They call Mary Robinson "The Lipstick Lady." After waking up at 3:30 each morning, she carefully applies her signature red hue before heading to her job at the front desk of MUSC's ambulatory surgery wing.
Mary's husband died about a year ago, leaving the 45-year-old a widow. She had a chihuahua to keep her company, but somebody stole it the day after her house caught fire last year.
"He looked just like the Taco Bell dog," she laughs. "He was almost human."
In her free time, which is rare, Mary helps her son care for his 3-year-old daughter. But she's hardly home. After working a long shift at the hospital, she heads to her second job across the Ashley River at the La Quinta Inn and Suites. On most nights, it's after midnight before she gets to bed. That leaves her with less than four hours to sleep.
"I've been working here for nine years. You get used to it," Mary says with a smile, checking her lipstick one more time before she lets me snap a photo of her with my phone. Then I leave a bundle of newspapers on her desk and head back out into the city.
My close friends know not to ask me what I'm doing on Tuesday night. For five-and-a-half years, the answer has almost always been, "Nothing."
I wake up most Wednesday mornings around 5 a.m. and drive downtown from Folly Beach, where I swap out my trusty Subaru for a '92 Toyota pickup truck that I prefer to drive only as much as is absolutely necessary. It's got a crack somewhere in the engine that emits a sound like a baseball card flapping between bicycle spokes. For years, I've said that I'll keep it until it dies. On that day, I'll quit my paper route.
In September 2006, I began my first, and only, year-round, "real" job as a staff writer at the City Paper. Suffice it to say, the starting salary for a fresh writer at an independent alt-weekly benefits greatly from a bit of creative moonlighting. When a once-a-week gig delivering the paper to the neighborhoods around the College of Charleston and MUSC opened up, I jumped at the chance to add $80 to my weekly income. Each Wednesday, I'd show up early enough to finish my route before our staff meeting at 10 a.m.
Soon enough, a second route came available, and my alarm clock answered with a 4 a.m. wake-up call. Still, the money was twice as good, and by then, I'd bought the truck off a hippie on Folly Beach (thanks Taylor) for $800, specifically for that purpose. (During the first few weeks of delivering papers I used my only vehicle at the time — a '72 Super Beetle complete with homemade wooden roof rack. It was a horribly unsuitable vehicle for delivering over a ton of newspapers).
Years later, the truck is still ticking along. After overloading its bed with 170 bundles of papers in the pre-dawn dark outside City Paper's Morrison Drive office, I head down East Bay to Broad Street, crossing the peninsula to the Sergeant Jasper Apartments. The route loops back, following the water past the City Gallery and the Vegetable Bin until turning left down Calhoun Street. After three loops that cover CofC and Wentworth and Bull streets, I head up Rutledge Avenue to Spring and Cannon streets. MUSC has a few big stops before I take Lockwood Avenue back through the Citadel and finish up in the southern edge of the Neck near Santi's and the Tattooed Moose.
All in all, if I start by 5:30 a.m., I can wrap it up by 10. And that's the thing — I move fast. In the pre-dawn hours on deserted streets, traffic signals are more like suggestions than mandates.
When 8 a.m. rolls around, however, a steady flow of cars begins to pour into the peninsula. Few people are instinctively patient when there's a beat-up truck with its blinkers on, blocking a lane of traffic, especially one with duct-taped windows, bullhorns on the roof, and a "Bluegrass Festival" sign taped to the back. Inside the truck, one rearview mirror is cracked down the middle, creating a double-view of what's behind me, while the other is a replacement sheet that swirls approaching traffic into a psychedelic and wholly useless collage. I like to think that the accoutrements let them know I mean business. This is an important job.
Without A/C in the truck, my tolerance wears thin during the summer months. The goal is to get it done — fast and with as few delays as possible. I've generally got my headphones on, listening to whatever band I might be interviewing that week for the paper's music section, and I'm not in the mood to talk. I'm in and out the door with little more than the occasional wave and "good morning" to whomever might be working at any of the 120-or-so places I drop the papers.
For five-and-a-half years, I exchanged quick glances and half-formal pleasantries with the people on my paper route — some the exact same faces the entire time — yet I hardly knew a single person's name. So one day I decided to find out who these people were.
Everybody in Radcliffeborough knows Charlie. At the corner of Jasper and Radcliffe Streets, Charles' Grocery has served as a neighborhood haunt for 16 years. Whenever I drop the papers on his counter each week, Charlie Dabit thanks me with an enthusiastic, "My man!"
Charlie grew up on the West Bank of Israel and immigrated to the United States when he was 21. "My sister was a citizen. She did the transaction. I did not come as a student or a visitor or because I married. I came as an immigrant," Charlie explains.
Now 64, he's returned home just five times in his life. His family owns property in Israel that he says they're not allowed to use because they're Palestinian.
"Yes sir!" exclaims the always-animated Charlie whenever I stop to clarify a part of his life story. After first moving to Chicago, he worked as a barber and shopkeeper in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky before moving to Charleston to buy two grocery stores from Johnny Doscher of Doscher's Food Stores.
"I had one in Mt. Pleasant and one on James Island, but you have to have too many eyes, too many shoplifters," Charlie laments. "I had to open a small store like this. I raised my family and put my kids through college out of this mom-and-pop store. Thanks be to God."
Only a few blocks away, Hamdi Saadeh runs the Two Brothers convenience store on Wentworth Street. Hamdi is Jordanian. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 and finished high school in Massachusetts.
He returned to his home city of Amman to start a family, yet continued to work most of the year in the U.S., moving to Charleston in 1997. Hamdi bought a gas station before taking over the Two Brothers shop from his nephew last year.
A few years ago, Hamdi's son fell ill and needed three operations on his arm. Hamdi flew back and forth between Charleston and Jordan, consulting with doctors at MUSC and taking that information back to the hospital in Amman. Following that experience, and after nine years of struggling with immigration red tape, Hamdi was finally able to move his family to the U.S. Because his four children only spoke Arabic, they settled in Culpepper, Va., where they had a strong family base to help them assimilate. This month, they're moving to Charleston.
"I had three stents put in my heart last year," Hamdi says. "I can't work like before, and I can't stay away from them any longer. I am getting old."
When he talks about the excitement of having his family together in one place, however, Hamdi beams like a young man.
The paper route has long been the highest paying thing that I do. When I start early enough to beat traffic, I can draw $35 an hour minus gasoline, truck upkeep, and taxes.
It's tough on the body, brutal in the summer, and always ends up leaving me sleep-deprived, but I like having at least some blue-collar element to my career.
The first person I encounter on my route each week is the receptionist at the Lodge Alley Inn on East Bay Street. She's been there as long as I've been coming, yet we rarely exchange more than a glance. It's early.
On week one of my experiment, I'm nervous. I have to gear myself up for this. After more than 250 consecutive weeks of polite waves, I'm actually going to slow down and introduce myself.
Shay Frazier turns out to be amazingly friendly. She wakes up each morning at 5:30 to get her 5-year-old son, DJ, to school before arriving at the front desk of the Lodge Alley Inn by 7 a.m. Even as a single mother, Shay says it's not too difficult. After eight years at the hotel, they understand when she needs to take time off for her son.
I'm so excited about meeting Shay that I almost forget to drop papers across the street at the Gin Joint.
But as the day carries on, other peoples' stories aren't quite as rosy. Cynthia Chisholm-Rivers has worked the register at the Sea Store in the BP gas station on Lockwood Drive for five years. Although she grew up on the East Side, Cynthia now lives in the "North Area" near Ashley Phosphate Road. Many of the African-American people I meet throughout my route have similar stories of growing up downtown and later moving to North Charleston.
Cynthia works two jobs, waking up at 4:30 each morning to head to the convenience store, crossing her fingers that the train doesn't catch her on the way. After finishing up at 2 p.m., she has four hours before clocking back in at the Church's Chicken on Meeting Street.
"Yup, it is what it is," says Cynthia, who lives with her 15-year-old son and her husband, who works at Firehouse Subs. "You meet all types of different people and get your laughs, but my favorite part is going home."
One thing I'd failed to consider is parking. Part of what makes the paper route work is speed. Even if I'm parked halfway in the road with the blinkers on, it's only for 15 seconds or so.
Trying to actually talk to people makes that a lot more difficult. I have to be legal, and I still have to get the papers delivered, experiment or no. But some people are just so damn interesting that I want to talk all day.
"Imagine a little black and gay boy growing up in Macon, Ga.," says Jeffrey Jelks, skipping right to the fun part of our meet-and-greet. "There I am in my room singing Barbra Streisand songs, and my family just passes by and goes, 'OK. Alrighty.' I grew up, and now they know why I loved Barbra so much."
Jeffrey works the front desk at the Art Institute's digital imaging and film department, but his true love is theater. For over a year, he's been using Skype to collaborate with a lyricist in Italy and a composer in Chicago, perfecting a musical he hopes will change his life. It's called Hurricane House.
In the story, one of a family's twin daughters is murdered just before a hurricane bearing her name closes in on their town. "The family undergoes this strange sort of psychosis where they think it's her spirit coming back, and so they refuse to leave," Jeffrey explains. "That's how the play ends, with the hurricane coming, and they sing a reprise of her song that she sings before she leaves to die, while the lights are going out and the hurricane is swirling around them. I think the story can touch anyone. It transcends color and age and religion."
