CoffeeBeer >> Warts & All >> Backdoor Yorkshire Woman


Years ago when I lived in California I worked as a computer programmer for a large corporation. Trapped in a windowless building with few outlets for exercise, I used to fantasize about being a postal carrier. This wasn’t a serious fantasy, mind you, just a temporary wish to make a living in the great outdoors, walking all day down quiet streets talking to cats and things. Of course the unknown-dog aspect of the job would have put me off had I been serious about proceeding with this career change. Still it was fun to contemplate.

When I was living in the UK and waiting for permission to legally make a living I searched around for ways to make a bit of cash. When a friend who was a local cafe owner approached me sheepishly and asked if I’d possibly stoop so low as to consider helping him out I jumped at the chance. What he needed was somebody to deliver fliers advertising his pizza delivery service. What this involved was sticking cafe fliers into every single letter box within a two-mile diameter of the cafe. This basically encompassed the western half of the city and involved walking through the University, out into the countryside past several cemeteries, and up and down hillsides. The reason he was embarrassed about asking me was because he couldn’t pay very much for this at all; but since he knew I like to walk he thought I might find it interesting.

So I would go out for two hours a day with a bag full of fliers. In two hours I could deliver a little over 300 fliers, for which my friend gave me £5. A paltry sum, of course—but it was better than nothing at all, and after my first week of this I was so physically fit I was sleeping like a baby. But two hours was about the maximum I could do at one time, because I walked at full speed without stopping for those two hours, this "walking" involving traipsing down long paths into back gardens and back out again, running up and down hundreds of flights of stairs, dodging overgrown plants and opening and closing hundreds of gates, and having at least one unexpected adventure a day. And, of course, stopping momentarily to pet the occasional cat.

Okay, I know: delivering fliers probably doesn’t sound exactly challenging. But delivering fliers door-to-door in a European country is a different experience for an American, and doing it in Yorkshire is a unique and challenging experience. For one thing the letter boxes vary so much. Although many of the boxes are on the front doors, the Yorkshire tradition is to use the back door only, so many times I had to walk into back gardens to find the letter boxes in the back doors. Other times they’re on the main side doors, and they’re either horizontally in the middle of the door, vertically next to the door knob, or situated at the bottom of the door, and they come in all different sizes. And the slots themselves range from open holes to little floppy doors to flaps that have to be pulled out, and the flier might slip through easily, or else it needs to be pushed through a brushlike trapper, or in the worst cases the flier is pushed through an outside flap and then caught by an inside flap which can nip one’s fingers if one doesn’t push it just right. And one time there was a growling, snarling dog on the other side who nearly nipped my fingers off instead.

The easiest roads to do were the ones lined with solid terraces of houses situated close to the pavement, all with their letter boxes in the front. But often, as on my own street, many of these houses would have the letter boxes in the back. I might walk past four front doors and then come to a long dark stone passageway that led into the back connected gardens, where I’d find two back doors on each side. A variation of this would be a long dark stone passageway in which the side doors of two houses, one on each side, could be found. On streets with bigger houses I might find a gateway leading to a stairway which climbed up a storey or so to two front doors. And on the more plush single-family-type streets there might be a gate which led to a long path taking me through an extensive front garden and then possibly up a stairway to the single front door. These were the exhausting streets, because if I was at top speed it still took me a full minute to deliver one lousy flier. And then there were the fortunately rare streets—but I experienced only three of them—where I had to to climb up an entire flight of stairs to get to each single door. The only thing that cheered me up was if, when I got to that single door, there were five or six buzzers next to it indicating five or six flats inside, which meant I could offload five or six fliers on one door.

There was so much variety in the streets themselves. I stumbled upon little closes with tiny clusters of very tidy flats; bohemian back alleys with a Far Eastern market feel; little streets practically perched on top of other little streets; hidden little communities clustered around churches; communities for the elderly, complete with their own little hospitals; country lanes with sheep and chickens and ponies; and, as in San Francisco and Seattle, streets that range from completely flat to mountain-climbing material. Once, in the midst of large single-family mansions, I came across a four-story apartment building filled with Asian immigrants dangling their bare feet from the windows. Near the end of another outing, when I was getting tired of climbing up and down stairs, I found on one street of large houses some rather thin, precarious staircases leading up an entire two stories to a single door. Needless to say I convinced myself the type of people who would choose to live in those aeries probably wouldn’t be interested in ordering pizzas.

