Waking up in the dead of winter is the hardest, says Linda Mercadante at 3:12 a.m., sitting in her office at the Plain Dealer distribution depot on Van Epps Road in Brooklyn Heights.
"When it's pitch-black and the wind is ..." — she waves her hands and goes whoosh — "it's so hard to get out of bed."
But she does. And she has for the past 22 years. She's the woman who ensures that the local newspaper arrives on local porches before the crack of dawn each morning. In the wintertime, she leaves for work from her home in Euclid long before the snowplows are out. Sometimes, she says, she wishes there were brake lights to show her the way.
She arrives around midnight each night, though the depot doesn't officially open until 1 a.m. The morning newspaper arrives in trucks from the Tiedeman production facility, warm and bundled, at about 1:30, and Mercadante begins the daily management of her distributors — 108 union drivers and 18 part-timers — who deliver not only the PD, but the Sun News and the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and USA Today to the thousands of subscribers in the region.
"I'm the bad guy," Mercadante jokes. "Nobody around here likes me." But she says someone has to remind the distributors of the contracts they signed, has to reinforce their commitment to the readers who expect a newspaper when they wake up (and who are eager to call and complain if an edition is late or absent). "It really is all about the customer," Mercadante says. "That's the bottom line."
In her long career with the PD, much of the downsizing that she's experienced has been shared by consumers. The reduction from seven to four home delivery days, for example, complicates Mercadante's already complicated schedule — Mondays and Tuesdays are "skeleton days," she says. But other shrinkages aren't widely known.
"When I started, there were 17 depots," Mercadante says. "Now there are four." Whether or not there will be further downsizing, she can only speculate. "I think there will always be the printed paper. Will there be home delivery? I don't know."
Mercadante used to be a distributor herself — "distributor" being the new and gender-neutral term for "paperboy" — working a three-street route from 1987 to 1996 as she raised two young sons. She'd started on the path to becoming a dental hygienist, but working the route was a better fit with her home life. When she started at the depot, she was one of the only women employed, and she remains one of only two women in the PD's distribution leadership.
These days, she says she cherishes the slivers of time she enjoys with her husband — Saturday afternoons are special — and the fact that her social life hasn't been utterly destroyed. It's always a challenge, though, because, "If you want to go out, you're going to suffer the next day." She says she generally sleeps from about 6 p.m to 11 p.m., with an occasional catnap in the late morning or early afternoon.
"I'm eight years away from retirement and I still haven't adjusted," she says of her wee-hour life. "But the traffic? The traffic is awesome."