Thoughts on Letters In The Mail
When I saw the words “This week’s Letter In The Mail is from Sari Botton” at the bottom of Wednesday’s Daily Rumpus email from Stephen Elliott, my stomach dropped.
I hadn’t been nervous while writing my letter. There was something so uniquely freeing for me in the epistolary medium. Maybe it was because for once, what I wrote wouldn’t be on the Internet, searchable by certain acquaintances and family members whom I’d rather not have read it?
I’d also been operating with an outdated tally of Letters In the Mail subscribers. I thought we were still talking, like, 5/600 people, tops. Then, when I saw Stephen in NYC one day, he brought me up to date.
I’d said to him, “You know, writing my letter was a really good exercise, because with so few readers, I felt like I could take more risks.” He looked at me curiously. “What do you mean ‘so few readers’? There are 2,400 now.” Whoa.
The other reason I think it was so easy for me to reveal more on paper, through the mail, is because of a particular correspondence I have maintained through the mail for, oh, 33 years now. My friend David and I have been trading letters since 1979, when I was 14 and he was 16.
It began that summer, at sleep-away camp, where we were in The Sound of Music together. David was going out with my step-sister, who was 15, but he and I had some kind of special connection. No, no it wasn’t that kind of connection. There was never any of that kind of chemistry between us. I would talk to him about my crushes and my first boyfriend. He was more like an older brother to me. And that has turned out to be some serious glue.
One day at Sound of Music rehearsal, David slipped me a note, which I still have. He’d folded it up and addressed it to “Sari, Inc.” When I opened it, I found what was basically an invitation to be friends. I’m not allowed to tell you exactly what he wrote, because I see that at the end he requested, “Let’s keep this between me and you!” (Which is why I have my hand blocking the letter in the photo.) But it was really sweet. And it was the beginning of a correspondence that continues.
Back home from camp, David and I lived 7 minutes away by Long Island Rail Road, 15 minutes away by car. But in that first year, before he got his driver’s license, it wasn’t easy for us to get together often. If he was visiting my step-sister at my dad’s house in Westchester while I was there, my role changed – I was relegated to being just another member of the annoying family he had to put up with in order to hang out with his girlfriend. So that sucked. Phone calls were more expensive in those days, so we didn’t talk too frequently. Instead we wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Sometimes once a week, sometimes twice or more.
In the letters, we talked about being unhappy at home, and wishing we could live at camp 12 months of the year. He wrote about his frustrations with my parents – especially the time they walked in on him and my step-sister fooling around. I wrote about the boys I desperately wished would notice me, and then, when I got my first boyfriend, I wrote about the ups and downs of that.
He sent me Bruce Springsteen lyrics, and wrote about how camp was the real Promised Land. He made me tapes – the first four Springsteen records (that’s all there were then!), mixed tapes with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, The Band, CSNY, and other classic rock/folk stuff. He was on a mission to bring my musical taste up to speed. I was raised by an opera and pop singer/slash clergyman who was in musicals, and so I grew up listening to classical, show tunes, and pop standards. I loooooved Liza Minelli and Barbara Streisand and if I was going to be David’s close friend, his surrogate little sister, I was just going to have to be a little cooler than that.
One week when his brother, Peter, was away on a school trip, David loaned me Peter’s copy of Quadrophenia. Before my mother picked me up from his house, David gave me a tutorial on how to handle the record without scratching it or getting my fingerprints on it. “You hold the edges with one hand, and the paper center with the other.” And he left me with these explicit instructions: “You have to listen to the record at least three times! And read the lyrics!” And so I did.
Sometimes I would include in my letters to David what we called “items.” They were little drawings on scraps of paper, and they usually had to do with B.S vs. B.S. – or Bruce Springsteen vs Barbara Streisand. I was mostly kidding around; I was really coming to love all the music David gave me. (Although, I can still sing all Babs’s songs on the Star Is Born soundtrack, word for word and I would totally karaoke every one, especially Queen Bee, if they were available. And I generally still love her and have many others of her records. Don’t tell David.)
