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How to Deliver Phone Books

Gather round, children, and I will tell you about a thing we used to have called the Phone Book. 


It was a majestic object. You could find the address of any crush or the phone number of any prank call victim for the low entry fee of knowing their father’s full name. You could give a short kid a boost at the dinner table or flatten a rolled-up art project. 


In order for your fingers to do the walking through this informational jamboree, it had to be delivered by a human person. I took up the honored position in the final days of the phone book era. I don’t mean to puff myself up by making a comparison to Lady Whistledown sliding her scandal sheet under a Georgian door in the dead of night, but a Venn diagram might speak for itself. 


Seattle and San Francisco had just banned the books for being wasteful and useless in the digital age. The world was changing, children, and I was lucky enough to sneak under the velvet drape and stand in the back before the big show ended. Travel with me, back to 2011. You’re just a kid, with stars in your eyes.


Delivering Phone Books: A How-To Guide


Turn 28. Move back in with your parents. Have your dad teach you to drive in the Toys ’R’ Us parking lot. Take your driving exam. You don’t need to remember what hazard lights are –  the instructor will let it slide. Get that plastic Golden Ticket in your grasp and accept your parents’ hand-me-down ’96 Saturn with an appreciative hat tip. You’re on your way. 



Hole up in your childhood bedroom. Stare at a pad of chart paper unearthed from 1997 and figure out how to pay the bills while you finish your teacher certification program. Tell yourself you’ll be a successful teaching artist, introducing children to the joy of the stage, and you’ll supplement by living like Kramer. He gets by on schemes; so can you. All it takes is a little financial planning. 


List ideas to make money. Bring penny jar to Coinstar. Post Breakfast at Tiffany’s DVD on eBay. Sell eggs? Consider the state of your ovarian jewels. Would you? Could you? Would they even want them? You spoke with a lazy “S” as a child. Anyway, you’re too old. You should have thought of this during college before your cash crop frittered itself away. Instead, you ignored the financial advice enunciated into the microphone by the drip from Career Services at that senior year presentation and hovered at the free pizza table in back, quietly wrapping takeaway slices in napkins. 



Embrace 2011 Craigslist gig postings as the glossy, light-drenched Pinterest vision board they are. It’s a paint chip catalog for life, and you can swirl your brush in any can. You can work on a moving crew (create choreographed assembly line dance for truck load-up; cargo shorts). You can count pedestrians on the street for a foot traffic study (pep up intersection with jokey pick-me-ups for passersby; neon hat). You can hand-address a stranger’s wedding invitations in elegant penmanship (lay desk with candles and white flowers; maxi skirt). 


The ad for the phone book delivery gig is the opportunity you’ve been searching for. The job requires a car. You have a car. You can be a professional driver. 



You’ll make your own hours, and no manager will be hanging over your shoulder. Just you and the open road, listening to the radio (the Saturn only has a tape deck). Call the number in the listing and write down the time to show up for training. It’s not an interview. They’ll take anybody. 


Envision your life as a professional driver. After a day’s work, you’ll stop at the diner and have pie and coffee at the counter. You can sit at the counter without hesitation, because you’ll basically be a trucker – one of the guys. What kind of pie do truckers eat? Is meringue too unsubstantial? More like cherry, right? Will they provide you with a CB radio? What about a course in the lingo? “Ten-four” was standard school bus driver conversation, but what if that was code for drugs? You’ll embarrass yourself if you say the wrong thing. Look this up. 



Choose your orientation outfit carefully. It’s at the warehouse on State Road under 95 in the Northeast, between the prison and Sweet Lucy’s BBQ. Don’t wear your Penn t-shirt – do you want to look like an asshole? Don’t be too girly, either. Your Mike Schmidt green Phillies tee with the shamrock that you got at Irish Weekend in Wildwood is appropriate. 



Sit in a folding chair with ten other applicants in the cavernous warehouse full of wooden pallets stacked with shrink-wrapped yellow phone books. Fill out paperwork. There’s only one other woman, joined by her daughter who’s there to translate. Watch a DVD on good customer service. Carol, your fearless leader, will press stop on the DVD and say, “I’m telling you now, do not throw my books. People like to throw the books, think they’re saving time. Then I get a call, what happened to my phone book?” Relish the richness of her smoker’s voice and sit up straight like a good student. You won’t throw books. You’ll nestle them gently by the front door like robin’s eggs. 


