Brother, can you spare $1.50?

Those news-selling heroes make one man wonder whether no news is better news

Newspaper vendors are probably a good idea in a town where people prefer their cars to their feet when going from place to place.

Newspaper vendors are probably a good idea in a town where people prefer their cars to their feet when going from place to place.

Photo by David Robert

Far from the nostalgic newsreel vision of a scrappy kid in a wool cabby cap hawking papers on a bustling street corner hollering “EXTRA! EXTRA!” a middle-aged man slouches in a freezing wind-fed drizzle next to a knee-high stack of Reno Gazette-Journals across the street from a 7-Eleven. He’s wearing plastic sunglasses and a blue baseball cap pulled down as far over his head as it will go, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, trying to keep the papers dry and himself warm. Latched down over his thin jacket, an orange laminate vest advertises daily rates.

It’s a ridiculous enterprise. There’s no walk-by traffic and there’s obviously not going to be. No one’s been on that sidewalk since it was poured. Periodically, a motorist approaches; the newspaper vendor half-heartedly displays a copy of the paper while his potential customer either zooms by or reaches nervously for the door locks. Nobody dares make eye contact. What does this man want? What is he doing here? There are plenty of newspapers inside the 7-Eleven. There are plenty of newspapers in the many newspaper racks all over town. There are plenty of newspapers anywhere and everywhere.

Surely the Reno Gazette-Journal is one of the glories of American journalism, but for all intentions, this man might as well be standing there trying to sell his own farts.

My wife sees him. “There you go. Get a paper.”

I have my reservations.

“You said you wanted a paper,” says my wife. “Help the poor guy out.”

I see, so that’s their angle—the guilt trip. I make a U-turn and pull up to the makeshift sidewalk newsstand. What’s he got, a special edition? Some late-breaking news, maybe? 46-point headlines? HITLER INVADES POLAND! TITANIC SINKS! 1,500 DEAD! NIXON RESIGNS! KENNEDY SHOT!

He flashes the front page. The local school board did something or other. Also, there’s a picture of some livestock—a brown cow or something.

It makes me wonder. Who could they possibly be adding to their circulation with this ridiculous operation? Agoraphobics? The terminally car bound? Those ashamed to be seen buying the Reno Gazette-Journal? Or maybe it’s an attempt to draw in the real hardcore news junkies. Those who find it deliciously dangerous to buy their news right off the street. Serious information addicts who need a daily fix of world, national and local events in the potent, ready-to-read-cliché form that the RGJ so capably doses out.

I leave the man to his Horatio Alger-like plight. The whole car-to-street transaction thing seems a little too shady for this town; makes me feel like a criminal. Should I have given him some spare change? Maybe he would’ve washed my windshield instead. I’m torn, looking around nervously. Am I being followed? I shake my head and stomp the gas.

Nearby, I spy another orange-clad Gazette-Journal vendor: a woman sitting on a traffic island in the middle of a shopping center parking lot. She’s hunkered down, small and kind of square-ish, apparently doing her best to impersonate a newspaper box. Behind her is a homemade cardboard sign taped to a blue shopping cart. This one’s too much. Her eyes beg for me to look, her pleading face expressing enough adversity and misfortune to make even a scourge-hardened sympathy goon like Sally Struthers wretch in horror. As though she’s verifying her very existence, she holds the paper up for me to see. If there are any, the metaphors are surely catastrophic. I give in and buy two copies. No one should have to be out doing this on a day like today.

What kind of a sadistic sales department would came up with this miserable idea, this mix-mash of charity and circulation? Are these excessive distribution ploys the desperate last gasps of a dying daily? Probably not. As long as Reno remains a one-daily-newspaper town, the RGJ will survive.

As for me, every time I see the quiet misery in the eyes of a wretched old panhandler, I will think of the Reno Gazette-Journal. And my dirty windshield.

They say no news is good news. I guess selling it is the problem.