Updated: Nov 19, 2018
In fairness to all newspaper carriers, thirty-seven years of working with youth newspaper carriers has taught me that, most of the time, the things the carriers get blamed for are not their fault. Take the time that I received a call from an angry customer. The paper boy had scratched his car with the bike going up his driveway. When the dust settled, it turned out to be his wife, backing out of the driveway, who scratched his car that morning.
Then, there was the customer whose paper kept disappearing. This one had the entire office scratching our heads. It took us several weeks and more than a few stake outs to solve this one. It was a neighbor’s basset hound from down the street that was stealing his paper and trotting home with it in his mouth.
Most of the time, the newspaper carrier is innocent. That was definitely the case with the craziest mystery of my career. It happened thirty years ago and was an incident that went down in Ridgecrest’s history as ‘The Mayor’s Mustache.’ It was one of those times that a comedy of errors led to the biggest scandal that ever took place in the publisher’s office of this small-town newspaper. At least, at the time, the publisher thought so. And in the end, the newspaper would have to decide which important advertiser was more important.
Michael Smith (not his real name) was a newspaper carrier who was our top youth carrier. He delivered in what was at the time the wealthiest neighborhood in town, came from a respected family, and to be truthful about it, his father was a local business owner who was a hard driver. His kids were brought up right and customer service was the number one thing that he taught his children, both in the family business and on their newspaper routes. To say that Michael was serious about serving his customers doesn’t begin to approach the professionalism that this young boy had about doing his route. His customers loved him and he raked in a lot of tips. A true entrepreneur who was following in his father’s footsteps!
When we held our annual staff meeting to discuss the “Carrier of the Year Award,” Michael’s name was first on the list by every staff member that worked in the circulation office. We kept a tally of points each month, which was also used to give out the top service awards for the year. Michael had the highest points on the list. In twelve months of delivery, the thirteen year old had not had a single complaint.
“No complaints” is a hard thing to achieve. Everyone has a few complaints each year. It’s just inevitable. Dad picks up the paper from the driveway on his way to the local Denny’s and Mom doesn’t realize it. She picks up the phone and calls the office. Mistakes happen all the time. For Michael to get zero complaints, it meant he went by the rules in the carrier manual, making sure each customer had his business card, stressing the need to call him first for any reason if their paper is missing, and making sure they get one immediately if they call.
Michael had seventy-five customers on his route. Zero complaints meant that this young man had delivered exactly 19,500 newspapers that year and not a single customer complaint. That’s an impressive record! The circulation department rolled out the blue carpet that year when he received his reward, complete with a front page article in the Sunday newspaper sporting a color photo of him.
As luck would have it, the mayor of the city was also being honored in that Sunday edition and had a photo that ran on the front page of the newspaper, right next to Michael’s. That’s where the SAGA of the MAYOR’S MUSTACHE begins!
The Sunday edition was a large one that night. Large papers mean all units running on the press on most of the runs. At the time, the Sunday paper had become so big that we were running 24 inserts into the paper with four sections. Believe it or not, the newspaper was actually that big thirty years ago. I had to start coming in to supervise the mailroom on Saturday nights, taking over as lead operator on the inserter to drive the crew to stay ahead of the pressroom and meet our deadlines. We were printing the final section of the paper, the A section, and it was going out the door as fast as we were inserting it, shooting the bundles down the skate to the drivers to keep the room from backing up. Sunday was always a big haul and the room was stacked with pallets of pre-inserted sections, as well as the other three sections of the paper printed earlier in the evening.
In the middle of the pressrun, we had a breakdown and everything stopped dead in its tracks, all the way down the line. Every production employee hates Saturday night breakdowns. They come in at seven P.M. and work till two A.M. to get the Sunday paper out. The longer it takes to get the press up and running, the longer they have to stand there on the line, waiting … hoping that it will get fixed and they can just get started again and get home to go to bed.
After fifteen minutes of standing on the line with the pneumatic compressors and electric generators running, the pressroom foreman looked through the window and ran his hand back and forth in front of his throat at me, the “all down” sign. I started shutting off the generator and compressors and told my crew, “Take a break! It’s going to be a while before the press is back up and running.”
