Henry petroski has been called "the poet laureate of technology." He is one of the most eloquent and inquisitive science and engineering writers of our time, illuminating with new clarity such familiar objects as pencils, books, and bridges. In Paperboy, he turns his intellectual curiosity inward, on his own past.
Petroski grew up in the Cambria Heights section of New York City's borough of Queens during the 1950s, in the midst of a close and loving family. Educated at local Catholic schools, he worked as a delivery boy for the Long Island Press. The job taught him lessons about diligence, labor, commitment, and community-mindedness, lessons that this successful student could not learn at school. From his vantage point as a professor, engineer, and writer, Petroski reflects fondly on these lessons, and on his near-idyllic boyhood.
Paperboy is also the story of the intellectual maturation of an engineer. Petroski's curiosity about how things work--from bicycles to Press-books to newspaper delivery routes--was evident even in his youth. He writes with clear-eyed passion about the physical surroundings of his world, the same attitude he has brought to examining the quotidian objects of our world.
Paperboy is a delightful memoir, telling the dual story of an admirable family in a more innocent, bygone America, and the making of an engineer and writer. This is a book to cherish and reread.
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April 07, 2003
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Excerpt from Paperboy by Henry Petroski
All You Need Is a Bike
On my twelfth birthday, our family moved from the city that we knew to the suburbs that we did not. We traded a world of curbs, sidewalks, and stoops for one of driveways, lawns, and porches. But the city savvy developed on the streets of Brooklyn would not be enough to comprehend all at once the backyards and basements of Queens, especially for a young boy. I would have to learn a new geography, a new language, and a new way to behave and occupy myself. It wouldn't happen all at once, and in the process I would become a young businessman and lay the foundations for becoming an engineer, all in an era when technology was growing increasingly attractive, important, and humbling to me and to the country.
On the drive from the old to the new house, my father repeated what he had been saying for weeks: that we were moving up in the world. We were leaving behind an icebox for a refrigerator, a bathtub for a shower, a party line for a private phone, the subway and trolleys for buses and a car. I kept waiting for him to say "and a tricycle for a bicycle," but the words never came. How could I expect him and my mother to worry about my single birthday wish with all the other things on their minds? We had lived among boxes for the last week or two, and our meals had become increasingly bizarre as we cleaned out the cupboard and emptied the icebox. Last night we had had only vegetables: green peas, creamed corn, and diced beets. Dessert was tapioca pudding. This morning, we had all sat cross-legged on the bare kitchen floor around the coffee ring my father had brought home last evening, the only fresh food we had had for days. After I listened to a spirited rendition of "Happy Birthday, Dear Henry," I halfheartedly blew out the twelve mismatched candles on the cake that we ate with the last quart of milk from the icebox. My present that year would be moving into our new house, I guessed. My wish would remain unfulfilled.
I rode silently with my siblings in the backseat of the car, all of us cradling something special in our laps. My brother, Bill, held his dog, Blackie, and a box of caps for the guns he wore in holsters at his side. (My brother's given name was William, but we always called him Billy or Bill.) My sister, Marianne, whom we called Mary, cradled in the frills of her party dress what must have been a dozen dolls. Skippy, our other dog, lay at my feet as I opened and closed a birthday card from which a clown popped up to taunt me. It was winter, and last week's snow had all but disappeared, save for the dirty piles in the shade of the parkway's retaining wall. I daydreamed of Skippy pulling me in a dogsled, away from my family and their set ways. But without my own ways or means or wheels, I was still very much dependent upon them. A bicycle, I knew, would take me a long way toward my goal, but in the rush of the move it looked like my birthday was going to pass without any presents.
None of us children had yet seen the place our parents had bought. Like our house in Brooklyn, the new one had been purchased from a couple whom my father knew from his days as a bachelor. He was not an adventurous man, and so he reacted to offers rather than made them. When his old landlords suggested that he buy a house from them, he agreed, even to their price. Had they not moved ever upward by capitalizing on the appreciation of their real estate holdings, my father might never have taken the initiative to buy a house like this himself. We were grateful he was sentimental and kept in touch with old landlords. It enabled us to move from a row house to a tract house.
I came out of my daydreams on what seemed a street of extraordinary beauty, which our father said was ours. Though the trees lining it were bare of leaves, their branches arched over it as the ceiling did in St. Patrick's Cathedral, which we had visited once after a Thanksgiving Day Parade. The trees were planted as regularly among the driveways as the columns in St. Pat's were among the pews. The houses were set way back from the street, like side altars from the nave. There was a privacy that we had not known on our treeless street in Brooklyn. Except in winter, it was difficult to see the houses for the trees.
Many of the houses on our new street had exposed front yards whose lawns ran to the sidewalk, but the grass in front of ours and of several of our closest neighbors was hidden behind thick hedges. The walkway to our front door was flanked by two enormous blue spruce trees, which concealed the entrance from everyone but those who approached it head-on. The house was not vulnerable to strangers; it was a fortress within which we could retreat.