What Happens to the Mail

[Mailman]’s in the city now, neat row houses sheathed with flowering shrubs, big sycamores and square privet hedges; he cruises Schuyler Street, which bisects his delivery zone, his sphere of influence. He zooms underneath the NestorFest banner, makes a right on Taft, and pulls over between North and Sage, his favorite block for parking, in the shade of huge old silver maples that let some of the light through, so that when he returns the truck will be cool but not clammy. He climbs in back, into the half-dark, and performs the daily ritual of separating out those letters in whose company he will spend his evening. The work progresses with the speed of twenty—sheesh, almost thirty!—years’ experience. A personal letter, half-sealed. Another with the flap tucked in, the adhesive unlicked. A manila envelope lined with bubble plastic, stapled shut without any tape. It amazes and infuriates him to discover how haphazard people are about their mail: don’t they realize their privacy is at stake, their credit card numbers, their secrets, their nude or partially-nude photographs? Don’t they have any self-respect? Besides, a reader of other people’s mail wants a challenge. He wants to make use of the mountain of photocopied interlibrary-loan books and comb-bound self-published spy manuals and not-quite-legal mail-ordered instructional videos and adhesive-dissolving solvents and solvent-hardening adhesives and forgery guides and paper catalogs and stolen rubber cancel stamps he has stockpiled in the master bedroom. He wants the thrill of unwrapping without destroying, of removing without offending, of seeing without being seen. He wants the conquest as well as the content.

And so there is something infuriating about easy days, which this one is shaping up to be. Something depressing: as if his secret life is a secret not worth keeping, a secret nobody would pay to find out. To compensate, he sets aside a few extra letters: customers whose lives are usually too boring to bother with, or whose problems, interesting as they might once have been, have become dull through repetition. How many unplanned pregnancies, for instance, have to befall Jodie M. Steiner of 325 Creekedge Lane before she stops sleeping with her parents’ seventy-year-old neighbor (Thomas Effening of 327 Creekedge, professor emeritus of sociology and boinker of several other neighborhood nymphets of the past—a reliably interesting letter-writer, to be sure)? For how many years is Mark Poll of 830 North Sage Avenue, Apartment 5A, going to get drunk and vandalize cars in the middle of the night before he finds some other way to deny life’s emptiness? But you never know, you never know—it’s worth his while to check from time to time. He sets aside nine letters. A diverting night.

The way he sees it, his job is to deliver the mail, to bring it from the P.O. to his customers and from his customers to the P.O. This task he reliably accomplishes each day. What happens to the mail in the interim is nobody’s beeswax but his own.

… Today he’s humping: NYSEG bills. Fleet Bank credit card bills. Flyer about the school budget vote, once turned down, minimally revised, up for referendum again this Tuesday (“Don’t forget to vote! Your children’s future depends on it!”) Newsweek (cover story: The War Over Napster: people with no taste stealing from people with no talent). The Nestor Investor, a free ad rag full of classifieds (For Sale Nautalas (sic) Machine! Desperately Need Animal Cages! Custom Built Cedar Dog Homes!). Pottery Barn catalogs and J. Crew catalogs and Land’s End catalogs (models inside frolicking, beckoning, sipping beverages, enjoying breezes); Hold Everything catalogs and Sharper Image catalogs and Brookstone catalogs (the products labor-saving, class-enhancing, boss-impressing). He drops the mail into the mailboxes with a clang, thud, clunk (depending on the mailbox), knows there are lonely people inside waiting—it’s the best part of their day—for all this garbage, people who smile and weep and chuckle at twenty-year-olds on beaches flying kits in identical seventy-dollar shirts, they seem like friends, those models, lost friends you might once have known, looking awfully familiar as they tumble past on their way to someplace fun, joking, elbowing, shouting, laughing, and you wonder what would happen if you joined them, would they clap your back and invite you along, to pile into the jeep and hit the road, go camping, go to the city, anything? That world, you tell yourself, I’ll go there! But it costs too much to go there, or you’re too tired, or you’re too depressed, or you don’t have anybody to push your wheelchair, or your wife left you, or your head hurts, and so you stay home. You stay home and hope something good comes in the mail. You read the catalogs. You order the clothes and wait for them to arrive.

The mail privileges, it compels. It can make or ruin your day.

Excerpted from Mailman (Copyright 2003 by J. Robert Lennon), with permission by W.W. Norton Co. Inc.

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