The porn collector was the first to get nailed. He was on welfare and had some kind of disability, a heart defect I think he said. I thought it was a little suspicious when I saw him smoking, but I have a business to run, and if a guy is willing to work from 2:00 a.m. till 5:00 a.m. and does a half-decent job, I don’t get too picky.
Needless to say, you get quite a variety of people when the work is only for a few hours in the middle of night, and you run your vehicle into the ground doing it. The pay, if you don’t think about it too hard, is alright. I pay them to drive around the city dropping off newspapers at stores, honour boxes, and residences, and they get paid by the stop. The faster you can do your route, the more money you make—per hour that is. Anyway, it’s money. And as my old man used to say, once it’s in your hand, you forget what you did to get it.
So this porn collector, Darren, he thought he had a pretty good gig going. He was on welfare, or whatever it is you collect on a disability, and was told not to work for medical reasons. That money covered his basic living expenses, but delivering papers allowed him to set up a side business. He’d rent movies—mostly porn—and copy them using an extra VCR. Then he’d rent his copies out to his friends for less than the video store. I don’t think he was turning a profit yet, but he’d managed to buy a Super VHS system before somebody called welfare on him.
When I saw him that night, he told me he had confessed immediately because welfare knew everything anyway. He looked pretty washed out under the fluorescent lights of our depot, which was an underground parking lot by day, but so did everyone. I wasn’t really worried too much about his health. I needed to find out if there was an informer on my crew.
“Do you know who did it?”
“I don’t think so.”
I would have suggested a spiteful ex-girlfriend, but that wasn’t Darren’s style. “Anybody in your family have anything against you?”
“No. I’m going to be cut off from welfare, and I have to pay them back. I could even get charged with fraud. They knew all about my job here. How many months I’d been working, everything.”
“Then it must be someone you know.”
“Somebody here.” He was looking at me like I was the informer.
“Well, don’t look at me.” How stupid did he think I was? “You think I’d get my own people in trouble? I have to make a living you know.”
“You’re right.” He acknowledged the obvious, and continued, “I’m giving my notice. Tonight’s my last night.”
“That’s pretty short notice.”
He brightened. “My friend got me a job at a stereo shop.”
Some of my other drivers were pulling in so Darren went to talk to them. Word would spread quickly. A route was now open, and everyone would either want it for themselves, or have a cousin who’d do a really good job. But that was the least of my worries. If someone was out to nail every person I had working for me who was collecting money from the government, I’d lose half my crew.
Well, maybe not half.
Jan was definitely collecting unemployment insurance, but he was pretty cagey. He’d grown up in Poland, learned how to hustle the system there, and was doing the same in Canada, or trying to. He’d been caught once for unemployment insurance fraud already, so when he got the job with me, he brought along this other guy, Jacek. He made it very clear that it was Jacek who was going to be doing the route and that the cheques were to be made out to Jacek.
The funny thing was, Jan did all the talking. This Jacek didn’t even speak English. He just smiled and nodded, and for the first three days he sat in the passenger seat, smiling and nodding, while Jan did the route. Then I never saw him again; I just wrote him a cheque every two weeks.
Todd was on welfare. He made no secret of that. His girlfriend’s family had been on it since the days they called it relief. She wouldn’t know a job if it slapped her in the face. At some point, Todd had had a job as a prep cook, but was fired for snacking off customers’ plates while they sat under the heat lamps. He was so upset about being fired he hadn’t worked since. They had a kid to feed so they went on welfare. They had a second kid on the way because Todd managed to impregnate his girlfriend six weeks after the birth of their first kid. (He claimed she got horny.)
There were others whose status was murkier. Ron was most likely a dealer. For all I knew he might have been using the paper route to deliver weed. Ivan seemed to have no connection to the official world. He delivered for a different newspaper as well as mine. Sitting in his car, he always had what appeared to be a can of cola between his legs, but it was a can of beer with a worn magnetic label wrapped around it. There was no reason either of them would want to call attention to themselves. Whoever was doing the informing had to be above board, and the rest of them were, as far as I could tell.
Carl had some kind of beef with unemployment insurance. A while back he’d been complaining about what a bunch of bastards they were. About how they hadn’t paid him what he was worth or some damn thing. He was on with the post office now and seemed pretty happy, but was always griping about how he was short of money. Maybe he wanted another route for himself.
Laura and Delia never had much to do with the other drivers. They were in the depot now just sitting in Delia’s car. Laura worked hard at being a failed country singer under the stage name of Melissa Willows. She wasn’t too bright. Once when a customer demanded his paper be placed exactly in the middle of his welcome mat, she figured it was because he was blind and that would make it easier for him to find it.
I wasn’t sure what Delia did during the day. She was going through a nasty divorce and had had to sell her business. Maybe delivering papers kept her income low so she could avoid more tax. She seemed like the conscientious type.
Sean was my assistant manager and by far the most ambitious worker I had under me. He’d acquired two routes since he started, on top of me making him assistant. He’d stomp on anybody who got in his way.
And he looked ready to do just that when he pulled into the depot, his tires screeching when he came to a stop. He got out of his car in full bantam rooster mode, wearing his usual lumberjack shirt and three days growth of beard.