I learned certain styles of houses indicated certain things. For instance, peeling paint and weeds promised stacks of rubbish in the back, and Mock Tudor definitely promised garden gnomes. The most mysterious house I came across was in a street where one side features houses set back on huge lots. As I trudged up one of the long front pathways past a dense jungle of a front garden I encountered the house completely covered in unpenetrable plant growth, and the front door with the mail slot was inaccessible from all sides. Was the occupant an elderly eccentric who wouldn’t be interested in pizza and kebabs? Or was it a tragic agoraphobic, housebound for years, who would love to have a pizza delivered by a friendly delivery person? If so, then how would that person have been surviving, other than some relative or friend showing up regularly with groceries and supplies—and that person would have to be able to get into the house? Perhaps the resident died several years ago and nobody had noticed yet, the rich rotting flora successfully disguising the odour. Ah well, I finally decided, the odds were in favour of the occupant, whoever or whatever he or she may be, not being interested in pizza.

Delivering these fliers was so strange and wonderful and exhausting. I talked to people, petted so many cats, and was barked at by hundreds of dogs, and I saw all different kinds of back gardens and I peeked into so many different kinds of homes and lives, and I stumbled upon clotheslines full of laundry and mazes of play equipment and neatly trimmed gardens and wild jungles and koi ponds and rubbish heaps and people sunbathing and people with their back doors open cooking meals and construction workers singing away as they work and clusters of nuns and gaggles of university students and Asian and African families. Although it’s the custom with postal carriers and delivery people, I felt so invasive when I slipped quietly into somebody’s back garden, and I always hoped that nobody was home. When I ran into a construction worker one day and asked him where the letter box of the above flat was, he said the flat was empty. So I handed him a flier and said, "Oh, then, here—are you hungry?" After all, everybody’s gotta eat, right?

On another occasion I ran into an old woman stepping out of her house who immediately engaged me in conversation. She reminded me of the old ladies who lived next door to me back in Long Beach who all loved my cat and would snag me into long conversations as I emerged from my car. After several minutes, when I realised this woman was obviously looking for somebody to talk the morning away to, I interrupted her with a smile, said “Here, would you like a pizza flyer?” and made my quick retreat. Further down the road I came across a severed arm hanging out of the letterbox. I inserted my pizza flyer very carefully so as not to disturb the arm (one of those gag hands sewn into a shirt sleeve). I told my cafe owner friend about this, in case he received a phone call wondering why a severed arm had been delivered along with the pizza flyer.

I met few unfriendly people. One was an old man who was coming out of his door just as I was inserting his flier. He glanced at it, grumbled "I don’t eat pizza" and tossed it in the bin. In contrast I met many friendly cats, including two one-eyed kitties. Near my home I walked into a back garden where four cats greeted me hungrily and waited hopefully for me to open their back doors for them. In one glass entryway, as I pushed the flyer through, I saw two adult sibling tabbies sleeping in a basket under the letterbox, and just down the road I met a bunny rabbit in another entryway. The dogs were more worrying, especially the madly barking Rottweiller down in a rural cul-de-sac who was separated from me by only a short thin iron fence. But the greyhound who growled at me as I climbed up into his owner’s front garden quickly mellowed and greeted me with a lick.

The most delightful experience I had was very close to home. Just around the corner from where I lived was a short stone wall. I never thought to look over this wall to see what was on the other side. One Sunday when I was delivering fliers I peered over this wall to see if there were any back doors with letter slots visible—and I was very surprised to discover a Shetland pony grazing on the other side.

This was tough, hot, thirsty work on balmy summer days, and my showers and laundry loads increased proportionately. But just when I’d finished battling a hot sunny street with too many stairways and too many confusing mail slots, I would find myself on some amazingly gorgeous little road and think about how, five years ago, I never would have believed I would be walking around all these bizarre little streets in Yorkshire sticking pizza menus into letter boxes for £3.00 an hour. But the way I looked at it, I was helping a friend get more business (I’ve always enjoyed the field of marketing) and I was doing something I’d never experienced before and will probably never experience again.

So be it! Wanna order a pizza?

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