“Low miles, runs good.” These four words were in almost every car advertisement I had circled in the classifieds of the Flint Journal newspaper when I was a teenager. Don’t bother to correct my Flint grammar. I know it’s supposed to read “runs well”. That’s just not how most of us say it, and when in Rome… As I had written about earlier, I had the opportunity to go back home this past June for an extended weekend as I accompanied a friend who was working on set as a production associate on a film project. It ended up being a blessing that I didn’t have a car at my disposal, as this allowed me to concentrate on seeing places, people, and things within only a one or two mile radius of downtown. This included a walk along a few stretches of my old newspaper route in my former neighborhood .
My long-term memory is sharp, but I surprised even myself by remembering some of the names associated with the houses along my old route from all the way back in the late 1980s. I had come to associate many of my customers with the vehicles in their driveways. The Gallaghers on Windemere had the most beautiful, white-on-white Cutlass Salon Aeroback four-door, and they could be counted on to answer the door usually on the first or second ring of the bell when I came to collect payment for the month. That car was already almost a decade old by that point, but was maintained in absolutely pristine condition. There was the young family in the duplex on Mountain that had purchased a shiny, pretty, secondhand Vega 2300 notchback in a bright blue color that I observed basically disintegrate before my eyes over the course of three winters. That was unbelievable to watch as it was happening, as I had never seen a car rust that badly so quickly.
The Spooners had the first example of Plymouth Sundance, in brown, that I had ever seen up close. The Elias were loyal to Buick, as he had been a retiree from the Buick Plant on the north side. I even had a local TV anchorwoman and her husband as customers, with two Hondas in their driveway: a blue, third-generation Accord four-door, and an early, red Civic CRX. Collecting was something I dreaded. I never understood why it fell on us newspaper delivery kids to knock on doors to ask customers to give us the money that they knew they owed. Why couldn’t people pay the Flint Journal directly, with the newspaper to then cut us a check? Or, why couldn’t customers mail us their payments for the cost of one stamp? (Maybe in 2022, I’d want payments via mobile app.)
I suppose there was some lesson in there that we were supposed to be taught about taking initiative, or something. I only wanted to be good at my job, which was hitting the porch with a rolled-up newspaper with some accuracy, without denting or breaking anything. I didn’t feel like being forced by my employer to learn interpersonal skills, though I would ultimately benefit greatly from it. (My old route managers, Bill C., who drove a bright yellow, five-door Chevette, and later Donna R., should see me now.)
My bedroom floor, as I got ready for my Flint Journal newspaper deliveries. Note my Encyclopedia of American Cars and a copy of Auto Trader on my beanbag chair.
There were several major obstacles that kept me from making any significant amount of money in the long run. I was mostly introverted at that time, my default setting, with a very real amount of social anxiety. My paper route necessitated that I develop skills to navigate uncomfortable social scenarios, and I’m a better man for it, today. Still, I’d sometimes have to spend an hour in psyching myself up just to leave the house to go collecting while the deliveries, themselves, weren’t an issue.
Also, some people are just shady, dodgy… whatever you call it in your part of the world. There would be times when I’d knock on the door or ring the bell, I’d see the eyehole go dark then light again, after which there would be radio silence. I’d knock or ring again, wait, and nothing. Stupid people. I was just too nice as an adolescent to call them out, and it would be years before I’d develop some healthy, righteous indignation. “KNOCK-KNOCK. I know you’re IN THERE.” How many times did I want to say that when someone pretended not to be home?
The house behind this gorgeous, bent-glass Caprice was once covered in canary-yellow shingles and slightly overgrown bushes. It was a perfectly kept-up house, but I had the impression it was inhabited back then by an older couple, given the 1950s-style, pastel paint scheme and the wrought iron pole with the hanging nameplate that indicated that “The Thwings” (in cursive script) lived there. At the time I was first assigned my route, I was given the names and addresses not only of paying customers, but also of noncustomers to which I was supposed to deliver “ad packs”, which were bundles of coupons paid for by local businesses and also intended to lure in potential newspaper customers. None of us liked the ad packs, and their delivery seemed like a pointless, thankless exercise. Dead trees for nothing.
The Landau coupe, with its pebble-grain roof, body-colored sport-mirrors, pinstriping, and other accoutrements, was a mid-’77 addition to the newly downsized, full-size Chevrolet product range, for both the two-door Impala and Caprice Classic. Given the Landau’s late arrival to the party, there weren’t a whole lot of them produced that year, with only about 9,600 Caprice Landaus and 2,700 Impala Landaus finding buyers. This was in a year that the full-size Chevrolet sold almost 662,000 units. Landau coupe sales increased for ’78, with about 4,700 Impalas and 23,000 Caprice Classics with that package sold. One question is: would you rather have a nicer Impala, or a base-model Caprice Classic, for about the same money? A car like this gold Caprice, at around ten years old at the time I was flinging newspapers, would have been easy to find in the Flint Journal classifieds, with those magic words “low miles, runs good” included in the description, for about $1,500 in ’88 (about $3,800 in 2022). These cars are cherished classics today, but back then, it would have been just another old boat.
It would have been way too commonplace a car for my tastes, not to mention too big. But was it really that much larger than what I wanted or ultimately ended up with? I’ve previously written about having wanted to purchase a ’75 AMC Matador coupe around this time, in addition to having owned a ’76 Chevy Malibu Classic coupe for about five minutes. Here’s how those dimensions stack up:
|Length (Inches)||Width (Inches)||Height (Inches)|
|1977 Chevrolet Caprice coupe||212.1"||75.5"||55.3"|
|1977 AMC Matador coupe||209.3"||77.2"||51.8"|
|1977 Chevrolet Malibu Classic coupe||205.7"||77.3"||53.4"|
As it turns out, the Matador coupe I had pined for was basically the same size on the outside as a car like this Caprice, but with much less usable interior space. Was my perception of a bent-glass Caprice coupe of this generation being gigantic based only on its label as a full-size car? This Caprice would have gotten more miles per gallon with the same powertrain (305 cubic inch V8 with 145 horsepower and a three-speed automatic) than my ’76 Malibu, given that it weighed about 100 pounds less (3,700 vs. 3,800 lbs.). The ’75 Matador coupe weighed between those two figures with a V8, which that car had.
Tracing my old paper route on foot in my old, familiar neighborhood made me feel warm, content, and a strong sense of continuity with my past. The Bakkes, Shantarams, Cooks, Eufingers, and so many others had long since moved away, as had the Dennises, decades ago. Still, to think about the person I was in 1988, and all the different experiences I’ve had and the ways I’ve grown since then made it easier to connect the dots between my past and present. It also made me think about the possibilities my future may hold. For one, brief Saturday afternoon, the sight of this ’77 Caprice Classic Landau coupe brought me back to a time when learning the responsibilities of an after-school job helped me get to know my neighbors, and more importantly, face my social anxiety head-on. For these things and more, I thank the Flint Journal organization for having given me that opportunity.
Saturday, June 4, 2022.