Todd’s beater pulled in right behind him. All six and a half feet of Todd were following, bellowing before Sean could get a word out. “He’s lying! I delivered that paper.”
“Well, he didn’t get it.” Sean didn’t bother taking his eyes off me as Todd plodded up to us.
“Somebody stole it then because I know I delivered it.”
Obviously they had been arguing about this earlier, above ground. I looked at Todd. “You did miss another delivery on the same street.”
“See! Somebody stole all the papers I delivered on that street.”
“Or maybe you just missed the whole street,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” Sean interjected.
“I know I delivered them.” Todd insisted, but he was quieter and less certain now.
Sean was on him immediately. “That doesn’t change the fact that I was the one paged at 7:00 a.m. to deliver your missed papers. So in fact, I delivered your damned papers.”
“I did so deliver them!”
That was enough babysitting for me. “Todd, I’m going to have to fine you for the missed delivery.”
Todd turned away in disgust.
“It costs me money to have Sean deliver the missed copies, so I’m passing it on to you. Be more careful next time. Put the paper right on the guy’s doorstep.”
“Maybe next time I’ll put it right up the guy’s ass.” He walked away from us and mumbled on his way over to Darren’s car. The fines were small. Todd was worried about getting fired.
I motioned Sean over to my vehicle.
“He’s a liar,” Sean said before we’d stopped walking.
“I’m sure in his mind he delivered those papers.”
“My cousin Stevie would do a way better job on that route.”
“Speaking of that, Darren’s route is coming open tomorrow night. He gave his notice.”
Sean didn’t react to the news. You could see him thinking about how he could best turn it to his advantage, but that was it.
“Stevie’ll do it.”
“Apparently Darren has a job in a stereo shop.”
I watched him carefully. Still nothing.
“Stevie’ll do a good job. I’ll go see if Darren’s got his route list mapped out yet.”
I could see that Todd and Darren were in some kind of conference, but Sean had no problem walking right in between them. He wasn’t the informer.
The cube van finally arrived with our bundles, and Sean and I managed to get them distributed even with everyone asking me about Darren’s route.
After they left, I spent the next couple of hours collecting from the honour boxes and fixing a few. Sometimes they were jammed with foreign coins; sometimes they just weren’t working. There was one that I would always collect ten washers from every week. My buddy Reinhard told me he was also finding them in his newspaper box at the same location. He wanted to go on a stakeout with me to catch the guy in the act because the police couldn’t be bothered about $2.50 a week. I admired his dedication to his route, but I wasn’t about to hang out with him for hours, opening the box every time someone bought a paper to see if they were using washers instead of quarters. He could do his stakeout by himself. No. Sometimes it’s a whole lot easier just to let the dishonesty slide. It’s like my old man always said, an honest man is a lonely man.
I liked the city at this time of night. Four o’clock in the morning is just about the quietest time you get. Nobody’s heading out to work yet and the drunks are asleep. All that’s out there are cops, cabbies, and other newspaper deliverers. Maybe a few homeless. It’s a good time for them because they don’t get harassed. Sometimes I just drive around. I like sitting at the red lights when there isn’t another car in sight. It’s the closest thing to calm in the city.
But sooner or later you have to go home, and my life there is nearly perfect. I work nights; she works evenings: she’s getting home as I’m leaving, she’s waking up when I’m going to sleep, and she’s leaving for work when I’m waking up. Other than staying out of each others’ way on weekends, we’re both pretty happy.
The next night I was a little further ahead on figuring out who the informer was, though really, I wasn’t that concerned for now. Darren’s route was covered, and, let’s face it, no one is delivering papers as a long-term career move, so they come and go. I’m used to it. I’ve had just about every profession working for me at one time or another. You wouldn’t believe what kind of financial trouble people get themselves into and think a couple of hundred a month is going to save them.
So when they came filing in the next night, it was business as usual. Sean was talking to the new guy, Stevie, and reading the riot act, telling him how the papers were to be delivered. Todd, Ron and Carl were in conference again. Probably high.
Ivan was drinking beer. Laura and Delia were huddled in one of their cars. No way Laura was the informer. She was too simple. Delia was a different matter. She wouldn’t be doing it for her own gain though. She didn’t need money that bad. So why would she do it?
I liked speculating on it because I was curious, especially now that I’d narrowed it down a bit, but I became worried when I noticed Jan wasn’t there. He didn’t show up until well after everyone had left, and he was pretty upset.
He walked up to me and blurted, “You’re still writing the cheques to Jacek aren’t you?”
“Why are you asking me? Isn’t he cashing them for you?”
“Did I get the name wrong or something?”
“No. Unemployment insurance thinks I’m working.”
“But the cheques don’t go to me. How do they know?”
“Somebody knows you’re working but doesn’t know that the cheque is going to someone else. That could be anybody in the depot who’s heard you’re on unemployment.” Jan should have figured that out already.
“Nobody knows my last name. I bet you don’t even remember it.”
“I couldn’t pronounce it if I could remember it. But they don’t need your last name. You’ve probably said enough that they could figure it out.”