Bounce along the gravel of Carol’s voice and learn about the GPS tracker you’ll wear on a lanyard. “It monitors your movements to make sure you actually go up to every single door on your route. If there’s a vicious dog or a good reason you can’t leave a book at a house, mark it on your sheet.” She stresses having a buddy join you on your route, so one person can drive and the other can hop in and out to deliver. “Otherwise it’s too hard to keep starting and stopping.”


Start to panic. No one warned you this was going to be like ballroom dancing or birthing class. You don’t have a partner. Should you ask someone here to be your buddy? What if they laugh in your face? What if they insist on using their car, and you have to go with their choice of radio station? Commit to lonewolfdom, like Batman. You got into this field to enjoy your own company and listen to music of your choice throughout a relaxed workday. You’re a professional driver. 


Carol’s voice is a wood-paneled room filled with rugs layered on carpet and paintings of ducks. Close your eyes and travel to a nostalgic place while her words crackle warmly in the air. “Each book has to be bagged. I advise bagging as you go.” Try not to let your disagreement show. Everyone knows prep work is key to success. You’re going to do this your way. You’re going to disrupt the phone book delivery system. 



Brainstorm name games for a group of ten. Include a human bingo icebreaker to match up potential partners based on personality traits. Think about snacks. Dark chocolate bars broken into pieces. Vitamin Water. Bagels. Roleplay scenarios could liven things up a bit and prepare everyone for situations that could be encountered on the job.

You put a phone book on a front step and hear a couple arguing loudly behind their front door. What do you do?

Reflect on your skill set. Are you experienced in facilitation and conflict resolution? Knock on the door and offer to help. Better at vocal performance? Yell live commentary through the window. Having your own relationship troubles? You’re too close to the issue. Move on. 

You notice a suspicious character stealing the phone book you just delivered. Do you address it?

If a tree falls in the woods, are you responsible for its actions? This can stir up a good philosophical discussion. Brush up on Jean-Paul Sartre. If you have any visible tattoos that reflect a strong point of view, your argument better walk the walk. 

An attractive man opens the door and invites you in for a glass of water. Do you accept?

Think this one through! On the one hand, personal safety. On the other, a great how-we-met story. 



Once your TI-81 is hanging heavy around your neck and your route map is in hand, bring your car to the loading zone. Everyone else has a van, truck or sizable SUV that fits their entire route’s worth of phone books. Your Saturn is too small to fit more than half your load. Try your best! Shove phone books under seats. Pile them on the dash. Tower them in the backseat to the point your rearview mirror is useless. Don’t be distracted by everyone watching you struggle. Your Saturn is scrappy and so are you! Carol will look at your orphaned phone books waiting on the pallet. “Just come back for the second half of your route,” she says (Sandpaper on toast. Delicious). Repeat affirmation: My car is adequate and so am I.


The Saturn will trundle along like Ichabod Crane’s weighed-down, ribs-pokey horse (The Disney version – remember?). Work out your plan for maximum efficiency. You’ll bag the books first, then hit the route. 



Argue with your mom as you bring piles of phone books into the house. You want to prop the door open. She wants to open and close the screen door as you go in and out (“There’s bats”). Argue about the bagging process. She sides with Carol and says you should bag as you go. Tell her she and Carol are both wrong. Fill the living room with yellow. Free the book bundles from shrink wrap. Shove each book into its own orange plastic bag. The bags are the consistency of water. It’s a fun whack-a-mole game to stack the bagged books as they slip ’n slide off the pile. Push books to the side so your dad can see the TV. “These better be out of here by tomorrow,” your mom will say. She’ll add, “I never should have given her that car.” Great innovators have always had doubters. Pay no mind. 



Start the day fresh. Load the slippery pre-bagged books into your car. Retire your expectations of order and accept that the backseat is a Jello wrestling party. Look over your route and begin with enthusiasm. Carol said each route should take two days. Not for you, it won’t. Embody the cockiness of an untrained Teach for America grad who decides they’re the one the world needs to start a charter school. You’ll knock this out in one day. 