Amidst several groans and angry responses from my crew, I watched as the entire mailroom staff started filtering out of the production room, all accept one. I walked up to my employee and said, “Take a break, Derek.”
Derek retorted, “If we all walk out that door, it will probably be about two minutes before a pressman walks back in here and tells us they have it fixed! Then we’ll all be trying to play catch up.” He picked up a copy of the paper from the bundle stacking table at the end of the line and pulled a pen out of his ear. He started reading the paper as he jumped up and sat on the high steel table. He opened the paper up to the puzzle page and started working on the crossword puzzle.
An hour later, we were all sitting and laying around the room, still waiting as Derek doodled on the newspaper while he leaned on the table. We could hear the bells ringing on the press, a safety feature built into every newspaper printing press that lets the pressman know the press was being advanced during the make-ready process. To us, the bells were an indicator that the press was being prepped to run. I watched as the entire room started to come to life, taking their positions up and down the line. I turned all of the machines back on as the familiar rumble of the press starting up and papers began coming up the track to the fly table. We were off and running again and I didn’t give the evening another thought, other than to get this run over with and get home to my wife, who had been asleep for the last three hours.
Unbeknownst to me, the tale of the Mayor’s Mustache was moving full speed ahead as the biggest saga ever to hit the publisher’s office unfolded. As I laid my head on the pillow that early Sunday morning, the fury was unfolding in the Mayor’s dining room as he was opening his newspaper and sitting down to drink his coffee.
In those days, the Daily Independent, our hometown daily, was a Tuesday through Friday afternoon paper, with a Sunday morning edition that was the premier news source of the week. The newspaper had grown in stature under the publisher. He and I arrived at the newspaper at about the same time, two years earlier, and he was the single best boss that I had in my newspaper career. When the local paper had been bought out, he had taken a promotion to publisher and moved to the town. I had just happened to be hired about the same time as a district manager in the circulation department. I liked him! He was a fair boss who had immediately noticed my experience in subscriber marketing when I arrived. Under his leadership, I had advanced to circulation marketing supervisor, and eventually assistant of two departments, the circulation department and the mailroom.
The publisher was a man that understood the town. Due to SDI, the Cruise Missile Project and the roll out of the F-18 fighter jet, China Lake and Ridgecrest were booming. Together, the publisher and I laid out a plan that increased the size of the readership by fifty percent. Early on, the publisher had given me the green light to use all of my experience to increase the readership while he made the product a better one, adding on the Sunday, moving the printing plant out of an old, smaller building and building a state-of-the-art printing facility that housed 225 employees and contractors. We had another 120 delivery contractors. In the new plant, everyone had a desk, we had plenty of room in our production facilities and production was mechanized. He, literally, took the Daily Independent out of the dark ages and skyrocketed it forward, to the respect of the entire town.
Rarely did he say a derogatory word, and it was even rarer that the man got angry, but the fury of the Mayor’s Mustache was a raging fire that was burning up his phone line. The following day, Monday, my day off, I received a call from my department head announcing that the publisher was mad and I better get down to the office immediately. I drove the two blocks to the new plant and came in the back to find my boss waiting.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but the man is plenty mad. We better get in there!” she replied.
When we entered his office he announced, “I want you to fire the kid that delivers this address.” He handed me a complaint form.
I looked at the address and replied, “There are two that deliver the Heritage neighborhood. It’s probably the Jenkins kid who is his carrier. The other kid doesn’t get complaints. Give me your copy of the circulation router.”
He handed me a book from his shelf and I flipped through it, looking up the street. I looked up at him in shock and stated, “That’s Michael Smith’s route!” I watched as the circulation director nearly collapsed on the couch. Michael’s picture had run on the front of the paper the day before as ‘Carrier of the Year.’
“What’s the problem. Call the kid and fire him!”
“What’s going on? Why do you want me to fire him?”
“He drew a mustache on the Mayor’s photo on the front page of his Sunday paper. Then he delivered it to him.”
The two of us just stared at the publisher in disbelief … and then I burst out laughing.