“Those bastards.” He looked away from me before pleading. “I can’t get caught again. I could go to jail. You’ll cover for me, right?”
“When they call, I’ll tell them about Jacek. I’ll have to.”
“That’s fine. I’ve got an arrangement with him.”
I’d never seen Jan so shaky. If he got caught, what would I do? I was writing cheques to someone who didn’t work for me. I could plead, almost honestly, that I was confused about the names. I could say that Jan was subcontracting off Jacek, but that wouldn’t be any help to Jan. Still, I could use the subcontracting plea—sub-subcontracting more like it—if I had to. He’d be on the hook; not me. Besides, it was technically true. And like the old man always said, sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.
But I should have known there’d be more trouble. The next night, Todd was out of his beater before it had even stopped rolling, yelling, “Somebody called welfare on me!” He walked up to me. “And I know who it is.”
“It’s those bitches. Laura and Delma.”
“Whatever. I’m going to get them.”
“What’re you going to do?”
I could see him struggling. He wasn’t sure how to “get” two middle-aged women. “I’ll slash their tires.”
“That wouldn’t be a good idea. They need their cars to do their routes for me tonight.”
Carl walked up and was now standing with us, putting in his two cents. “We could put sugar in their gas tanks. That’d screw up their cars.”
“Buddy, I just said they needed their cars to do their routes. Besides, if I was the one who ratted Todd out, I’d probably be right in there trying to blame somebody else too.” Carl backed off.
Todd didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. “It was those bitches.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Then how did welfare know all about this job? How did Darren get caught?”
“That’s hardly proof.”
“I don’t care. I’m waiting here until they get here. ”
“There’s not going to be any trouble. If you’re off welfare you’re going to need this route.”
“I’m going to talk to them.” Todd walked away.
I didn’t want to hear any more about it either. I especially didn’t want Carl stirring things up, so I took him aside.
“So what makes you so sure that it’s them?”
“Because they don’t hang out with us, and that Delia thinks she’s too good for us.”
“Did you expect them to smoke a joint with you?”
He ignored my question. He was giving me that ugly smile of his, the smile of a lifelong instigator who sees trouble coming. I asked, “So who figured it out?”
“Who do you think?” He was still smiling.
I let that pass. “You know anybody who needs a route?”
“I might have another route open on your end of town. Let me know if you know anyone who wants to work.” That confused him, but not for long. His smile was gone now. I knew it couldn’t be Carl. A weasel like him only had enough guts to save his own ass.
By the time I was finished shutting Carl down, the papers had arrived so Sean and I started counting out the bundles. Carl was right. It was Delia. She must have some beef with these guys, and it was making my life difficult.
Todd and a few of the others were hanging out waiting for her after everyone else had left, but she hadn’t shown up yet. He wanted to put on some kind of scene, but the others got bored with waiting and wanted to get their routes done, so one by one they left. Leaning against his beater, looking down, Todd was alone.
“Aren’t you doing your route?”
His dream of putting Delia on trial was over, but he was still angry.
“So what are you going to do?”
He finally spoke, like some guy in a movie. “Somebody’s gonna pay for taking food out of my family’s mouth. And for what they did to Darren!”
“Darren has a different job now. Maybe you need a different one too.”
He looked beaten after I said that. Maybe I was being too hard on him, so I followed that with, “Look, just do your route. I’ll talk to Delia.”
It was pretty obvious he wasn’t too happy because he squealed out of the depot, leaving behind a nice blue cloud of exhaust. The depot was quiet now except for the hum of the lights. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when Delia showed up because I wasn’t clear on what her problem was.
When she finally did show, I spoke to her, and at first I couldn’t believe it. She kept insisting that she had informed on them because it was the right thing to do. I had a good look at her, at her wide eyes, her raised chin, her jaw clenched at injustice. She really meant what she was saying, about how what they were doing was wrong, and how someone had to do what was right.
There was something funny about her. She had made herself isolated and weak by acting alone like this, and yet had become stronger by doing it.
She said, “It’s not right for them to be collecting money from the government and working at the same time. It’s stealing.”
I said, “What concern is that of yours? A guy’s got to make a living.”
She said, “I’m a taxpayer.”
I said, “I’m a taxpayer too. What does that have to do with it?”
She said, “They should be honest. Why should my money pay for them to abuse the system? You should be careful that you don’t get caught hiring people you know are on welfare.”
And there it was. She was going after me next.
I had another good look at her: her eyes hadn’t softened; her chin was still up. I understood her now. Being in the right was tangled up with being in charge, or maybe it was the other way around.
Either way, I had to do something. So I thought about my old man and what he would do. And while I could see his face in my mind’s eye, he had nothing to say.
I felt kind of scared because I could lose my job, so I drove around until the streets were emptied out, just the way I liked them. That’s when I knew what I had to do.
Todd and Jan would have to be fired. I felt bad for those two because being out of work isn’t much fun, but it kind of felt good thinking about doing the right thing because it made me feel more powerful. It also felt funny at the same time because when I thought of my old man, he didn’t seem so smart anymore. Like what he had told me wasn’t true.