I grew up in Auburn, Alabama, and when I was eleven and twelve I delivered the Atlanta Journal. At that time the Constitution was the morning paper, and the Journal the afternoon, and they both covered Dixie like the dew. I would ride my bike downtown after school to the derelict, gaping-roofed building where we rolled our papers, load up my bike, and disemburden myself, one Journal at a time, home.
This general location, behind the storefronts of Magnolia and College, was like the abscessed socket of a pulled tooth: narrow alleys, ramshackle buildings, a decrepit old water tower, and the exhaust blast from the kitchen of The Grille. Urban revitalization has long since transformed the blighted area into a parking deck and general respectability, taking, as usual, all the characters with it. So the place—open to the sky with catalpa trees growing up through holes in the rotted floor, and a barely protected bench with boxes of green rubber bands where we rolled our papers—lives only in memory. Almost like newspapers themselves. In the back, beside a little passageway that led out to The Bootery on College Street, a small enclosed corner served as the office of Tiger Cab Company—proprietor, Mr. Joe. Mr. Joe resembled a de-shelled turtle in a cap I can only call unique, rumpled and vaguely military, and was an aloof but friendly man. I never knew much about him; he often had calls, and we were always in a hurry—classic missed opportunity. Now I’d give an arm to know his story. We were kids—this was the early sixties—so of course he seemed old, but I don’t really know how old he was. He was stooped almost to the point of being hunchbacked, and when the pay phone on the wall outside would ring, he would hurry bug-eyed from his office (little more than a closet with a small TV, a chair, a table with coffee pot, and a ton of junk) in a turtle-like desperate shuffle that I can remember Billy Hodgkins expertly and most uncharitably imitating. Mr. Joe would answer the phone, jot down a note, then get in his 1953ish Ford with a little “Taxi” roll-sign on top, which vehicle comprised the fleet of Tiger Cab Company, and off he would go.
The fellow paperboy I remember best was a lively, very funny black kid named Holy Shoulders. We had a lot of fun, but of course once we went our separate ways from that dump we never saw each other. At that time, I admit I never thought much about his name, but I’ve often pondered it in the years since. I always half-consciously assumed the reference was to his tattered shirt, which would have been “Holey Shoulders.” But maybe there was something sacred about him that I didn’t know about. Or maybe “Wholly Shoulders” was meant, whatever that meant. Could it have been an exclamation? “Holy Shoulders, Batman!” I just have no idea, and though I certainly hope Holy Shoulders is flourishing somewhere, for me he has drifted away with the ebbing tide of time.
Papers rolled and loaded, out I would go like a tanker out of port, behind the David Lynch-like Pitts Hotel, where Olan Mills would set up shop in a creepy room, down the alley between Auburn Hardware (which, having somehow escaped the jackboot of Wal-Mart, miraculously survives), and that fried chicken-smelling exhaust from The Grille, past Mr. Hill’s jewelry shop (he’s still buying gold), to the corrugated metal side of Toomer’s Drugs, where I would lean my tanker against the wall beside James, the delivery man’s, Cushman. In Toomer’s I would get a cherry or vanilla Coke, occasionally a lemonade, which was often prepared by the gracious and affable James who was lame and wore a leg brace and drove that Cushman all over town, God rest his soul, and maybe get a roll of Butter Rums, then head out to my afternoon’s labor.
Catercorner to this spot stood the portal to the University (just recently promoted from Alabama Polytechnic Institute), flanked by two oak trees, which, as always with oak trees in a normal world, I never conceived of taking any way but for granted. Back then, the tradition of rolling those trees with toilet tissue after Auburn victories had yet to evolve, and so the trees, dating to the 1800s, I think, just stood there in their indifferent venerability. Recently, and I confess the thought was too farfetched to have occurred to me before, the claim that those trees got rolled when Bear Bryant died entered the air. That didn’t happen—because I lived in Auburn at that time and remember it well; if it had happened, I would have been disgusted, but all I remember feeling that day was an odd and unexpected sense of sadness, and awe.
This was twenty-eight years ago and nothing can change it—especially not a piece of sociopathic trailer trash with a bucket of herbicide.