Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hoo Baby

Late Night, 2003

A while back I wrote about my job as a newspaper circulation district manager. Today’s continuation of that story starts with an appreciation of public pay phones.

District managers were required to show up at the newspaper office early each afternoon to do paperwork and be present for sales meetings. Then you went out into your district to supervise carriers, recruit new carriers, deal with parents, knock heads when routes didn’t get carried, take kids around to canvas for new subscriptions and, in your spare time, get papers to customers who’d been missed.

In those days you had to know where all the pay phones were in your district so that you could call the newspaper's complaint line dispatcher periodically. Scanning the landscape for pay phones, especially the ones you could drive up to without getting out of your car, became second nature, a habit so indelible that many of us kept on doing it for years thereafter.

On Church Hill, public pay phones were few and most that you could find had been vandalized beyond use. Church Hill wasn’t a safe neighborhood. I was luckier, though, than some of my associates and was never robbed or hurt there. We had to be especially careful on “collection Saturdays” when we’d ride around our districts collecting route bills from each of our 50-60 paperboys and girls. By noon it wasn’t unusual to be carrying thousands of dollars in nickels, dimes, quarters and dollar bills. You had to be very conscious of your surroundings. A bunch of mostly white college students driving around the ghetto in unmarked white sedans that made us look like narcs made us easy targets.

A favorite gathering spot for district managers who oversaw the east end of Richmond was a woebegone Gulf station at the corner of 24th and Marshall Streets. There was a fire station across the street that provided a sense of security that was probably false since the firemen kept the place locked up tight. The gas station parking lot was large and open. The manager didn’t mind us hanging around. And best of all, there was a working drive-up pay phone at the corner.

When you work in circulation, it’s like being a beat cop. You’re close to the ground and attuned to the mood of your neighborhoods. You get to know the people. Among the regulars who hung around the gas station at 24th and Marshall was a dissipated man known as Hoo Baby. He got this name because his answer to any question was “Hoo, baby!”

Hoo Baby was one of those people of indeterminate age, so ravaged by alcohol and drugs that he was little more than a wisp of a person. I never saw him sober or straight. Occasionally he got scooped up by the public health people and put in the hospital. But he always returned to the street, neither sober nor straight. So far as we were concerned, Hoo Baby was a sad and harmless, if noisy, presence, always pressing you for change.

One evening when I made a call into the newspaper office to check for undelivered paper complaints, I was instructed to get to the Gulf station at "as fast as possible." This was usually code for a robbery or some other crime against one of us.

When I arrived, I found a fellow district manager shoved up against the wall of the gas station by a dissipated man wielding a gun. The man didn’t have to turn around for me to know who he was. “HOO BABY!” “ I shouted at him from across the parking lot. “LET AL GO!” Hoo Baby turned to look at me and yelled something that I’d probably have repeated here if I could have understood it. He mumbled incoherently, occasionally turning around to shout something unintelligible at me. He never took the gun away from Al’s cheek.

It took a lot more talk and the help of a pair of policemen who finally showed up to wrestle the gun from Hoo Baby’s arthritic hands. The police took Hoo Baby off with them. We wondered whether he might go to jail or back for another hospital evaluation.

We never did learn where they took him. The next day, though, he was back on the corner, pressing me for loose change.


  1. Wow--that's a scary job for a young person. Wonder what ever happened to Hoo Baby. I was talking to someone just recently about how there are so few pay phones anywhere any longer, with the advent of cell phones.

  2. I can feel for Al. One night in the BP Station on Victory Blvd. in Portsmouth I found my self up against the gas pumps with a shotgun pointed in my face. I handed over all the station's money (no cash register or drop safe I those days) and watched the car peel out into the street and the cop who had a radar trap behind the building peel out after them. By the time the cop returned to get my statement the station was locked up and I was no longer a BP employee! I was there filling in because the pump jockeys at that company owned station kept quitting. Must have had something to do with it being robbed 7 times in 5 months.

  3. Great story. Those are the ones that bear retelling again and again.