The Paper Trail



            The highlight of my afternoon often boils down to two things: getting the mail and lunch. Since these two things coincide in my neighborhood, the Holy Grail of midday giddy would be getting a magazine in the mail. This would mean that there’s something new to read over lunch. Nowhere in my wildest imagination—which can get pretty wild—did I ever think this scenario would be such a big deal. I’ve had some lofty goals in my life, and while many of them have been reached, some of them are still high hanging fruit, but never did I think the serendipity of a sandwich and a fresh magazine would be such a thrill. This afternoon highlight hinges, of course, on the delivery of the mail.

           I don’t think Generation Text even knows what a mailbox is since all of their correspondence comes over 4G or WiFi in the form of messages, Instagram pictures, Snap Chat, Facebook posts or Tweets. I’m not even sure they use e-mail anymore since the laborious process of composing and reading full sentences has to be exhausting. As for using snail mail, I’d be surprised if half of the kids under the age of eighteen know how to address an envelope. Think about it. They are growing up in an electronic age where these skills won’t be needed, but just in case, there’s a tutorial on YouTube that starts out like this: “You will need a pen, an envelope, a return address and the recipient’s information.”

       mailbox 2015-03-13     For six days each week, the mail goes in our curbside mailbox, and on weekends, a newspaper made of actual paper culled from trees gets hung in a plastic bag on the knob. Apparently, the two can’t commingle due to strict federal laws that prohibit anything from going into a mailbox but U.S. mail, Avon booklets, and flyers for gutter cleaning.

            Since the advent of the Internet, or more importantly, high-speed Internet, many of our bills can be received and paid online. This is much more secure than placing a paper check and a statement filled with account numbers in the mailbox, because clever thieves can steal these envelopes, and by using skills they learned in after-school detention, they can access our bank account and go shopping at Target. This is bad, which is why paying bills online is more secure. It’s much harder to hack an online account because hackers are only looking for people with easy passwords, such as password, thisismypassword, mypasswordispassword, and 1234. which means my universal password of drowssap is rock solid.

            Besides being easier and more secure, paying online doesn’t require a stamp. Full disclosure: I have no idea how much a postage stamp costs. Years ago, my wife shrewdly bought a roll of forever stamps that is still the size of a hose reel, so each penny increase in postage rates rolls right off my back. If I had to guess how much it costs to send a highly paid union employee with a pension and a health care plan out in a Jeep that gets around ten miles per gallon, to every house and business in America six days per week to pick up and deliver mail, I would have to say a stamp costs around two hundred and seventy four dollars, but I could be off a little. Since my wife pays our bills, I stopped paying attention to the cost of stamps around the same time they no longer had to be licked.images

            Most of the mail we get is junk or bills, and I’m sorry to say that there are two mailbox traditions that have been all but killed by the rapidity and ease of the Internet: Greeting cards and letters.

            People used to send cards for special occasions such as Christmas and birthdays or maybe a new house or to wish someone a speedy recovery from some sort of illness. These cards were thoughtful gestures that usually included a short note in addition to whatever verse came with the card. Back in the day, they would also include a couple of dollars from Grandma.

            Mrs. G. still sends actual cards to just about everyone in our circle of friends and relatives for their birthdays, carefully calculating the delivery time so that the card arrives on or slightly before their birthday. I would have to say that she’s in the minority judging from the reciprocal cards we receive, but that’s OK. Really, it is. Cards can be expensive plus the postage and all that. It’s much easier to tap out an acknowledgment on Facebook, which gets the same message across and is a lot easier. At some point, she may stop doing it but since she still pays about half of our bills with a paper check via the U.S. Postal Service, that day probably won’t be coming anytime soon.

            I’d like to believe that these cards mean something to the recipients because they do to me. I’m a card saver. I have a box in my closet with greeting cards that go back at least twenty-five years or more. I’ve saved the cards my wife has given me, and naturally, all of the cards from our daughter. On her wedding day, I pulled out a free hug coupon that she drew with BEAR HUG 2015-02-22crayons on construction paper and finally cashed it in. That coupon came in a booklet with a handmade card, and I know it was over twenty years old.

            My mom used to send cards with little notes in them and she always signed them the same. Love Always, Mom. I’m glad I saved those as well as the letters she would send for no reason. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about my mother that was printed in the newspaper. Shortly after it ran, I received a beautiful handwritten letter from someone that my wife and I know. That was a few years ago, and it was the last letter I received in the mail. The art of writing and sending a letter has simply gone the way of rotary telephones.

            Yeah, I know things change, and like it or not, we often have to adapt to these changes, but this expediency comes at a price. Vint Cerf, a vice-president at Google, once advised people to start printing things. His concern is that technology and programs will change, and much of our pictures and correspondence will be lost forever, leaving behind a forgotten generation. I believe he is on to something.

            Five thousand pictures on a smartphone or up in the cloud are handy, but in ten short years, who will see tENVhem? Future generations might never see a handwritten note from relatives long since buried or photographs of a great-aunt they never knew, yet who looked remarkably like they do. Heck, my mom saved entire newspapers with front-page historical events under a couch cushion. That’s where Neil Armstrong stayed for years. It was hardly archival storage, but that yellowed copy was around for a long time.

            Years from now, I hope that my ancestors will stumble on the boxes of photographs, cards, and letters that I’ve saved and pour over them. These simple items may prompt them to ask questions or compare notes or maybe even help them to fill in some of the blanks. I’m hopeful about that because at some point I expect that pens and paper will be as antiquated as quills and scrolls, replaced by tablets and data that will vanish with the next upgrade. Being able to touch history and to be able to feel the past is important.

            That’s why I prefer to keep a positive attitude as I make the daily walk out to the mailbox, hoping that maybe today will be the day that something good arrives. Odds are that it won’t, but what’s the world without optimism, even if it’s only for one day of good mail?



           Those two envelopes pictured above were sent from Romania around 1902. They were mailed to my paternal grandfather, who emigrated to rural Great Bend, New York. He was fourteen when he came over on a boat from the realm of The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Hungarian Holy Crown of St. Stephen, otherwise known as Austria-Hungary. He left behind friends and family to see what America had to offer.

           I have no idea what became of the letters. As fragile as these envelopes are, I have no doubt whatsoever that they will outlive any accessibility to any digital format we have today. Think about it—do you still have a device that can read a floppy disc or a machine that plays a Beta or even VHS tapes? That was only thirty years ago.


Posted in essays Tagged with: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *