For some reason I seem to have less time during lockdown than I had during whatever the opposite of lockdown may be. Still, papers pile up and I have to sort and file them. That’s when I saw three letters. (You know, I like the Post Office. I always enjoyed going to our local as a kid. There was an air of expectancy, even before Amazon. And stamps were a kind of passport to another reality.) Once in a very great while I receive something interesting in the mail. These three letters were examples. Mostly they were examples of how little companies, and even the United States government, actually knows about me. I keep going to the mailbox hoping the toilet paper I ordered from China has come. Instead, strange letters.
One was written entirely in Spanish. Now I’m no “English first” fan—I’ve spent far too much of my life learning other languages to suspect that one is superior to others—but my Spanish isn’t exactly pristine. I wasn’t really even sure what the letter was about, and I wondered how my surname in any way suggested I needed a different language in which to do my business. I don’t know why I saved the letter. Maybe I figured I’d get around to translating it some day. When there’s time. A second letter was from a former employer of some seven years ago, informing me that I had been assigned a new password for the network. Now this surprised me. When said company asked me never to return, they intimated that I had to relinquish all proprietary information. I wasn’t to try to get back into their systems. In fact, it was their blocking of my account at work that was, in hindsight, the first hint that I was no longer an essential worker. A couple weeks later another letter told me the previous missive had been a mistake.
The third of the letters came from our own government, if that’s what you can call it these days. It explained to me that if I looked into my bank account I’d find some money they had magnanimously decided to return to me from the thousands and thousands I have given them unstintingly over the four decades I’ve been working. This letter, like much from the government, really served no purpose. Well, it was entertaining because it had a facsimile of 45’s signature on it. And the toilet paper hasn’t arrived yet, so I think this particular letter may be very useful indeed.
Reality seems more and more intangible all the time. Perhaps this is because I can remember a time, not so long ago, when sitting in front of a computer all day would have been unthinkable. Or maybe it is because when I stepped outside to go for a jog, I found a piece of yesterday’s mail lying on the front lawn. Not that it was terribly important, but it was a stamped piece of mail with my name on it. Soaked with dew. Unread. To err is human, so I wouldn’t have worried about it so much if it hadn’t have happened before. In my days of unemployment, I could hear the postal carrier come onto the stoop, talking away on a cell phone, negotiating the mailbox as if it were a nuisance. Then one day I found a bill that I had put out to be delivered on the sidewalk. The landlord once called, wondering where the rent was. We’d mailed it a week ago, but to this day, years later, it never arrived. I know I’m old fashioned, but a stamp used to mean something.
As a child I was a half-hearted philatelist. At the local hobby store you could buy photo-album knock-offs specifically for stamp collecting. Stamps were a promise from the government. I always considered the fact that they were engraved—like dollar bills and liquor bottle labels—to mean that they were serious. There was more than an implied contract here. A stamp meant delivery. Long I would linger over the empty spaces of my stamp album preprinted with the images of the missing stamps. I thrilled to find one of the Grange, although I had no idea what a Grange was. The one with the legend of Sleepy Hollow I coveted with all my youthful imagination: Ichabod Crane being forever chased by the headless horseman. Stamps from other parts of the world were virtually unknown in my small town. When they came, it was like visiting an exotic location in our own living room.
A few years back I noticed that stamps were no longer engraved. Printed on a printer not so different from the one that sits on my desk, they have lost their souls. Although their costs have continued to rise, they no longer guarantee delivery like they used to. There was a covenant involved. You licked the stamp, putting it in intimate contact with your body, and the government would ensure the recipient would receive it. I’m outside holding a soggy postcard with my name on it. This one made it to within just yards of its goal before falling, unnoticed from the hand or bag of a mail carrier. We all use email anyway, don’t we? I remember a day as a college sophomore when I had never sat before a computer screen. The world was right there in front of me, inescapably real. Something has happened since then, but I have to admit that I don’t miss licking stamps. I just wonder if reality has really changed.