If I could take a picture, I mean any picture, it would be of the dark, wet, mornings, bone-chilling and early, along 51st Street eastward toward Western Avenue on Chicago’s south side where the arteries cross and red lights, green lights, and the brief amber ones glow and bounce toward me off the shiny pavement. No one stirs. It is 30 years ago, which doesn’t matter, because it could be now.
I would wake before anyone in the house to a small round Westclox alarm clock, the kind with the wind-up armature on the back, and be very careful not to rouse anyone, my passed-out father, my exhausted mother. I would dress near the warmth of the old painted radiator in my bedroom and venture outside in the quiet damp dark to deliver the Chicago Daily News to Polish families in an adjacent neighborhood, people I would never meet but who would weekly shove a dollar fifteen out the door at me when I collected their bill.
When the Chicago Daily News went under I was given a Sun-Times route. It kept me in money and the neighborhood was closer, but the Sunday Sun-Times was a huge thing, stuffed with coupons and flyers and funnies — and the sports section, which I never cared about, except how it inexplicably made me feel older when I read it, like the man I was supposed to become. And they were quite large, the Sunday ones — a wheel-barrow-full weighed almost as much as my own slight teenaged body.
I don’t choose the memory of those times in particular because it is the best one or the most formative of my years or anything like that. The memory is simply rich in a way I can’t explain. The deep black of the sky seemed to mean something or provide some explanation. Sometimes the clouds over the sleeping city caught the endless grid of streetlights and it was lit up like day. I can see it now in my bones.
I would walk with my load of words and pictures and coupons and flyers in the wet dark, cars hissing past every few minutes, and that’s the picture that I would take because I remember it so clearly. I can taste that walk, the taste of sleep still in my mouth, the taste of breads from the corner bakery and the ink and paper. The taste of the wet street, and the taste retreating rain still hanging in the air.
This rich bliss reaches out to me even now and I move down those sidewalks all these years removed like it was today and will be again tomorrow. I am fourteen and scared and dutiful and proud and the early morning dark wet street reflects the signals. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. With no one there but me to care.