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Is Anybody Listening?

By Tim Murphy:

One of my first jobs was as a paper boy. My first first job was selling taffy apples door-to-door when I was eight. John the Ice Cream Man hired my brother, Jimmy Vock, and me to sell them in the winter. His Ice Cream Truck didn’t do so well in the Chicago cold, so he hired us kids to sell taffy apples. There were 3 in a box, and the box sold for $1.00. For every box we sold, we got a dime. If we sold the whole case, we got $1.20. I believe there may have been some violation of Child Labor Laws, but I remember John the Ice Cream Man was an Italian fellow from Cicero, and Cicero had an alleged history of some people circumventing certain laws. It was ok with me, because $1.20 was big money. My weekly allowance for doing the dishes and the garbage every night was 25 cents, so this was a month’s pay.

The paper route was one of the only legitimate jobs we could get as kids, and it was a coveted position. We would have to wait for a route to come open. The waiting period could be more than a year. When I was in 5th grade, I got an afternoon route, and I distributed the Chicago Daily News and the American—two different papers.

When I got home from school, the bundle of papers would be on the driveway. I would have to roll them and rubber band them. If the weather was bad, I would have to wrap them in a plastic wrapper and rubber band them. They gave me a canvas bag that the papers would fit in, and I could put that in the basket of my bike. If it snowed, I pulled them in a sled. It took about half an hour to wrap them, then the route was about 5 miles round trip. That took about another 2 hours—3 with the sled. It took that long because people would not let me throw them on the porch, yard, or driveway. I had to get off my bike and set them by the door or put them in a newspaper mailbox next to the door. If I threw the paper and it got nicked up, the people would complain, and for every one that complained I didn’t get paid. I also had to count the papers, because if I got to the end of the route and still had one in my bag, I would have to go back house to house to see who I missed.

The pay was a penny a paper. I delivered 45 papers, so all that got me 45 cents—minus the penny for anybody who complained. Forty-five cents for 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours of work. I got paid at the end of the month—usually $9 to $10. That was good money. There was a big payout at Christmas too. Some people would give me a tip; some gave $1.00, but some gave $5.00. So Christmas taught me who the believers were.

A couple of months into the job, I had gotten the routine down. I had figured out who the complainers were and took extra care at their houses. It also taught me that to be fair; the non-complainers should get even more extra care.

One day while delivering a paper to a complainer’s house, I had left my bike with the papers in the driveway to walk the paper up to the doorway. I heard my bike crash behind me. I turned around and this kid was standing next to it sticking his tongue out at me, laughing as he ran off between some houses. I started to chase him, but I saw all the papers were lying in a puddle—and they had not been wrapped with the plastic wrap. So, I ran over to get them back into the canvas bag in my bike basket. I was so mad I was shaking. I didn’t know who the kid was. He didn’t go to our school, so he must have been a Public.

By the time I got home from my route, I had gotten the call from the paper distributor telling me that I had two complaints about wet papers, and I wouldn’t get paid those 2 cents.

Stupid kid.

For the next couple of days, when I got close to the house where it happened, I kept my eye out for that kid, but he didn’t show up. A couple days later though, at another house, he did it again—stuck his tongue out laughing and yelled, “Remember me?” And he ran off laughing. Again, my papers were in a puddle, and I had to get them out, so I couldn’t chase him. I yelled some stuff at him while I did it. Catholic stuff. I hadn’t learned any of the really good words to yell until I got to public school (actually, that’s not entirely true).

I got home. Two more cents gone. It happened a couple more times, and each time I would get madder and madder. I asked my Public friends who he was, but I couldn’t really describe him very well. He remained this stupid mystery kid. He had gotten in my head.

One day Jack Skagerberg, one of my St. Gerard buddies, told me that he and some girls were going to walk home from school. Agnes Sinwelski was one of the girls. None of them lived in the direction of my house, but I would have walked anywhere to be near Agnes . . . she made me feel warm. So I walked with them. We dropped each one off when they got to their house, then I walked back to mine—completely out of the way, but we were talking about Agnes.

I turned a corner and there was a whole bunch of kids walking the other direction. The Public kids; their school was at the other side of the neighborhood. As I passed them, daydreaming about Agnes, I saw the stupid kid. He was walking toward me, talking to some of his buddies, and he did not seem to know who I was—but I sure knew who he was. So, as he was about to pass me, without really thinking, I stepped in front of him and said, “Remember me?” And I socked him in the stomach as hard as I could. There was about 10 cents worth of rage in that stomach punch, and he doubled over and started crying.

Now, I should say that I was not a tough guy. I had lost every fight that I had ever been in. I was the youngest and smallest kid on the block, so my record was about 0 and 27. I even lost to Jimmy Donnelly, who lost all his fights too—except the ones to me. I held my own against Jimmy until he punched me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me. That’s where I learned the stomach punch. My record got better after that.

The kids he was walking with yelled, “Hey, what did you do that for?” I hadn’t really thought about what his buddies would do. They could have jumped me and beat me up. I think they were a little afraid of me though. I may have looked a little crazed. I said, “He knows.”