David took his job of broadening my musical horizons very seriously. He brought me to my first and second concerts ever – Jackson Browne at Tanglewood in the summer of 1980, and Springsteen, at the Nassau Coliseum, New Year’s Eve, 1980 into 1981. He’s still sending me stuff. Last year, it was The Promise collection of DVDs and CDs. (Which is pretty fucking awesome.)
When he went away to college, and then I went, David and I kept writing. The pace of our correspondence definitely slowed, but we always kept in touch – and still do, to this day. There’s always been an ease for me in writing to David, no matter how long we’ve gone without being in touch. In fact, sometimes, when I’m having a hard time writing something, if I simply write, “Dear David” at the top, the words begin to flow. I call it The Dear David Method of Writing. I didn’t even realize I was invoking that when I wrote my Rumpus letter, but I’m pretty sure that’s what allowed me to open up about…well, you’ll have to read it. (I even drew some “items” for you.)
Lately my correspondence with David is mostly digital, via email and video iChat. Once a year or so, though, one of us will still drop a letter in the mail, and it’s so much more satisfying to both write and read. When I receive those occasional actual letters from David, who’s in San Francisco now, I add them to my collection of notes on the brown personalized stationery he had in high school, with postmarks dating back to the fall of 1979.
Here’s a bizarre fact about me: The most money I ever made came from working for the U.S. Postal Service.
From some part of 2002 to some part of 2004, I worked, on and off, as a freelance copywriter for a digital ad agency that had USPS as a client. We were tasked with re-writing the entire usps.com website, which was something like more than 600 pages. It was boring and tedious, but it was also both the easiest and most lucrative job I have ever had in my life.
Sometimes, I wrote maybe three lines in a day. Well, I’d write three options for each of the three tag lines, so nine – this or that about Click ‘N Ship™. (We copywriters called it “Click ‘N Shit.”) I shit you not, I made $75/hr doing this. Full-time, for months at a clip, as long as they needed me. Even on the many days I got to work from home and double-dipped, writing articles and essays.
Ironically, around that time, Time Out NY gave me an assignment to write about how the mail system works in NYC.
Among other things, for that Time Out article, I had to trail the mail carrier assigned to my neighborhood for a day. My mail carrier was a really friendly, jovial guy, and he got clearance from up top, so there I was one morning, hanging out as Joe sorted the mail. This is where it got a little weird.
The sorting area at the 10003 Post Office was a big room with lots of these kinds of desks with grids of mail slots climbing up from them. Joe’s station was next to a wall, which was covered…with Joe’s porn. Like, graphic porn. Blow jobs and people doing it, for example. I tried to avert my eyes. Joe got this weird grin on his face, and said, “Yeah, my lady co-workers are none too happy about this.” And then he giggled. “But it sure makes my day go faster here.”
I was stunned. I really didn’t want to engage with him about this, but I had a hard time believing you were allowed to hang porn on the property of the United States Postal Service. I had to ask. “They let you do that?”
“No,” he answered, shaking his head. “No, they do not! I have to have another meeting with my supervisors about it. They keep telling me I have to take it down. Well, we’ll see what they do.”
As you can probably imagine, this made the afternoon, walking from door to door with Joe, rather awkward – not to mention every time I saw him thereafter, delivering my mail.
As we snaked up and down the streets of the East Village, Joe schlepping two heavy mailbags on his shoulders, I tried to focus on other observations. Joe talked about the problems with his back, neck and knees. About how he tried to log as much overtime as he could to be able to make ends meet. “I almost never take off,” he said. “I can’t afford to.” You’d think that would also make him afraid to jeopardize his job as he seemed to be doing, but what did I know?
The more we talked, the more wrong it felt wrong for me to be making such insane money for writing puns about tracking and certified mail when this guy was breaking his back, literally, for barely enough money to live an hour away, near Kennedy Airport. It seemed so fucked up that there was all this money budgeted for advertising and the website, white collar money, but so little for the blue collar people doing the hard work. Granted, I didn’t feel bad enough to quit. But I never worked another day at the digital ad agency without thinking of Joe and the lopsidedness, the injustice, of our different pay scales.
I still think about Joe, and that cushy copywriting job I had, every time people bring up how the postal service seems to be dying in the Digital Age. I think about David, too, and how much we used to love sending and receiving letters. It was fun to get to relive that a little, for Rumpus Letters In The Mail.