I believe girls can do almost anything boys can do. They might just do it differently.
The news agency holds a prominent spot in our village’s downtown area on the south side of the railroad tracks, directly across the street from the train station. Housed in one of the low brick buildings that line the business district, it is perfectly situated for commuters to stop in and buy a magazine or the morning paper before climbing aboard the Metra train bound for Chicago.
I remember one particular Friday when I was 11 years old, pulling open the news agency door to pick up my first payment from my first real job.
The bell tied inside the door clanged as I stepped into the dim shop. Smells of paper, ink, and cigars greeted me. I hesitated for a moment glancing down at my plaid school jumper, which felt out of place in this den of masculinity. The hollow garble of an AM radio sportscast snuck under a closed door at the back of the shop. Girly magazines peeked over the top of more respectable periodicals like Motorcycle News and Car & Driver on the tall stands filling the store’s center. Wooden cigar boxes stacked one on the other consumed the shelves behind a glass counter. A young woman waved to me from behind it at the far end.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
I stepped forward with purpose, ignoring the blood pounding in my ears, “I’m here to pick up my pay for my paper route.”
The woman tilted her head to the side, took note of my school uniform, and walked through the closed door. A few moments later she emerged, holding a clipboard and a small manila envelope. Once I printed and signed my name on a list on the clipboard, she placed the envelope in my hands.
Back outside on the sunlit sidewalk, I ripped opened the envelope and poured out my pay. Two wrinkled bills, a five and a one, plus a single quarter, slid into my hand. My proof! I had succeeded as a newspaper carrier.
I believed a girl could do anything a boy could. I believed I could do anything a boy could. At school, I was in the highest reading and math groups, along with the brightest boys. I’d been among the tallest in my class since the first grade and could outrun, or keep pace with the boys in my class. I even helped my dad in his basement workshop from time to time, hammering and sawing like a boy.
I was also the product of the 1970s feminist equality movement. I listened to Marlo Thomas and Friends’ Free to Be You and Me album over and over. I’d absorbed from it the message that “girls can be almost anything they want to be.” And to me that included a newspaper carrier.
The thud on our front porch at 5 a.m. the first Monday I held the paper route would have woken me if I wasn’t already up. I dressed quickly and went down to our front door. A stack of flat newspapers—The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times and Wall Street Journal—all bound by a thick wire, sat on the top step. A large bag of rubber bands rested atop the stack. When I tried to bring the newspapers inside, I found I couldn’t lift them. Nor could I undo the wire. A boy could have lifted them. A boy would have known how to cut the wire. That day, I let my father lift the newspapers. I let him find his wire cutters and show me how to cut the binding.
Each newspaper was to be rolled widthwise and bound by a rubber band, then placed in a canvas news carrier’s bag. My small hands could barely fold the thick newspapers. And they certainly couldn’t hold the roll long enough to stretch the rubber band around. My father helped me roll and band them that day.
The newspapers, when loaded in the canvas bag and slung across my chest, made me wobble and swerve on my bicycle. Instead my father helped me hook his two-seat child trailer to the back of my bike. He helped me load the newspapers in the bottom of it. Then I rode off on my own.
I was to fling the paper from my bike as I rode. A boy would do it that way. But my throws didn’t go far.
After that first day, I used my own wire cutters to cut the binding. I carried the papers in shifts and loaded them flat into the trailer that I hooked to my bicycle myself. I hauled them along the route, getting off and carrying each paper to the door of the customer’s house, laying it neatly on the doorstep. On rainy days, I tucked them inside screen doors.
For three years, I rode my route and delivered those newspapers like a girl. Because I was a girl. And girls can do almost anything boys can do. Including deliver newspapers.