There are two kinds of people at Penn: those who take a copy of the daily paper, and those who don’t.
By Rachel Del Valle | It’s been almost two years since I offered a copy of The Daily Pennsylvanian to a Locust Walk pedestrian. But I can still remember that first day. I wore a white dress—one of the most foolish things I’ve ever done.
It was an unseasonably warm September that year. By the end of my two-hour shift, the waist of my sundress looked like the pencil-doodled margins of a math notebook. The fold of my left arm, where I’d shelved the papers as I handed them out with my right hand, was stamped grey.
I slid into the bathroom of Fisher-Bennett Hall to pull myself together before my 11 o’clock class. I froze as I caught myself in the mirror. An unmissable black smudge, about the size of my thumb, stared back at me from my upper lip.
Newsprint and sweat come off easily with soap and water. The sense of anxiety that comes from wondering how long you’ve been sporting a sweat-and-newsprint Hitler mustache is harder to remove.
After that, I made a point to never touch my face while on the job.
I perfected my shtick pretty quickly. I worked three days a week in the same spot, at the same time. College Green was my turf; its pedestrians, my audience. I went through a couple variations of a pitch phrase before I found my tagline:
“Have you read today’s paper?” Too personal.
“Would you like a DP?” Too wordy.
“DP?” Too gruff.
Eventually, I settled on a consistently cheery, “Copy of the paper?” It had a certain old-fashioned charm to it that I liked. It got to the point.
I repeated that line over and over, hundreds of times a day, thousands of times over the course of that school year. That phrase became my trademark, and to this day I can’t shake it.
I’m a senior now—I’ve written for the paper as a columnist longer than I spent time handing them out. But it still happens. I’ll meet someone at a party. We’ll shake hands, exchange names. They’ll cock their head to the side and say, “You look familiar.” And it’s not just a bad pick-up line, because it’s true.
A typical workday went like this: Around 8:45 a.m., I wheeled the blue cart from the Daily Pennsylvanian’s offices on 40th and Walnut to supply bulk stacks to either Stiteler Hall or Williams Hall. The cart was sort of like a plastic mailbox with wheels—wheels that were not designed to roll on cobblestone.
Dragging the densely packed cart over to my post was always the hardest part. The distance wasn’t very great, but neither was my upper-body strength.
Then the job really began. People would appear, slowly at first. It was easier to make a successful pitch when the path was empty. I’d make eye contact with anyone who would look back. I’d smile, raise my eyebrows, pluck a paper from the stack, and extend my arm: “Copy of the paper?”
At first, some people were taken aback. “Copy of what?” they’d ask.
A few were disappointed I wasn’t peddling The New York Times.
I made an effort to make my presence feel like more of a perk than an imposition. The circulation staff was a new group that year, designed to boost paper readership. In those early weeks, I made a first impression 60 times an hour. With dresses and smiles and a wish to “have a lovely day,” I tried to represent us latter-day newsies as pleasantly engaging.
I would have had no doubt that I was succeeding, that I was indeed charming the pants off the pedestrians on Penn’s campus. But then came the Shoutout.
Shoutouts, printed once a semester in the paper’s 34th Street arts and culture insert, are the Penn equivalent of Page Six of the New York Post. To receive a Shoutout is to be at once honored and humiliated.
I’ll leave it up to you to determine the proportion of those things in the Shoutout directed at me.
To the “Copy of the paper?” girl on College Green: How about a copy of my foot up your ass?
In the spring semester, I was moved to the Compass, in the heart of Locust Walk. The guy who’d covered that spot had gone into retirement in favor of sleeping in. And so my route changed. The rapport I’d built up with the students and professors, mailmen and security guards over the past semester disappeared with my relocation. I had to start from scratch.
The Compass position was a coveted but challenging one. People came from all directions, and at the turn of classes, 10 minutes before the hour, I just threw the papers like frisbees and hoped for the best.
Most of the time, my audience was an average stream of undergraduates, some on cell phones or with earbuds. Some crossed to the other side of the walk altogether to avoid the unsavory interaction of refusing a paper.
Yet not everyone was rushing to class or avoiding my gaze. Some were just gliding by, looking for someone to talk to. And people talked to me, a lot.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t a particularly chatty person. I wasn’t one of those who slid comfortably into small talk with hairdressers and baristas. But I learned to play the part.
I remember the one guy who was looking for things to do while his girlfriend had a grad school interview. He was from North Carolina. Or South Carolina. Maybe Florida? Philadelphia was too cold for his liking. He asked me where he might find a good dive bar. I told him that I didn’t know what a dive bar was.
“You’re so cute, you could be selling these,” said an older man who always carried around a plastic bag full of books.
There was the guy who handed me the paper he’d read that morning so that I could “redistribute it.”
Then there was the guy who took the paper, spread it open on the surface of a nearby trash can, and stood there to read it. After about five minutes, he scrunched it back together, walked back over to me, and placed the wrinkled heap on top of the pristine stack perched on my forearm. He looked at me gravely and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t read this bullshit.”
A lot of people thought it was funny to feign illiteracy. “Sorry, I can’t read,” was an unexpectedly common reply.
There was an older woman who scuttled through campus at the pace of a Peanuts character. She perennially wore tube socks and white sneakers. I offered her a paper once, and she looked up at me, startled, as if I’d woken her. I didn’t try again.
Visiting families and miscellaneous out-of-towners often asked me for directions. Some asked me if I would be so kind as to snap photographs of them. Once, a group of tourists requested that I pose for a picture. I happily obliged.
I felt like a bit of a mascot back then. It was funny, because at the time I was having a lot of doubts, especially about choosing to go to Penn. I’d flirted with the idea of transferring, but never got quite miserable enough to act on it.
But standing there—beneath the plane trees, beside the buildings, among the harried students—I was wooed all over again. Memories of my high school crush swelled in my stomach. Was this the school I’d once loved? Maybe. I’d seen it at its worst. But I saw the best bits every time I stood there in the heart of campus, watching people walk by. Being “Copy of the Paper girl” made me proud to be a part of Penn in a way I don’t think I’ll ever recreate.
But I guess it was just a fling.
Rachel Del Valle is a College senior.