I was forbidden from watching television after school before my parents came home. My only choices were doing homework or doing chores. This meant scrubbing toilets to avoid solving geometric proofs, and vice versa.
The trip to get the mail broke up long afternoons. Our mail carrier was punctual, coming at around 4:00 each afternoon. Mail delivery not only marked the halfway point between school and my parents’ return, it temporarily erased the lines between the drudgery of after school and the magic of The World Out There.
Once the mail truck pulled away, I’d wait a moment – I didn’t want to seem desperate – before running down the driveway. In the mailbox were mostly bills and bulk mailings for my parents nestled inside the curve of rolled-up news magazines and catalogues, all of which I’d thumb through as I walked back to the house, mostly out of curiosity about what’s going on in a place that I didn’t have to help clean. Catalogs of fashions for resorts we’d never visit mixed with tri-colored mailings for septic system maintenance. Occasionally the corner of a splashy, oversized envelope poked out of the stack with promises of birthday cards and perhaps a $10 bill.
One day in the early 80s, word spread that several million households would get a sample of gumballs made with a new artificial sweetener. I began staring out the window by the front door, running down that driveway every day to beat my siblings to the mailbox, now not caring how desperate I seemed. I wanted that gum, and the waiting only enhanced the experience. Finally, we got a pack of five gumballs attached to a bright post card. I didn’t bother to wait until I brought the mail in until I popped one perfectly red on out of the cellophane and into my mouth. It was fine, but, more important, it was mine. That gumball was the wave of progress, and chewing it first meant I was on the cutting edge of something. No longer a homebound nerd in the suburbs, but something better. Something…almost trendy. I pocketed the rest and buried the postcard in the garbage under a used coffee filter.
The mail is delicious anticipation. Waiting for email, on the other hand, is nothing but frustration. “WiFi problems” or “Technical issues with service providers” doesn’t have the same romantic infuriation as “My letter didn’t arrive today.”
What was it about those letters and small packages and bulk mailings and periodicals? Were they a break from the world or a connection to them? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between, amid a marketers’ manipulation of reality and a young girl’s flights of fancy.
I still get magazines (you hush now) and have a stack to go through in a mythical place called “When I Have Time.” Getting them delivered provides a jolt of serotonin. You’ve Got Mail from The World.
These days our mail has become spotty – for the first time since we’ve moved here we’ve had stretches of days with no mail whatsoever. Coincidence or political shenanigans I can’t say. But even when the mail is junk, it’s still mail.
Woe is the day when the truck doesn’t stop. The world stays far away then.