On the first block, edge the car slowly down the street and keep it running as you walk up and down each driveway to drop the books. Isn’t this using gas? Go back and move your car when people start beeping. Start the park-and-carry. Find a spot at the end of the block, load as many books as you can carry in your arms, and make your way down the street like a reverse trick-or-treater. When they’re cradled in your arms, you have to readjust your hold on the books as you drop each one. Try instead to grip the plastic bags from the top. Go for five in each hand. Feel the plastic stretch out like Fruit Roll-Ups as the books dangle. You won’t need to go to the gym anymore. What an ideal job. 



After two blocks of leaving books on doorsteps, realize you’re getting the hang of it. This is what it’s like to be a public servant! Like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, feel that surge of deep satisfaction. You’re the milkman, the junk peddler of old, the door-to-door vacuum seller. You’ll become a pillar of the community, making your rounds with news of the weather and gossip about the neighbor’s knee injury. Word will travel when it’s phone book delivery season, and neighbors will leave you fresh blueberry buckles covered with rooster-print towels. Or tokens crafted from last year’s phone book pages, like a decoupage mason jar or birdcage, in honor of you and your noble profession. Think about how you can jazz up the occasion each year going forward, maybe with a costume or funny hat. You could turn the whole delivery process into a musical:


(Twirling and leaping as you drop each book)

“You can find anything in a phone book,

Someone to fix a pipe,

Someone to cobble a shoe,

You can find anything in the phone book,

It’s all right here for youuuu!” 


(Sitting down on curb, wistful)

“I can find anything in the phone book,

Someone to sell a car,

Someone to chop a tree, 

I can find anything in the phone book,

(whisper) But how do I find meeee?” 


(Wave to applause)


Mentally compose email to favorite college professor: you’re having a breakthrough about that Urban Studies course. Here you are in the trenches, making an impact step by step, house by house. Providing the very ingredients of communication that make a city run. Hand a phone book to an older gentleman working in his garage. Nod as he thanks you. Head down the driveway, glance back with a satisfied smile, and watch him drop the book directly into his recycle bin. 



Times get tough on the road. It turns out you don’t get to listen to the radio much, since most of your time is spent walking back and forth to houses. Live for the moments when you catch fifteen full seconds of a song on the drive to a new street. Know your limits: even though the pile in the back looks untouched, it feels like you’ve been delivering all day. Go home for dinner. “Are you leaving those phone books in the car?” your mom will ask. “Someone could break in. They might wanna sell them.” You planned to knock out a whole route in one day, but it will take three days to do half the load. Refill your car at the warehouse. Your old friends from orientation are loading up for their second route.  Remember the Tortoise and the Hare. 


Transition from happy Wells Fargo Wagon girl to snarling at dogs and avoiding eye contact with those who don’t want to accept your offering. “I don’t want this,” a homeowner will say as you hold out their book. Tell them you have to give it to them anyway. Tell yourself it’s not giving up to start bagging as you go. You have the right to pivot based on data results. When the rain starts pouring, give yourself a break. You don’t want to ruin the books. Carol wouldn't like it.


Take the phone books on field trips to the Dunkin’ drive thru and to visit friends who are in town for the day. Let the books serve as seating as your 6’-3”, 215-pound minor league ballplayer friend folds himself on top of the stacks in the front, while his tinier wife perches on the piles in back, her body touching the ceiling, when you give them a ride to their hotel. When you drive home up 95 to get back to your route, roll down the window (there’s no A/C in the Saturn). Crank the handle to the right spot or it will jam into your leg. Watch the pile of orange plastic bags in the backseat blow apart, cyclone around the car, paper themselves to the ceiling, and whirl out the window. Roll up the window. People pay for sweat baths. You’re burning calories. 

Promise the books they’ll get to their forever home soon, but in the meantime they can meet new friends and hear bedtime stories as you toss Wawa sandwich wrappers into the backseat and play the Phillies broadcast on the radio. Finish the route under a drizzle. 



Turn in your lanyard at the warehouse and tell them you won’t be doing another route, since you got another job. It’s not a lie; you’re gathering Craigslist babysitting gigs like nuts in an apron. Carol won’t fight you. She knew you weren’t going to go far. She gave you a chance, though, because doesn’t everyone deserve to try? 


“Congratulations,” Carol will say with sincerity. It’s the last time you’ll ever hear her voice. Savor it, like chewing a Sugar Daddy pop. The Saturn will feel much lighter on the drive home. Tomorrow, you can get back on Craigslist and apply to play a dead bride at a Halloween party. It pays seventy-five dollars. 

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