Q: How did you get a job delivering newspapers?
O’Donnell: My husband Dan and I had just moved to Salem, and I had to get a job fast because he was in school, so he wasn’t really able to work, or at least enough to pay the bills. I applied at a lot of places and wasn’t getting anything. So, well… you know.
Q: What, you just thought, “Hey, newspapers… there’s something?”
O’Donnell: Well, you know, there are jobs you hear about and just think, “What would it be like to really do that?” I mean, I can’t just think, “Hmm, what would it be like to work in advertising?” and then just go out and magically do it. But newspapers, that I could do. I always thought of kids on bikes after school delivering newspapers, so the thought of doing it as an adult was interesting. Plus, once I wrote a short story about this guy who delivered newspapers for a living and ever since then I had this sort of fascination with it.
Q: Who else delivered the paper?
O’Donnell: There was one guy delivering papers who I found out was a music critic for the paper. The paper we delivered. That made no sense to me. I would look at him and think, “Why are you here?” I mean, most of the other people delivering papers were middle-aged and tired-looking. Then there was this young peppy-looking guy who was always dressed sort of nicely. Sometimes I would see him at a show, maybe he was there to review it, and I would think, “I know your secret, mister. I know your dark past.”
Q: How many people delivered the paper with you?
O’Donnell: Oh, maybe a dozen. This was the Oregonian, which covered events in all of Oregon, but it was really a Portland paper. Since we were in Salem and Salem had its own newspaper, not everyone subscribed to the Oregonian.
Q: What sort of hours did you work?
O’Donnell: Well, between midnight and one in the morning was when we picked up the newspapers. It was a morning delivery. So, I’d show up at about 12:30 or 1 am.
Q: So the newspapers were all bundled up and you just went in and grabbed them?
O’Donnell: Yeah, I would go in and pick up the bundles and, depending on what day of the week it was, the bundles would vary in size. Tuesday’s bundle was sort of smallish, and Sunday’s bundle was huge.
Q: How long was your newspaper route?
O’Donnell: About six miles.
Q: How long did it take you?
O’Donnell: It would take anywhere between two and six hours, depending on what the weather was like. And on Sundays, lots of people like to get the Sunday paper, not the daily, so it was almost like a completely different route from the one I had during the week. It would increase by, like, 50%. So, sometimes on Saturday nights I would work until the sun came up on Sunday. People would start calling my boss and asking where their paper was. I had this completely different list of names of people who wanted the Sunday paper and sometimes it would be so hard to find them.
Q: Wait, they would call? They would, like, wake up at dawn and see that their newspaper wasn’t there and call to complain?
O’Donnell: Yeah. You know, they wake up in the morning and they expect it to be there. I was still driving around at that point wondering, “Where the hell am I?”
Q: What sort of training did you receive?
O’Donnell: The first night they had me go on a route — a completely different route from the one I would have, but still a route — with another delivery person who happened to have her child with her. And it was very odd, because her child was, like, twelve and he is up at two in the morning delivering newspapers with his mom. Anyway, then they handed me these photocopied maps with a written-out spreadsheet representation of the route, which, I found out later was written by a dyslexic man.
Q: Are you serious?
O’Donnell: Oh, yes. Very. So, it wasn’t so easy to follow all the instructions on this map. It was really confusing. I basically had to figure it out all on my own, and, at that point, I had lived in Salem for, I don’t know, two weeks to a month. They just handed me these sheets and were like, “Okay, here you go!” It was the worst possible thing. At first they gave me only half the route, and it still took me five or six hours.
Q: They never sent anyone with you?
O’Donnell: The first couple of nights they did, but after that I was on my own. The guy they sent along with me didn’t know the route either, so all night long it was just the blind leading the blind.
Q: After those first few weeks, how long did the route take you?
O’Donnell: Well, if it was a Monday — very light paper — I could get it down to about two hours. The Sunday paper would still take six hours though, there were so many of them.
Q: So, you’re up from one in the morning until seven in the morning. How did you stay awake?
O’Donnell: Well, it was easy to stay awake because it completely altered my sleeping pattern. At first I would just drink a lot of coffee. There was a Circle K on my route, and I started getting into the habit of going there. They had Cherry Coke in the soda fountain, which is very hard to find in most convenience stores. I would get a thirty-two ounce Cherry Coke for the caffeine, and then sometimes I would also get some sort of horrible sugary pastry type thing while I was at it, like Snowballs. The Snowballs were funny, because I swear I must have been the only person who bought them. They would have these special holiday colors for the Snowballs, like green for St. Patrick’s Day and then pastel colors for Easter, but this place only had the green ones, even after Easter and several other holidays had passed. Nobody else bought them, I swear.
Q: Didn’t you ever get sleepy?
O’Donnell: Yeah, a couple of times. I would just pull over and recline the seat and take a little nap if I got tired.
Q: Isn’t that sort of dangerous, taking a nap in your car at three in the morning all alone?
O’Donnell: Yes. I realize that now.
Q: How long did it take your body to adjust to that sort of schedule?