“I’m not kidding!” he retorted. “I want him fired. The Mayor has already called me seven times since Sunday morning about this. The man is a personal friend of mine and an advertiser.”
I cleared my throat and picked up the Sunday paper from his desk, holding it up. “Is this the picture of the Mayor that you are talking about?” I inquired. He nodded his head. “This photo next to his, the story about the ‘Carrier of the Year’? That’s his newspaper carrier. I can’t fire the Carrier of the Year. Not for one complaint, anyway. The kid has never had a single complaint all year. And, furthermore, his father is an advertiser also. This is Jack Smith’s son were talking about, here.”
Now, in the world of newspapers, the advertiser is the almighty dollar. Many an editorial article had fallen to the trash pile on the floor of the composing department because it was about an advertiser, and the publisher pulled the story. The entire incident had suddenly become a dilemma of “Which important advertiser are you going to lose here? The man sporting the new mustache, or the father of the kid whose photo is next to the mayor's on the front page.”
The room was silent as the three of us stood there and stared at each other, thinking this dilemma through. He finally threw his hands in the air and said, “Fire the kid!”
I was speechless. I looked at my boss, who stood up and asked, “Do you want me to do it, or are you gonna do it?” I raised my eyebrows and retorted, “I’ll do it!” shaking my head as we both turned to step out of the office.
As we walked out, the publisher muttered with a scowl, “The dumb kid even did his crossword puzzle before he drew on his face.” I stopped dead in my tracks and spun around looking at him.
The publisher said, “What?!”
I asked, “Was it in red ink?”
“I don’t know!” he yelled.
“Call the Mayor and ask him if it was in red ink and if there was a goatee on his face, as well as a mustache. Derek from the mailroom was doodling on the Mayor’s face during the press breakdown and he also filled out the crossword puzzle in that paper. If there is one thing I know for sure, this paper carrier wouldn’t do this kind of thing.” The publisher stared at me with an incredulous look. I said, “Please, boss, just call the mayor and ask. If I’m wrong, then I’ll fire the boy.”
He hit the button on his speaker phone and dialed the Mayor’s office. “Stan, does the picture have a goatee on it?”
“Is it in red pen ink?”
The Mayor was silent for a moment before asking, “How did you know that?”
“Stan, my circulation director will be over shortly to pick up the paper.” The publisher hung up the phone and ordered, “Call Derek in from the mailroom right away!”
A half hour later, Derek, the publisher and I were waiting in his office when my boss arrived. She handed him the paper and asked, “Did you draw this on the Mayor’s face?”
Derek looked at us with wide eyes at first. He quietly said, “Yes,” with drooping eyes.
“Holy ….!” The publisher put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “The Mayor got this paper delivered to his house, Derek! Why didn’t you throw it away in the waste bin after you doodled on it?”
“I didn’t think about it. I left it on the bundling table when the press started back up. I just assumed whoever was stacking and bundling would throw it away when they saw it. What are the odds of that happening?”
As the head of subscriber marketing, I proudly stated, “9,521 to 1, actually. That’s how many customers we have as of yesterday’s press run.” The publisher turned and looked at me over the top of his reading glasses, with an angry look. “Well, he asked!” I said as I shrugged and chuckled.
“You still need to fire the kid! He delivered the paper to him with the doodling on his face.”
I looked at my publisher and said, “I just proved to you he didn’t do it and now you still want him fired? I happen to know that the kid rolls his papers in the dark, sitting in his driveway on Sunday mornings. I used to be his district manager and when I dropped his bundles at four a.m., he was always waiting in the driveway. I doubt that he could even see the picture in the dark, and I know that there is no way this kid would do that. There’s a reason his picture is on the front of the paper next to the Mayor’s!”
After a long silence, I said, “If you want him fired, then I’ll do it tomorrow so you have a day to think about this first. And then we can call him and his dad down here and do it in your office. After all, we’re not only losing one of the best carriers I’ve ever worked with, but an advertiser as well.” I stormed out of the office, got in my car and left.
When I arrived on Tuesday morning to start my shift, there was a note on my phone that said, “I talked with the Mayor and explained what happened. He was laughing. He said to forget the entire incident.”