This fall, Jeffrey and his team plan to workshop the play in Atlanta with the goal of launching in New York next spring. He'll direct and produce it. Jeffrey's excitement and ambition are palpable. "I think there's always something in a person's life where you feel like it's the one thing that you have to do," he says. "This is it. Make or break, this is it."
Back on Wentworth Street, Christian Self has served as concierge at the Wentworth Mansion for four years. He took the job after graduating from the College of Charleston with dual majors in biology and theater.
Although he's stayed involved in theater with roles in productions at PURE Theatre, he'll move to Chicago this fall with the hopes of finding a lasting career as an actor.
At the nearby Bull Street Gourmet, Anna Strandberg is also taking a leap, beginning law school this fall after four years working food and bev in Charleston. Anna used to work at Rising High Café on East Bay, where we'd wave and say hello each morning. We introduced ourselves once. She remembered my name, but I couldn't be sure of hers. So for the two years since, including a move from Rising High to Bull Street, she's said, "Hi Stratton!" every Wednesday, to which I reply, simply, "Hi!" It went on so long that I was always too embarrassed to ask Anna her name again.
Anna moved to Charleston after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. After a few years, she enrolled in the Charleston School of Law. "I can't think of a compelling reason to leave Charleston," Anna says. "There are dolphins. It's magical."
Further along my route, there's LeeAnne Lott, who moved to Charleston last year from her home in Amelia Island, Fla. ("down the street from the house where they filmed Pippi Longstocking"), to start a job as revenue manager at the Best Western on Lockwood Drive.
For a year, LeeAnne has addressed me as "Hole-in-the-pants" every time I drop her City Paper bundles on the desk.
The fake-leather seat covers in my truck have long since peeled away, leaving bare, rusty springs that occasionally catch the fabric on my trousers. Late in my route one week, I ripped a hole clear through my shorts. Of course, I wasn't wearing anything but the shorts, on that of all weeks. Only LeeAnne called me out as I hurried to finish up my deliveries, backing my way out the door.
Perhaps the nickname will finally go away now that LeeAnne and I sat down and figured out that our birthdays are only a day apart and that we both pay attention to the cycles of the moon.
By the time I get to the Best Western, I'm usually looking forward to heading home for a shower to wash off the newsprint. But maybe next week I'll stop and chat with LeeAnne for at least another minute, joking about the time I showed up with my ass hanging out of my pants.
The stories just keep coming. At Dave's Carry-Out at Morris and Coming streets, while filling orders for meatloaf, fried chicken, and potato salad, Sandra McCray opens up about the 11 years she was married to Jack McCray, Charleston's late jazz ambassador. They met in the third grade, but didn't become involved until Jack enrolled at Orangeburg's Claflin University after initially leaving Charleston for New York.
"We were in English lit together," recalls Sandra. "I never liked him when we were younger. He was too brainy. But then at Claflin, his friend and I had an argument, and he tried to patch things up between us, until he said, 'Why am I doing this? I want her for myself.'"
Sandra married Jack in 1970. "One was stiff, the other was stark, and neither one would bend," she jokes about their relationship. They divorced in 1981, after which she found Dave, the restaurant's namesake, whom she had been with for 27 years but never married. She lost both men recently and another friend the week before we spoke.
"You can't take my picture," Sandra says. "You can see it in my face."
At the Vegetable Bin on East Bay Street, Michael and Lauren Bailey operate another family business. Michael's great-grandfather worked as a rice broker, wholesaling the Lowcountry staple crop across the East Coast. His grandfather founded the Vegetable Bin in 1976, but shut its doors halfway through the last decade when Michael's grandmother passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer's.
A few years ago, with Michael and Lauren's support, the family reopened the business. "We've always been into produce. That's our thing," Michael says before Lauren chimes in, "It's a great time to be in local produce, so it's working out great."
After nine years together, the young couple married last fall. They work together every day, arriving early to sort fruit and vegetables before opening the store's doors at 8 a.m.
Mrs. Senora Jenkins also gets up before sunrise, leaving her home in North Charleston at 5:15 a.m. to prepare East Bay Cleaners for its 7 a.m. opening.
"I grew up right here in Charleston, at number 5 Jasper St.," says Mrs. Senora, who embraces her "Mrs." prefix as a happily married woman. Her husband, Samuel, works as inventory control manager for the College of Charleston. Together they care for their 2-year-old grandson while his mother serves in the Navy in Cuba.
Around the College, Jack Sewell admires the familiar decor of his George Street diner, Jack's Cafe. "Everything is the same as when we opened in 1972 except we dropped the ceiling and bought a new hood for the grill. It was time," says Jack, who came to Charleston with the Navy and never left. Jack's was originally called the Lion's Den. "The menu has stayed the same since 1990. Only the prices have changed, because the rent has not stayed the same at all."