O’Donnell: Oh, it wasn’t that hard adjusting to it. You just make yourself a new schedule. The hardest thing to adjust to was the fact that I did this seven days a week. I had no days off. And, it also happened to be during the worst winter in, like, a decade. One night after a huge snowstorm I started delivering the newspapers and immediately realized that all the streets were not only covered in snow, but they were completely iced over. Every time I got out of the car I had to tiptoe so that I wouldn’t fall over. And I had to get out of the car, like, two hundred times.
Q: Did the job get monotonous?
O’Donnell: Not monotonous, but I definitely developed a routine. The Circle K was part of the routine. Sometimes Dan would go along the route with me to help and there was one point during the route where he had to go to the bathroom at the same time every night. It was always when we got to this certain apartment building that had these big evergreen bushes in front. So, while I got out of the car and delivered the papers, he would go pee in these bushes. After a while it became an automatic thing for him to have to pee every time we got to that apartment. Even if he had consumed no liquids at all and did not have to go, he would see the bushes in front of the apartment and have to pee. Every time. It was totally Pavlovian.
Q. Did you listen to music in the car?
O’Donnell: I listened to the radio.
Q: What sort of stuff gets played on the radio at those hours?
O’Donnell: There was this one radio show that was an all Pink Floyd radio show. That was sort of the highlight of my week, which is really sad. Tuesday nights at, like, one or two in the morning they would start playing the Pink Floyd for this show.
Q: Some of that stuff is pretty slow, didn’t it make you sleepy?
O’Donnell: Oh, no. I mean, it wasn’t like I was just sitting there the whole time. I was constantly moving and concentrating on where I was going. It wasn’t like I was just driving around shoving papers into people’s newspaper boxes, either. The thing about this route was, since I was the new one there, I got the worst route they had. I had to get out of the car for almost every paper. Nobody had a box. I had to do all the businesses downtown, so I would get out of the car and put their paper in their mail slot, or in some cases people had special requests. Some businesses would specify that they wanted their paper thrown on their second-story balcony, or, in the case of a certain man who was senator at the time, they would want all the papers in a different place. The man got, like, five newspapers and he wanted all these special things done with them. There had to be two papers in one bag, but the others were separate. Then they all had to be put in different places. And he had the weirdest deliveries. He wouldn’t get the same number of newspapers every day of the week, he would get, like, five Monday papers and three Tuesdays. Every day was different. Some people would want the paper thrown onto a specific part of their porch. One guy wanted his newspaper thrown into the back of his pick-up truck. There was some restaurant that wanted the paper thrown into their little patio seating area.
Q: What happened if you accidentally threw the paper onto the wrong balcony or something?
O’Donnell: Well, I started bringing along extra papers just for that reason. There was one place that, for some reason, was really hard for me to throw the paper in the right place. A couple of them ended up on the roof. They’re probably still there. If that guy ever decides to replace his roof there are going to be all these newspapers up there from, like, six years ago. They were all in bags, so they should be relatively well preserved. One apartment building had a second-floor balcony and there were quite a few people who got the paper there. I didn’t want to run up the stairs with all those papers, so one night, I guess it must have been a Sunday because the newspaper was rather large that night, I decided to just throw all the papers one by one onto the balcony. Let me just say right now that all of this did, in fact, go on during the winter so I was really bundled up and wearing a large coat and it was cold so my motor skills were really off. Well, I didn’t throw one paper hard enough for it to make it onto the balcony, and it bounced off the railing and landed on the hood of someone’s car and set off the car alarm. It was so loud. This sleepy person came out of his apartment in his bathrobe to shut off the alarm, and I just sort of smiled at him sheepishly and waved the newspaper as an explanation.
Q: Did he wave back?
O’Donnell: No. He did not wave back. He gave me a groggy sneer and went back inside and I finished throwing the papers.
Q: Didn’t you ever get scared that something creepy would happen to you while you were out alone so late?
O’Donnell: One night — it was a Saturday night, Sunday paper — and I was still getting used to the special Sunday paper route. It was hard to find the houses sometimes because everything was just washed out and fuzzy at night and I couldn’t find any house that matched the description on my little cheat sheet of what a certain house was supposed to look like. I mean, there was an address, and then it would say, “White house, red trim,” because there are a number of houses that do not have their address in clear view for everyone to see. I was running late that night and it was really cold, so I was trying really hard to find this one house and get them their paper as fast as I could. I kind of looked around at all the houses and decided which one was supposed to get the paper and I threw it on the porch. My sister was visiting me then so she was in the car with me keeping me company on my route, and when I got back into the car she was freaking out and yelling, “Oh, my god! Did you see that?” “See what?” I said. “When you were standing in front of that porch the curtains in one of the windows parted and this hand came out! It was making a beckoning motion at you, like it was trying to lure you inside!” We drove away as fast as we could and were really creeped out the rest of the night. The next day when I was picking up my papers I found out that the beckoning hand house wasn’t even the house that was supposed to get the newspaper. I gave some pervert a free newspaper.
Q: Did you ever read the newspaper?
O’Donnell: I read the newspaper almost every day. It was not a very good paper.
Q: Would you say that delivering the newspaper was the worst job you ever had?
O’Donnell: Hmm, I don’t know. It was awful, yeah, but I got so many funny stories out of it. That’s one good thing.