Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Miracle on East 14th Street: Finding the True Meaning of Christmas Was Only a Bike Ride-And a World-Away

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Miracle on East 14th Street: Finding the True Meaning of Christmas Was Only a Bike Ride-And a World-Away

Article excerpt

Mr. Rodriguez, the fellow in charge of us newspaper boys, told me one day that I could sell liquor to a nun. I took it as a compliment. I was only 14 years old and had already developed a reputation among the newspaper carriers in my town for selling new subscriptions to our hometown paper, The Oakland Tribune. I had earned enough points from new subscriptions to win several trips to Disneyland and one to San Diego, a new bike, matching black-and-white portable television sets (I gave one to my grandmother, who had moved in with us), and more besides.

I had several things going for me. I was a puny kid with big ears, a face full of freckles, and a disarming smile. God and genetics engineered it thus to give me a fighting chance at survival in a family of nine and a grade school filled with short-tempered boys named Clancy and Quinn and Halloran. I could be a real charmer when circumstances required it.

I also could talk. Words came naturally to me, and I used them in a way that impressed older folks. Earlier that year, for my eighth-grade graduation, Grandma had given me Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. It became my sword, my shield, and my syllabic armor.

One Sunday afternoon, about the time Mr. Rodriguez suggested I might have a career in bootlegging, I approached my dad after our beloved Oakland Raiders had fallen to the Denver Broncos. He was slumped in his green leather chair in the living room with a look on his face his children knew all too well. Dad did not take kindly to a Raider loss, so we usually kept our distance for a few hours, lest he unleash the wrath he intended for Stabler, Biletnikoff, or Casper on us.

This day, though, I walked right up to him, armed only with my fledgling vocabulary, put my hand on his shoulder, and said something like, "Dad, don't be so lugubrious. We'll beat 'em next time." Dad gave me a strange look. He stared at me and chuckled. He hoisted himself up from his chair with his signature grunt, rolled the newspaper up, and gently swatted me on the head.

The secret to my success as a newspaper subscription salesman was to go to the poorest neighborhoods in Oakland and never take "no" for an answer. Weeknights, Mr. Rodriguez would drive us to East Oakland and drop us in front of a row of apartment buildings with assurances that he would return in an hour. My buddy Jason and I would begin at the top floor of the buildings and work our way down, steady-paced and efficient, like field hands bringing in the harvest.

The two of us helped each other hone our sales pitches so that they were virtually irresistible. We came armed with two-for-one deals, discounted magazine offers when attached to a three-month newspaper subscription, whatever we needed to sweeten the deal. We were pure poetry in action. I could tell within 10 seconds if the person in front of me was going to take the bait. If I sensed even the slightest possibility of a sale, I would very slyly place my foot near the door so they couldn't close it; then I would turn on the charm until they were putty in my hands.

Forget for a moment that few of the people in the "projects" could actually afford a subscription. Often the man or woman at the door would invite me in as they filled out the subscription form. I would notice empty cupboards, emaciated kids, broken-down furniture, curled-up linoleum, and the occasional rodent. The abject poverty was unlike anything I had ever experienced in our cocoon-like suburban tract of homes.

I remember once sitting in the living room of a woman who lived in one of those apartment buildings. She had her little girl in a playpen in the kitchen. As the woman was filling out a subscription form, my eyes met the little girl's. She was maybe 2 years old. Her kinky-black hair was brushed into two pigtails, and she wore a beautiful white dress that only accentuated her richly dark skin.

As the little girl observed me, I began to make funny faces, and her eyes grew wide as if she were witnessing something exotic and magnificent. …

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