Memoirs of a Newsboy

Growing up in the Orange County area of Southern California, I began working in the newspaper business when I was 10 years old.  My next older brother, Paul, had found a job selling the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times in front of the local Thrifty Mart, a precursor to today’s supermarkets, and he asked me if I would work Saturdays while he worked Sundays.  So, for the next year, I spent Saturdays sitting in front of the market on a huge stack of newspapers that I was to sell for 25 cents, of which I could keep half.  Being young and unaware of the fact that my older, wiser brother knew that most people would want to buy a Sunday newspaper on SUNDAY, I persevered, asking everyone who walked into the store “wanna buy a newspaper?” 

Typically, after a full day of hawking newsprint, the first stop was the local vinyl disc store to peruse the bins of new releases.  At this point, my brother and I were totally immersed in the surf-music craze of the early sixties; our favorites groups were the Chantays, ChallengersSurfaris, and of course, the Ventures.   If the day’s receipts were enough to buy a record, that, and perhaps a donut, is where we spent our money.  My brother and I had begun taking guitar lessons at this point, and this was the music that our teacher would help us learn. 

My first guitar, a nylon-string classical, was purchased for $17.22 at Zody’s, a now-defunct discount department store along the lines of Target.  As you would imagine, this was not a fine instrument, but it was playable.  I thought that it was a better instrument than the guitar that was owned by our friend and neighbor, Jim, which was “purchased” using several books of were called “Blue Chip” trading stamps.   

At the age of 12, I moved up to a paper route, again splitting the job with Paul.  We alternated delivery days, distributing around 80 newspapers to homes in the neighborhood, and then split the route on Sundays.  The job had its pitfalls - carrying 80 daily or 40 Sunday papers in large bags that were tied to the handlebars of our bikes was not easy, especially when one of the dogs on the route happened to be loose and would give chase, nipping at my heels for a block or two as my skinny legs pumped the pedals furiously.  I haven’t been too fond of dogs since - I never got chased by a cat. 

Being chased by a dog was especially feared on Sundays, as we were supposed to deliver the papers before dawn, which meant rising at 3:30 or 4:00 am.  Certain areas of the neighborhoods were without streetlights, which made those streets ever more treacherous.  In a good month, we netted about $35 dollars each.  Unfortunately, getting stiffed by customers hurt our incomes considerably, so we sometimes ending up with $20 or less.  At this point, we were saving our modest incomes in order to upgrade our music equipment.  Paul and I shared the use of an electric guitar, a Stratocaster knock-off made by a company named Magnatone, which our parents bought for us when I was eleven.  The first substantial purchase was a new amplifier - the big decision was whether we should buy a Vox, which English groups such as the Beatles championed, or the locally built Fender.  For reasons that I don’t remember, we chose the Fender Deluxe-Reverb

For my 13th birthday, my parents bought me a better classical guitar, made by a company called Orlando, which I remember cost them about $80.  This guitar, with Indian rosewood laminate back and sides, and a laminated spruce soundboard, was actually a pretty decent instrument.  My teacher, Robert Lake, began to help me with classical technique, which at that point meant simple arpeggio exercises and finger picking arrangements of popular songs.   

Without a doubt, my brother and I enjoyed the full support of our parents.  With weekly lessons, encouragement, and help buying certain instruments, we never felt like we had to do without.  In a family with seven children, siblings learn to appreciate what they are given with few complaints, hand-me-down or otherwise.  One important development in my career occurred was when I was 18.  My mother, who was recently divorced from my father, took out a loan to buy my first hand-made classical guitar.  On this instrument, I was able to give my debut recital.  In order to make that purchase and help support 4 boys still living at home, she valiantly worked the graveyard shift at her job for several years. 

Soon after that recital, Peter Snyder, my first serious classical teacher, called me to his home for a talk.  A cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an amateur guitarist, Peter wanted me to go to a conservatory, with the hope of becoming a professional musician.  His argument was that a career in music was much like trying to become a professional athlete – now was the time.  Peter reasoned that if at the age of 28 I decided that I didn’t have what it took to make it in music, it was not too late to get a degree in business and still have a career.  However, if I went to business school, and then at the age of 28 decided to go into music, it would most likely be too late. 

How my guitar playing developed was far different than it is for many kids today.  I have known children with instruments valued at $3,000.00 - $4,000.00 who were not terribly dedicated to playing music.  How much of my drive to play was fueled by the satisfaction of having a say in the purchasing of instruments, I cannot say.  A former student, who worked with me for a dozen years starting when he was 5 years old, was an enormous talent.  I compared him to the great violin prodigy, Midori.  He and Midori shared phenomenal techniques at an early age, as well as poise, and natural musicality. When my student was 9 years old, there were times when we played through pieces together and I couldn’t keep up with him. His parents and I agreed that he had the potential for a major career and we hoped that by entering an excellent college program he would be challenged by the other fine young musicians at the school and take the initiative towards being a fully realized musician.  This young fellow was, unlike me (with apologies to my brother Paul), born into a musical family; several members play various instruments very well.   While my student did not have to work part-time jobs in order to pay for instruments and the like, he was also not overindulged, nor was he pushed into playing.  I’ve known musicians who were “locked” in rooms by their parents for several hours each day while they practiced.  This was certainly not the case in this family, who encouraged their children’s’ musical development without being overbearing. 

Unfortunately for the music world, after his senior recital, which included a tour-de-force performance of the Aranjuez Concerto with an orchestra, he effectively put his guitar in its case for good, and now is an executive with a large corporation.  Would he have been more fulfilled as a musician?  It may be presumptuous to think so.   

How does a teacher or parent encourage a budding talent in a healthy way?  The issue of whether teachers should encourage promising students to try to make their careers in music, or discourage students who they believe do not have the talent or skills necessary, remains a question every teacher needs to address.  Another of my former students, who at the time seemed like a good but not exceptional guitarist, is now a respected touring artist with over a dozen CD releases.  I also know of many musicians who achieved careers as performers but made other livelihood choices, both in and outside the art world.  Who knows where a person will end up, what path will eventually be traveled? 

After our family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, the next job my brother and I shared was, you guessed it, a Los Angeles Times delivery route.  Again, we traded off nights, but shared the Sunday paper delivery.  Our route was in West Hollywood, which at times can be pretty interesting between 2 and 6 am, to say the least.  This job lasted much of my 3 years in high school.  The advantage of this work was that after school each day I could practice uninterrupted for 3 hours until dinner time.   

The real purpose of this job was to finance cars for both Paul and me.  Fortunately, dogs were no longer a threat; however, there were other memorable moments.  One incident occurred at about 2:30 a.m. on Santa Monica Blvd., where the Times dealership was located.  I had rolled a large workbench to the sidewalk near where my car was parked, when a beautiful blond woman stopped her vehicle next to mine.  She got out, stood silently, and watched me work for several minutes as I tied the papers with the aid of an unusual machine that looked like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Finally, I got the nerve to ask, “wanna buy a newspaper?”  She smiled, said “sure” and walked back to her car where she rummaged inside for a few minutes. While I was arranging newspapers in my car, she returned and laid several items on the bench, took a newspaper, and drove off.  The items that she left included a quarter (the newspapers were 10 cents at that time), a large Nestle Crunch bar, and a brand new 100 watt light bulb, still in its packaging.  Although puzzling at the time, this was quite clearly a defining moment that helped finance, nourish, and illuminate my music career.