He was crying and protesting that he didn’t know what I was talking about. Then all of a sudden a grown up who was driving by stopped his car and got out and started yelling at me. He saw me just walk up to the kid and sock him, unprovoked. He thought I just ambushed the kid for no good reason. The man asked me my name. Now, one of the minuses of going to Catholic school came out. I answered him because he was a grown up, and we were taught that we had to respect grown ups. Then another drawback of Catholic school came out: I didn’t lie. I gave him my real name. He knew I went to St. Gerard’s because we wore uniforms, and I had mine on. So, by the time I got home, Sister Edith had called our mom and told her that I beat a kid up for no good reason. Our mom hated getting calls from Sister Edith and told us so every time Sister called. Our mom told me to go do my paper route and then wait until my father got home—the six worst words a kid my age could ever hear. Wait until your father gets home.

I feared that more than I feared Sister Edith.

So, when I finished my route, I went upstairs and started on my homework. I could hear my dad come home, and my heart started racing. I got the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as when the stupid kid knocked my bike over. This was not going to be good. I could hear my mom’s muffled voice, followed by my dad stomping up the stairs. Crap. He sat down on the bed and said, “Your mom said that Sister Edith said you beat up some kid for no good reason.” I mumbled something unintelligible. He said, “Tell me what happened.”

So, I told him about the paper route and the kid and the papers in the puddle and the sticking the tongue out and the laughing and I couldn’t run after him and my pay kept getting docked and that it happened five times and that I saw the kid and I had just had enough of it and I punched him in the stomach.

When I finished, I might have been crying. There was dead silence. Then my dad said, “Okay.” And he walked back down the stairs. That was it. No smack. No grounding. No punishment. Nothing. Just, “Okay.”

I never saw the kid again on my paper route. I kept waiting for a sneak attack when I wasn’t looking, but it never happened. I saw him a couple of times in high school, but he always turned and walked the other way. Sister Edith never said a word about it either. Neither did my dad.

So, I learned a lesson that day. The only way to stop a bully is to hit them as hard as you can. Give it everything you’ve got. Even when your record is 0 and 27, and you may get beat up or the nuns may get involved. You may get in trouble. But the only way I know that it stops is to hit back as hard as you can.

Bullies don’t like to get hit.

I know, some of you are thinking, Wait, what bully? Bullies come in many forms. He was taking away my livelihood and my reputation. He was inhibiting my inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I took pride in delivering clean, dry newspapers. No one wants to be the deliverer of bad news. Every time it happened, I would be so mad that I was shaking. I got this feeling in my stomach. Every day that I did my paper route, I was looking over my shoulder for that kid. I felt threatened. It was systemic. Until it stopped. But it didn’t just stop. It wouldn’t just stop. It had to be stopped.

I know some of you are thinking that violence is not the answer. I agree, I have been brought up that way too. My dad was always smacking my brother and me for fighting. So did the nuns. They taught us not to hit by hitting us . . . and we got the message.

I advocate all other solutions first. I yelled stuff at him, I tried to find out who he was. I could never talk it out with him because he ran away. Sometimes other things work. But when they don’t and the bullying situation keeps repeating, and you have tried all possible solutions . . . hitting back hard is the only way that I know of that effectively stops it.

There are risks. It might not work out as well in Chicago today. I could get shot for doing that now. He could have gotten back up and hit back. His friends might have jumped in. I could have gone 0 and 28. So, it is important to weigh the risks and the consequences, I suppose, and measure the response—but in the end you have to do something.

Bullying situations get complicated. To me, the kid was the bully. But to the kid’s friends and the man in the car, I was the bully. The kid and I knew the whole story and who the bully really was. I am sure he didn’t tell his buddies what he had done. If he did, they would have known he was a jerk. I imagine he just kept saying that he didn’t know what it was about. That way I was the jerk and he was a victim. But that offers an insight into bystanders and onlookers that are forming opinions without all the facts. It sets up a lot of judgment that might be targeted in the wrong direction. Sometimes the guy doing all the loud bellyaching isn’t the guy telling the truth.

The "hit" does not have to be a physical hit. "Hit" can be a metaphor. I watched Kelly get bullied by a person buying the family home after her husband died. The buyer kept changing the conditions after the fact, demanding more and more each time, and it became very costly. It was very bully-like. She and I had talked about the “hit back hard” theory. Kelly didn’t know about the stomach punch, though. Instead, she consulted with her Realtor, who was deeply knowledgeable in real estate contracts. The buyer made one too many demands, which turned into a counteroffer, which was allowed to expire, and the contract expired with it. The buyer was notified that the deal was off, the For Sale sign went back up, and Kelly started showing the house again. The bully buyer was incensed. She went commando and threw the For Sale sign down and out into the yard. She nailed a Manifesto on the front door. It was a couple of pages that dribbled into incessant babbling to the point where at the end, her handwriting was just a line. It had a tone that reminded me of the drunken bar room arguments in college. She came back and made another offer on the house, and Kelly countered with a lower “as is” offer. It was accepted. There were no more demands. She hit back hard, and the bully cowered.

The "hit" just needs to be calculated, measured, and delivered on target—no matter what the form.

I was also bullied by two little Chihuahua dogs. Every day on the paper route, they came out and bit my ankles. This little old lady owned them, and she used to peek out the window when I brought the paper. Her two little dogs would be hanging off the cuffs of my pants; their teeth were like razor blades. I couldn’t just kick them off because she was watching. Every day, and never did she call them off. That situation never got resolved until I quit the paper route. Three years of those stinking Chihuahuas. It is fight or flight you have to measure. Sometimes running away is okay too. You can get a reputation for kicking little old lady’s dogs.

So, history is important; the history all the way back to the beginning. Sometimes we don’t like what history tells us, but we need to know the whole story.


Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.

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