Mrs. Charlie Manchester greeted me in her usual pleasant manner, and employing the freemasonry of the Railway Mail Service she said, "What do we do with the nixies tonight?" Mrs. Manchester's husband and my father were railway postal clerks together on the Vanceboro & Boston Railway Post Office, and out of curiosity, and not because I didn't know the word, I picked down the dictionaries available, and do not find nixies (or nixy, either).
A nixy was a piece of mail that lacked an address. If a nixy were first-class mail, it could be blamed on a careless sender, but newspaper nixies were on purpose. Well, if the Milwaukee Journal sent a daily bundle of 10 papers to Maine mail subscribers, the shipping clerk would stick in a couple of extra copies so the postal clerks would have something good to read. This was kind and much appreciated, except that after a "run" the paper clerk in the mail-car crew would have a couple of free copies of every newspaper in the world that had a subscriber in Maine.
Mail clerks, back then, had little time to read anything except the notes in their lunch pails from loving wives who wrote which bag had the cookies. My father and Charlie Manchester were "city clerks" and handled only the high-priced stuff (1 cent domestic, 2 cents for foreign!) but if they "cleaned up" their own sacks they would step over to the "paper" clerk, who perhaps would be "stuck" if they didn't. Being stuck was a disgrace, and it meant you still had sorting to do when it was time to push the pouch out the door.
So both Charlie Manchester and Dad knew what a nixy was, and so did all their friends, relatives, and neighbors. One of my dictionaries hints that nix comes from the overworked German phrase mox nix. That could be. Nothing. An orphan in the storm. A dog without a tag. A newspaper out of context. What do we do with the nixies tonight?
My father, when he helped distribute the papers, would pull out his indelible pencil (reserved for registered mail records, or "reds") and send a free paper to anybody who came to mind. My dad was partial to a Polish newspaper published in Pennsylvania. Maine had a lot of Slavic people who subscribed, and Dad knew the Karkos and Janosco and Yenco addresses. Then, he got a boot out of sending the Polish paper to folks he knew who couldn't read it.
Now, out of this nixy situation pictures the big difference between our old 3-cent postal service and the mammoth efficiency of today's 32-cent substitute. I must introduce Willy.
Willy Lovell was an unfortunate fellow in our town who missed out when things were served. A man grown, his mind was lesser, and he was a "town charge." Everybody loved Willy and spoke to him, and I believe he was the only town pauper ever to leave an estate when he died. The selectmen bought him a shoat, and Willy collected swill for his pig. When the pig was butchered, the selectmen put the profit in the bank for Willy, always deducting the cost of a replacement shoat. Willy was respectfully well to do.
And every morning when the gentry of the town's business went to the post office to get the morning mail, Willy would be faithfully among them to step up in turn and ask if he had any letters. "Nothing today, Willy," clerk Percy Pratt would say, and Willy would thank Percy and walk away. Day after day, week after week, year by year, Willy couldn't read anyway. Then one night, my father had a brilliant idea. He took a nixy copy of the Polish newspaper and wrote over the logohead, "Willy Lovell, Freeport, Maine, Gen. Del."
"By the jolly jingoes, Willy, today you've got some mail," said Percy. Percy showed Willy where it said his name on the newspaper, and Willy showed all the businessmen, and everybody else, and then he walked away. After that, whenever my father helped the paper clerk, Willy would get his Polish paper from Pennsylvania.
THE post office clerks knew all about the nixies, and they knew my dad worked six-and-eight on the night train of the Vance & Bos RPO. They told townspeople, and everybody said that was such a nice thing to do. They'd see Willy walking home with his Polish newspaper, and they would say, "Oh, Willy, I see your paper came today!" Willy came to have a pile of Polish newspapers in the shed by his pigpen, and Elmer Porter, Selectman, estimated it at well over 300 pounds.
And one night on the train, my father sent a nixy of a French language newspaper to Willy, and when Willy got it he handed it back to Percy Pratt with, "some mistake, this isn't mine!"
Another newspaper story you may like is about Captain Potter. He was a blue-water man, and after the gold rush made three-month voyages to Australia. Before clearing New York Harbor for such a voyage, he'd go to a junkyard and buy a bale of old newspapers. At sea he needed something to read, and it didn't make any difference out there what day it was. He said one time after three days at sea, he opened the bale and found it had been bundled in the German section of New York City. He had about 150 copies of Hamburger Adenblatt, and didn't know a word of German.
"Somewhat in the same boat with Willy Lovell!" I said.
Captain Potter said, "Yes. Wasn't that a nice thing to do?"
Willy couldn't read a note of music, either, but he could pummel a five-string banjo and bring tears to your eyes. I couldn't read Polish either, and I couldn't strum a banjo. I did wonder some about that. There are lots of ways to be a nixy.