By Adam Kramer
It was a different time, a different era and being a paperboy, which once was an after-school job for thousands of teenagers across the country, seems to be a distant memory. But it is a memory that still burns bright in the mind of former Cambria Heights resident Henry Petroski.
Petroski, now a professor of engineering at Duke University, is scheduled to come back Saturday to the old neighborhood where he first took a drag from a cigarette, drank his first sip of alcohol and earned money by tossing folded papers onto his neighbors’ front porch.
The Duke professor and father of two will spend some time Saturday at the Cambria Heights public library to talk about his new memoir, “Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer.” The book recounts his time as a paperboy for the Long Island Press, bicycles, Lionel trains, the system for numbering homes in the borough and life in Queens.
“I write about things: pencils, paper clips and books,” Petroski said in a telephone interview. “I thought that if I wrote about delivering newspapers, I could write about bicycles. It also gave me the opportunity to explore in a narrative about growing up in Cambria Heights.”
His previous books, such as “the Evolution of Use Things” and “the Book on the Bookshelf,” have examined how everyday things developed and work, he said. Writing a memoir piqued his interest because it would allow him to write something different.
Petroski had been back to the neighborhood he left more than 25 years ago before he began to write the book, but made more frequent trips while working on “Paperboy” to reacclimate himself with the area and jog his memory.
“It is actually still a pretty nice neighborhood,” he said of the tree-lined middle-class community he and his family moved to when he was 12 years old and stayed there through his college years. “There were larger trees when I grew up, but newer trees have been planted and soon they will form a canapé over the streets.”
When Petroski’s family, who is of Polish descent, lived in Cambria Heights the majority of residents were Irish and Italian. Today, the community, which once was considered suburbia, is predominately black with a large West Indian presence.
The theme of the book, he said, is why he decided to become an engineer.
“I was engrossed by how things were done,” Petroski said.
He described how he became intrigued with the inner workings of a machine in a neighborhood store that would pack doughnuts into a box, the best way to fold a newspaper so it would not come apart in flight, keeping his bike in working order and taking apart his mother’s appliances.
Sputnik and the rise of the space program, which took place during his last years in high school, pushed him toward becoming an engineer when he “was looking for what to do with his life,” he said.
It was also during his teen years that the seed for literature and writing began to develop. He said he always enjoyed reading, and in college he started to write in an English class. A college professor pushed and encouraged him to continue writing poetry.
“I used to write recreationally,” Petroski said. “I would do it late at night after working all day. It would help me wind down from the day. Writing poetry was very good practice for writing because it teaches you every word is important.”
Petroski will be at the Cambria Heights Public Library at 220-20 Linden Blvd. Saturday, May 4, at 2:30 p.m. for a 30- to 45-minute talk, Q&A session and book signing.
Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.