver Newsday. I had nothing in particular against my manager, really, but I carried this disturbing image all summer that if I’d stuck with my route through the fall and winter, Mr. Thiessen would point to his yellow van with the mellow beach scene artwork and tell me if I continued to work hard, someday this would all be mine.
I decided I’d rather write about soccer. Or anything at all. Believe me, I have.
Of course I stuck with the Mets, no matter the attendant indignities. After the Seaver/Kingman car wreck, the Mets stopped being in the papers very much unless they paid for the privilege. I can still see the ad with the slogan everybody seems to remember from that summer. I was in our basement on a Saturday night, readying the Sunday edition’s guts when I came upon a picture of a bunch of Mets and a bunch of children forming a bad dream of a team picture. Mixed in among “Lee, 22″ and “Steve, 24″ and a peeved “John, 26″ were various Roberts and Karens and other representatives of the cream of Metropolitan youth identified by their dependable 1960s baby names and last birthdays. They were 10, 12, maybe even my age, 14 (though having traveled to and from a Mets game on my own, I was clearly no longer as young as I used to be). The team’s front office was determined to make chicken salad out of the Seaverless, Kingmanless, hopeless 1977 New York Mets by inviting Long Island’s parents to…
BRING YOUR KIDS TO SEE OUR KIDS
Ohmigod, I thought yet again.
When you were coming of age alongside the Mets in the late ’70s, you thought that a lot.
Next Friday: Twenty years of knowing better but listening nonetheless.