Why I still cling to the mailman

A dedicated letter writer knows he's beaten, but hasn't given up.

Robert Harbison
Mailman Mark Mitchler works in the Redondo Beach, Calif. area.

I no longer run for the mail the way I used to. I remember, prior to the e-mail age, the sense of heightened anticipation as the hour of mail delivery approached, wondering what slender, handwritten treasures would appear in my box. I once received a letter from a long-lost friend and swelled with such joy that I ran the mail carrier down and shook his hand, as if he had done a heroic deed in conveying the missive to me.

Once a day. Six days a week. That was the rhythm. Through snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night. I first learned to love the mail as a young boy. The first thing I ever received that was personally addressed to me was from my buddy Duane. We had been the fastest of 9-year-old friends. Then he moved away, to Massachusetts. The parting was difficult, but boys didn’t cry. 

Within the week, however, there was a letter in my mailbox. It was from Duane, and it read, “I’m OK, but I miss you.” That first conveyance to me of a written word from a great distance had all the import of the first Morse code message: “What hath God wrought.” It was at that moment that I became a letter writer, quickly discovering that the more letters I wrote, the more I received.

I wrote letters through elementary school, high school, college, and beyond. It got to the point where I could comfortably expect to receive a letter a day. The daily mail delivery was, for me, like a beacon at sea – something toward which my thoughts began to move upon waking. What quickened my blood, of course, was the element of surprise: From whom would the letter be today? And what would the news be?

And then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the earth shifted. E-mail had arrived. Despite being intrigued by the new technology, I promised myself that I would never stop writing letters by hand. However, I had no control over the proclivities of others, and slowly, inexorably, and then with quickened pace, the letters disappeared from my mailbox, having been replaced with electronic “messages” (a totally different beast – in contrast to letters, all e-mails look alike).

And so, like a shipwrecked man stuffing notes into bottles, tossing them into the waves, and hoping for the best, I continue to write longhand, licking envelopes, peeling stamps, and handing my outgoing mail to the carrier who regards me with a curious eye, as if he is perceiving the last member of a species on the brink of extinction. But he must share the pathos, for the moment he takes my letter he invariably says, “Thanks for your business.”

Yes, it’s clear that he feels sorry for me, a man continually spitting into the wind and not learning any lessons from it. But I feel bad for him as well, trudging through the snow, only rarely bringing me a letter from a friend, and more likely delivering advertising circulars or an unsolicited “Open Right Away!” announcement congratulating me for having reached the final tier in a million-dollar sweepstakes.

But it gets sadder than this. Some months ago, while thinking about but not anticipating the mail, I noticed the lateness of the hour and my still-empty mailbox. By 6 that evening there was still no sign of the carrier. The next morning I called the post office. “Oh,” the cheerful voice intoned. “It got dark, so the carrier went home.”

So much for the gloom of night.

“He’ll bring your mail this afternoon,” the voice concluded.

That wasn’t true. When the carrier finally did make his way down my street, I signaled to him, but he shrugged amiably and said, “Nothing for you today.” 

I think that, at some level, I already knew that.

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