Friday, March 09, 2007

This column appears in the March issue of Louisville Magazine. I'm pasting instead of linking because their web site is such a pile.

You've got snail mail
Normally, I'm not one to look back wistfully as the technology of yesteryear slides into the e-dustbin of today. It's never wise to become too attached to current technology. Before you know it, the object of your affection will become as charmingly anachronistic as free water, say, or paying for music. But when I learned that the US Postal Service was slowly removing its blue mailboxes from America's neighborhoods, I got a little, well, postal. OK, maybe "postal" is too strong a word, so let's go with "nostalgic."

According to National Public Radio (another quaint technology some of you might recall), first-class-mail volume dropped by a half a billion pieces in 2006, thanks to e-mail, online bill-paying, and the not untimely death of 105-year-old Milton Fergis, the world's last surviving letter writer. The precipitous drop in snail mail has prompted the postal service to begin removing tens of thousands of the chubby, blue mailboxes from neighborhoods around the country, robbing us of not only handy mail receptacles but also convenient places for town coots to lean against while complaining about the price of what used to be known as a "stamp."

The demise of those weird blue staples of American communication seems like a tragic loss, not only because of the downfall of the art of letter writing, but also for the goofy, human qualities of the mailboxes themselves. Doesn't their very design resemble Americans -- rotund, mouths agape, patiently waiting for a public servant to wander along and relieve their bloating pressure? How can such a fixture not survive?

And then there's their glorious contents. The letters inside those mailboxes aren't LG&E bills or Valpak coupons or your subscription to Conestoga Wagon and Driver. Obviously, that stuff enters the mail stream from some loading dock. Instead, they're personal letters: a handwritten note from grandma, a love letter from a paramour, or disturbing suggestions from that pervert who's been stalking you. The contents of the corner mailbox aren't sterile, machine-written missives; they're love, hate, fear, happiness, amusement, derangement. In short, they're emoticons. Um, I mean emotions. And they're all so mysterious, locked inside the metal mailbox bowels beneath that magical swinging door you have to reopen after you've closed, to make sure your mail disappeared.

When I was a kid, even the individual mailboxes appeared to have personalities. The one that stood across the street from my parents' store seemed official, like it could have been the mayor of Mailbox Town. The one on the corner near my grandparents' house seemed gossipier, as if it knew but wouldn't reveal exactly which neighborhood ne'er-do-well was most likely to commit a federal offense.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that turned out to be me. One Fourth of July, my cousin JC made acquaintance with the firecracker's revolting sibling, the smoke bomb - a tiny ball of fun that, when lit, emitted a steady stream of black smoke noxious enough to make a kid cough a little bit. (We could take our smoke back then.) JC had a stash of smoke bombs and we set them off wherever they were sure to cause the most annoyance: under the softball field's bleachers, under the lifeguard's chair, under the neighbor's cat.

To our prepubescent way of thinking, no two items were meant for each other like the mailbox and the smoke bomb. Not only was it a sacrilege against officialdom and a thrilling assault on the mailbox's dark mysterious contents, but we could easily skedaddle before things got too smoky. It was the perfect crime.

Wrong. Within about two seconds of the door slamming shut, enough smoke came pouring out to make the mailbox look like the love child of Bob Marley and Rhea Perlman. Within ten seconds, several neighbors were running toward the mailbox, shouting. Within a minute, sirens wailed.

And, alas, one technology that was still fashionable then? Spanking.

Of course, the corner mailbox isn't gone yet. According to the US Postal Service, a mailbox is "performing" if it receives 25 letters per day. So if you want to save your neighborhood mailbox, you'd better get busy. Just send 25 e-mails to… oh, no, wait. Drop 25 first-class letters in your mailbox each day. Feel free to complain about the price of stamps. Sure, it's a little expensive, but the mantle of cootdom doesn't come cheaply.

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