A mentally challenged man delivers papers in his neighborhood and gets a surprise.
Joe the Paper Boy
By Kevin Harrington
In 1968 the Boston neighborhood I lived in wasn’t a safe place to raise kids. My mother had close friends there but her children came first and she moved us to the first place she could find. It was in a better part of Boston and it gave us a chance to start fresh, and as it turned out it was also a great place to make friends that would last a lifetime.
The street was named Lindsey and there were plenty of kids to play with. The Lawlor kids from across the street took us under their wing and showed us around, a sort of a who’s who. Kerins’s on the right, Crowley’s above the Lawlors. There were Millers, Minahans, Donahues, Kerrs, Greenbergs, and Brothers. The neighborhood was comfortable with itself and worked without trying. Every kid knew every mother on the street and treated her like she was their own, if you got out of line you got a whack from whose ever mother was closer and you’d gripe and get over it.
If you got hurt someone mother would fix you up and throw you out on the street to get hurt again. It may sound cruel but these mothers were tough and had anywhere from three to ten kids a piece and were pros at patching us up. They knew we were diving out of trees, rolling down hills, and smashing into walls with our bikes. We were young and stupid and they bought Band-aids by the truck load.
We lived on a street that was a hill that straightened out for a few hundred feet and then became a hill again which was the bain of every dog on the street. I saw several dogs head straight to doggy heaven because of that characteristic. The car would pick up speed on the first hill and a dog would run out in front of it and get nailed, then the car would disappear over the second hill. One dog named Cindy got hit three times before God called her home.
Every day a man would walk up and down that hill delivering papers to every door on that street, whether they ordered it or not. His name was Joe and he lived on our street. He was in his forties or fifties and had been delivering papers long before I was around. We made fun of Joe because he was what would be called today, “mentally challenged.” We didn’t know any better and he was still our good friend.
Joe was our mental equivalent and he sometimes hung around with us. It wasn’t weird, it was just a different time and it seemed normal. He would give us advice on every topic imaginable even though he had no experience in anything. We would listen as he told us to do this, and not do that. The advice was usually ignored and we went on our way.
Everyone knew Joe even the cops and fireman. They would give him little pins that he wore proudly, and would show them to whoever was closest. His ratty winter jacket was lined with them, police badges, fire medallions, military insignia, and any other organization that had a pin he could get his hands on. He had more medals than Patton and boldly commanded his neighborhood patrol of one. If we got out of line we would have to answer to Officer Paperboy Joe.
The Papers were his job and his life, he took it seriously. I never heard anyone ever complain about Joe, but he was getting old and the Sunday papers weighed a ton. You could see him taking longer to do his route and people tried to help him but he was independent and wanted to do it by himself. Then one day his family decided to help Joe in a big way. Without asking him they went out and bought him a Trike. Not a bike, a trike, something they could load the papers in so it would be easier to make his deliveries.
The trike put the bike to shame. The wheels in the back were as large as the wheel in front, and it was big. It had to be over six feet long and three feet wide in the back. For kids this trike was unbelievable, it was just too cool. Fire engine red with chrome everything and two huge wire mesh baskets attached to the back to hold his papers. The whole neighborhood was outside when Joe’s family brought him to see it for the first time. You would think that this many people would wait at a train station for the return of the neighborhood war hero.
Joe was shuffling towards the crowd unaware of what the commotion was about. They parted like The Red Sea and revealed his new trike. He seemed confused until a family member told him that it was his and then his eyes lit up. “Mine”, he said as he pointed at the trike. “Yes it’s all yours Joe, why don’t you take a ride”, as they all pointed at it excitedly. With apprehension he approached waiting for it to attack but it sat there looking pretty and new
An inspection of the trike was in order and Joe slowly circled it a few times taking it all in. Someone motioned to Joe to get on but he looked a little scared like this had been a big joke. He moved closer until finally, anxiously, and with a little help, he got on the Trike. His hands slowly rubbed the chrome bars as he moved his butt in a little shimmy to adjust the seat. The thumb of his right hand moved the lever on the bell attached to the handlebars; it made a little half hearted tinkle, everyone clapped.