Jack's employees keep regular tabs on my route, calling me out when I arrive after 9 a.m. (The City Paper's crossword puzzles have a loyal but rabid allegiance of Wednesday morning devotees).
Over at MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center, receptionist Barbara Busby also frequently chides me for running behind. Barbara moved to her current position after years of patient care in both cardiology and oncology. A native of downtown Charleston as well, she now makes a daily commute from Moncks Corner.
Not one person bores me. Each week at the Courtyard Charleston Waterfront Hotel on Lockwood Drive, concierge Eddie McBride is consistently jubilant when I arrive. It's only when I pause to speak with him for a few minutes that I learn he's been the recipient of a hospitality employee of the year award for the entire state. Even then, his manager has to point it out. "It was a really good honor, especially for a New Yorker," says Eddie, remaining humble.
After his sister married a Navy sailor, Eddie visited Charleston in 1995 and decided to move down from his hometown of New York City. Within three months, he rose from a bellman to concierge, and he still loves his job today. This spring, he bought his first house, so he's planning to stay for the long haul.
The same goes for Hope Young, who moved to Charleston in December 2010 to open the Chucktown Tavern on Market Street. It's one place I've stopped before, lured in over the holidays by the early-morning chalkboard promise of $2 crab cakes and shrimp-and-grits fritters.
"I've been cooking for 44 years and following my husband up and down the East Coast," says Hope, who arrives around 7 a.m. and stays each day until the kitchen closes after 9 p.m. "We moved here for this. This is my chance to follow my dream."
That heading is a misnomer. There is no such thing as an average person — in Charleston or anywhere else. If there's anything I learned, or was starkly reminded of, by stretching my paper route into an all-day affair, it's that everybody has a story to tell.
At Whispers on Wentworth Salon, Maggie Jump opens up about her childhood spent moving between Mississippi, California, and Pennsylvania. She's been in Charleston for eight years, leaving and returning twice, and she walks to work every day from her house on Spring Street.
Walking in the opposite direction from the same area is Terri Johnson, who works as a library technician at the Citadel. Terri trained to be a social worker, a skill she incorporates into her job at the library's front desk, helping people to find resources to figure out solutions to their problems.
Most of the people I see on Wednesdays have no idea that I also write for the paper until I tell them about the story I'm working on about them. It's not like I typically point out a piece I'm particularly proud of as I hand the papers over. On the contrary, there's little acknowledgement of the content during the handoff, just an occasional, "Ooh! City Paper!" (although I did have to offer a forced, muffled apology when I stacked the Skip ReVille/"The Citadel's Shame" cover on the counter at the military college's library).
What struck me most of all was the ease with which everyone opened up to me. I believe that one of my assets as a reporter is an ability to indiscriminately listen, but even with non-controversial stories, there's still typically an "I'm talking to a reporter" block that people have to get past.
Not in this case. These people were simply talking to their paperboy. And I'm proud to do that job. I found myself singing Dusty Springfield's lyric from "Son of a Preacher Man" to myself as a mantra during the route — "takin' time to make time."
Of course, there are plenty of people on my route who I still haven't met. Just because I'm slowing down to talk doesn't change the fact that there's still a line of 11 people crowded into WildFlour Pastry on Spring Street, each eager for a pastry, who need to be served. The ladies there simply don't have time at 8 a.m. to step aside and explain their love for baking to the delivery guy. That old wave-and-smile routine goes both ways — from Brent at his Broad Street diner to Cindy, who almost always has a razor or scissors to someone's scalp when I drop a bundle into the Lowcountry Barbershop on Cannon Street. We're all working here.
Covering the entire peninsula in a morning gives me a comprehensive view of the city that most people don't see. Outside Hominy Grill, I run into chef Robert Stehling, walking to work from his home with a plastic tub full of bay leaves. In the following 15 minutes, I'll hear a college girl griping about her one-night stand on the phone and then wave hello to Rose, who immigrated from Vietnam and is busily folding sheets at the College Laundry on Calhoun Street.
I love my paper route. I love seeing the sunrise reflect through the Old Exchange building as I head east on Broad Street at 6 a.m. I love hitting the homestretch of my route and sitting down at Black Bean Company with employees Hayley and Bailey for a quick wrap.
My paper route isn't "news," but I've learned quite a bit about our city by doing it. I've seen the effects of gentrification firsthand, hearing the stories of displaced people who grew up downtown and still work there, yet had to move to the city's outskirts. I've relearned the value of asking and remembering someone's name. Even if you think you may never see that person again, it means something to ask.
Most of all, I've learned not to take things for granted. I only get up at 5 a.m. once a week, not every day. Yes, the paper route pays my rent for the month, but I do it because I want to, not because I have to. I could quit today and still make ends meet.
But for now, I've got a lot of new friends who I'm looking forward to seeing next Wednesday. At least until the truck dies.