July 10, 2017
I remember hawking the Philadelphia Bulletin on boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J. when Son of Sam was captured. It was August of 1977 and I was 10 years old. I should have been scared that summer, reading each day about how he had killed six people and wounded seven and left letters for police and newspaper reporters, explaining his actions in ways only he understood. But I was curious. And the guy sold papers.
My older brother had been a paperboy on the beach, selling the Bulletin. I always wanted to do what he did. We were a family that read several newspapers a day. But I remember the Bulletin being the top read in the house. When my parents thought I was old enough, I strapped on the bulky white canvas paper bag with “Bulletin” in dark blue script on the side. The days were long and hot but I loved making money. I never wore sunscreen – it was called suntan lotion then – and I never got sunburned.
I was born in Philadelphia and spent most of my childhood in a suburb of the city but Wildwood is a strong part of my earliest memories. I remember the smell of salt marsh and the sound of rattling old planks on the bridge as our car crossed the narrow back bay canal into the north end of the shore town. They were the senses of arrival, just as the first sight of the Walt Whitman Bridge as we approached Philadelphia was the signal of coming home. Either way on the two-hour trip, the radio was usually tuned to a Phillies game, with my father cheering or jeering the hometown team. For decades in my family, the city and shore competed for our hearts.
My great-grandfather sold his half-ownership of a bar on North Broad Street in Philadelphia in the 1940s and moved his family to Wildwood to satisfy my great-grandmother, who accused him of creating drunks every time she saw an intoxicated man on Broad Street. At least, that’s the story I heard over the years from my family. My great-grandfather’s daughter, Elizabeth, was my grandfather’s sister and my father’s aunt. She was a spinster in a housecoat with silver curls in her hair and a roughish voice. She was never far from her snap-clasp leather cigarette pack holder. She worked as the nurse at Wildwood’s Catholic elementary and high schools and spent the shore’s desolate winters alone, except for the company of her dog, Prince. My parents would take my brother, sister and me to Wildwood on Memorial Day and leave us there for the summer, visiting on weekends and taking us home on Labor Day.
Aunt Elizabeth was loving in a no-nonsense sort of way. Unlike my cousins, who would visit once or twice for a weekend, we three kids were the shore bunch, the ones who could hang with the adults. I remember my Aunt Elizabeth telling my mother once, and this was a compliment to her, that we ate whatever she served for dinner. There were elaborate excursions to Diamond Beach when my parents were in town, with the station wagon loaded down with blankets and coolers and sand buckets and umbrellas. I recall the first sign of night spreading over the ocean as my family sat on the beach and my father threw my brother and me over the tops of waves.
During the week, we kids would stay up late with Aunt Elizabeth and her two sisters, who were nuns. We would play “Michigan Rummy,” a card game that it seemed only my family knew about. The stakes in the game were pennies thrown into small plastic yellow tubs that once held margarine. Aunt Elizabeth would chain smoke. The nuns would be in housecoats, still wearing their boxy black habits. Those were fun, strange nights at the dinning room table, us kids eating melting ice cream wedged between warm waffles and the aunts drinking beer or whiskey sours. But when morning came, it was time to go to work.
There would be summers when I stayed home in Philadelphia’s suburbs, my schedule my own, playing baseball for 20 or 30 innings at a time or wandering around the woods that had not yet become suburbia. But in Wildwood, I was expected to work. Wildwood offered many choices to exercise my family’s work ethic. My brother, Tom, went from paperboy to busboy to waiter to running games and selling balloons in the booths on the boardwalk. My sister went from chambermaid to pool lifeguard to waitress. In my time, I would hawk papers, usher in a boardwalk movie theater, run the bumper boat rides on an amusement pier, bounce drunks out of a disco and, finally, become lifeguard on the North Wildwood Beach Patrol.
The very first job I can remember was sweeping the sidewalks for a dollar in front of the “Back to Earth” record shop around the corner from Aunt Elizabeth’s dark green-sided home on Maple Avenue when I was seven. The shop owner gave me my first 45 record — “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods. It was 1974.
But it was the paperboy job I longed for. The weight of news on my neck and shoulders. The jingle of coins in the cloth apron tied around my waist. The chance to walk around the beach and boardwalk for hours at a time as my own boss.
The papers were dumped in a tied-up bundle each day on Aunt Elizabeth’s front porch. I would carry 40 to 50 a day. The Bulletin sold for 15 cents at the newsstands. I got it at a discount and sold it for 25 cents. Some customers complained about the mark-up. I had a smart mouth for a 10-year-old, explaining how I had lugged the papers to the beach and boardwalk and could sell them for whatever price I wanted. Other customers would hand me a dollar and tell me to keep the change.
It didn’t take me long to give up on the beach. The walking was hard and the heat made my head spin. Paperboys from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News were unwanted competition. But there were just as many people, maybe even more, who wanted the newspaper on the boardwalk. There, the walking was easier and there was more interesting stuff going on. There were arcades, where I would take a break to play pinball. There were ice cream stands. I would trade a copy of the paper for a ride on a roller coaster. I would deliver a copy each day to the girl who ran a game in a booth where beanbags were thrown to knock down targets for prizes. She was probably 18, sweet and friendly, and she probably knew the crush I felt for her.
These days, is seems strange to me that I would be gone for hours at a time, walking around a shore town famous for its raucous bars and wild parties and a delirious, sun-stroked population that came and went and came again in the span of a weekend. But there was only one time I felt unsafe. Two older boys, probably 13 or 14, asked me to on the boardwalk to bring their mother a newspaper. “Where is she?” I asked. They told me she was sitting in the shade, under one of the amusement piers that jutted out toward the ocean from the boardwalk. “Why don’t you go get the money and bring it back?” I suggested. But they wanted me to come with them. I remember thinking something was wrong with what they were asking me but I didn’t know what it was. I also remember that under the boardwalk was a cool, damp place that smelled like urine. I didn’t go with them.
And now Son of Sam was in handcuffs. I raced through the story. The Bulletin was an afternoon paper in the era before 24-hours-a-day cable news and the Internet. For a few hours, I held in my bag the latest information about a killer who had captured a summer’s imagination. “Son of Sam caught,” I yelled, adding it to my singsong call of “Phil…a…del…phia Eveee…ning Bull…a…tin. Get yer Bull…a…tin here.”
The papers were flying out of the bag. But still I wanted to pump up the story. Somewhere in the paper, I had read about the possibility that David Berkowitz, as Son of Sam was now known, was thinking about heading toward the beach before he was caught. Or I thought I read it. Either way, I started mixing that in with my hawking. “Son…of…Sam…may…have…been…head…ing…here.” More papers leapt out of my bag. I had to get more, had to keep the frenzy going. There were no stops for ice cream or pinball or roller coasters. My regular customers were happy to see me. Word was spreading. I was part of that. I liked it. It wasn’t about the money, although I liked that too. It was about having some small role in a story that everyone wanted to hear.
Now it is 40 years later. I have been a newspaper reporter for more than 25 years. And Son of Sam, a former postal clerk who claims he thought he was under orders to kill from his neighbor’s dog, is serving six consecutive 25-to-life sentences. He came up for parole, prompting an outcry from the families of his victims. Berkowitz, in a letter to the governor of New York, said he didn’t want to be paroled.
I tell people from time to time about that day on the boardwalk, when Son of Sam was no longer on the hunt and the papers sold themselves. What I usually tell people toward the end is this – that was the day I found my job.