Newspapers have a smell. If you’re lucky enough to find a newspaper in our digital world, you’ll notice the smell first. Fresh newsprint paper. SoySeal ink. Still warm. It’s a unique scent.
I grew up throwing newspapers. Not on a bicycle. My mother and I threw newspapers, riding in her beat up Nissan. We threw papers every day of the week. Weekends. Holidays. Rainy weather. Snow. Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve.
Our mornings went as such:
We awoke at 2:30 a.m. We arrived at West Marine at 3. Whereupon a delivery truck would pull up, carrying a pallet of the “Northwest Florida Daily News.” The pallet was about the size of an average Hardee’s.
Then, Mama and I would hole up in her car, wrapping newspapers while eating breakfast. Usually, Pop Tarts, or ham sandwiches.
Wrapping was the hardest part. You had to roll each paper into a tight tube. Then you shoved the paper into a tubular plastic sleeve which was about the same circumference as a No. 2 pencil.
Once a newspaper was wrapped, you tossed it into the backseat, where your kid sister sat. She had pigtails. She was busily wrapping newspapers of her own.
Your hands would look like a coal miner’s.
There’s not much on the radio at 3 in the morning. But if you didn’t mind a.m., you could listen to classic reruns of Paul Harvey. We were big Paul Harvey fans.
When we finished, the backseat was so weighted with newspapers, the rear axel sagged against the pavement, shooting sparks into the night at full speed.
My sister rode in back, buried in rolled-up newspapers. I rode up front, reciting the current list of subscribers.
And this is where the real work began. We all had roles. Mama was pilot. Kid Sister was munitions. I was tail gunner.
I would crank down the window and throw newspapers across Northwest Florida. We delivered several hundred billion each morning. Sometimes more.
We sped through neighborhoods, throwing. The morning-shift cops knew us by name, and never pulled Mama over for speeding. She took corners on two wheels. We called her Mama Earnhardt.
Occasionally, we’d park and throw papers on foot. We’d walk the breezeways of apartment buildings, tossing armfuls of newsprint.
We stocked news vending machines. We wore heavy satchels, weighed with papers, and dropped them at people’s doorsteps. We delivered to hotels. Offices. You name it.
We also received complimentary papers. And we always read them. Front to back. After all, this was our product.
One Sunday morning, after throwing papers, the sun was rising. We parked in front of Winn-Dixie, eating donuts and drinking coffee.
My sister was reading the funnies. Mama was reading the want ads. I was reading a column written by a humorist. And I remember saying aloud, “One day, I want to write for newspapers.”
My mother lowered her paper. Her face was tired for a young widow.
“One day,” she replied, “maybe you will.”
Yesterday, I picked up a copy of a local paper. I saw my name in print. Beneath the byline were 600 poorly written words. Suddenly, I could hear Paul Harvey’s voice on a scratchy Nissan stereo. I could taste Pop Tarts and coffee. I could smell the newsprint.
Because as I say, newspapers have a smell.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist and stand-up storyteller known for his commentary on life in the American South. His column appears in newspapers throughout the U.S. He has authored 15 books, he is the creator of the Sean of the South Podcast and he makes appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.