The trike was already loaded with papers and even though Joe was visibly frightened I think he couldn’t back down and had to take the bike for a spin. We gave him the thumbs up and he smiled and slurred something we couldn’t hear over all the words of encouragement. Joe’s house was about halfway up the first hill and the bike had been sideways with the rear wheels pushed against the curb. With a look of pure fear, Joe gave a half-hearted one thumb up and the trike was pushed away from the curb. He was on his way. The only problem was that no one had asked Joe if he knew how to ride a trike.
Everyone was clapping and for a second couldn’t hear the ear splitting scream coming from Joe’s lips. On a normal day his voice was slurred but today it was as clear as a siren and stayed that way even after he bounced off his first car. Joe was picking up speed and no one moved for a second frozen by the sight and not believing what they were seeing. Then everyone that could run ran after Joe. His hands worked the handlebars violently yanking them from side to side trying to keep it from falling over while his legs pumped at the pedals never quite getting the hang of them.
He was going at a good clip leaving everyone in the dust. The screams turned to quiet moans as he seemed to get the trike under control. His feet figured out how to work the pedals on their own as a collective sigh swept through the crowd. He was working on momentum and had cleared the hill and was now on the flat stretch of the street jerkily and somewhat successfully pedaling his trike. People stopped chasing Joe believing that the crisis was over as they watched him pedal away.....towards the second hill.
The hill at the end of our street had a sharper grade and a 90 degree right turn. It was something the city had been sadistically doing to slow down traffic. I will always remember when we landed on the Moon, my first kiss, and Joe screaming as he slowly faded out of sight over the crest of the second hill. Everyone was running, when we got to the top we all stopped. At the bottom we could see Joe laying in someone’s front yard with the trike on top of him, it was awful. We ran to help him. He wasn’t hurt too bad, but he had to be stitched, bandaged, sedated and watched for a night at the local hospital.
The trike was banged up and the front wheel was warped. After Joe was carted away in the ambulance it was yanked upright and stared at for several minutes before it was pushed off the front yard and onto the street. A few people glared at it, they were mad at an object that they had assigned human intelligence too. Like it had taken Joe against his will on a death ride while it laughed and he cried. Maybe they would call the cops later and have the trike taken to trike prison where it would be locked up for the rest of its maniacal life, or until it became rusty and squeaky and no one wanted to ride it anymore, which is what happened.
No one saw Joe for a week or two; we knew he was at home healing up. The paper was still delivered everyday by a man in a truck, and to only the people that wanted it. The paper didn’t care who delivered it and seemed to have turned its back on Joe. For the first time in twenty-five years someone else was delivering our papers. I think some people canceled their subscription as a way to show a little respect to Joe.
One day, we were building a ramp to jump some cement blocks with our bikes and surely kill ourselves, when we saw Joe walk by. We called to him but he kept going without turning his head, at least he had his newspaper bag slung over one shoulder. After a couple of days being shunned by Joe he finally came over and talked to us. He still had a few dirty old band-aids hanging off his face and hands. His head was down like he was ashamed so we started talking and asking him if he was alright. His head moved slowly up and down, he liked the attention.
Joe became Joe again in a few weeks and everything was back to normal, except on the weekends, when he would get help from his family delivering the Sunday papers. He still gave us advice that we didn’t heed because we were kids and after all we knew everything. I thought about the trike long after its assault on Joe and wondered where to send the cake with the file in it.
I was playing with the kids across the street from Joe’s house and noticed a tarp in his backyard covering something, I was pretty sure I knew what it was. Checking the street for prying eyes, I darted across and snuck down the driveway. It was the trike half covered by a tarp with one rear wheel and half a handlebar exposed. What was once bright red and majestic was now tarnished, rusted, and humiliated. It had lost its swagger and was relegated to the weeds for forgetfulness to live out its life in shame. I felt bad for it and ran my hand over the handle bar and gave the bell a little ring. It didn’t work until the third try and then it gave out a triumphant, brrrrrrrrrrrrrring! It was the bike’s death knell, one more yell before it was forgotten in what was to become the back yard junk pile. Soon it would be covered with old windows, rotting lumber, and out of plum doors. But I knew it was there, serving time for a crime it didn’t commit, other than to bruise the ego of a simple man.