44 Cents and Change

The price of a first-class postage stamp is rocketing to 44 cents in May, amidst a chorus of "tsk-tsk"s and the usual questions about what the U.S. Postal Service is trying to do.  Drain us (you can't exactly say nickel-and-dime) a penny or two at a time?  What they're trying to do, really, is survive with as low an impact as possible on their bottom line.  And their bottom line--like my own--is getting lower.

Mail collection boxes are disappearing faster than the polar bear (whose portrait is on a new 28-cent stamp).  Next year, my neighborhood will enjoy the convenience of trekking over to the main branch a couple of miles away, where the snaking line of customers is looked upon with a gaze you would give to a rash that needs scratching, to send packages and buy stamps.  

I'm having an "oh, brother" moment.  The hammer is about to drop on the post office branch at the end of our block, a place where the employees act like neighbors who just happen to be ready to mail, meter, weigh and ship your letters and parcels.  They'll talk to you about the new commemoratives and seasonal stamps as the conversation shifts easily to the weather in the east or, noting the destination, telling you about their cousin Clara in Bellevue, Nebraska (though the package is headed for Kansas City).  Even if you only stroll in once a month, you're almost treated like a kid home from college.  It brings to mind slower times,  the sliding state of "letters" in general, and the deterioration of a once-venerated means of chronicling families and their times.  

When it comes to surrendering to the easy and instant connection of email, I'm guilty (I don't "text," though, because a) "text" is a noun and b) if you send me one I'll mail you a response out of spite).  I pay my bills online, and in some cases the Internet has made it so easy that all I have to do is numbly watch my bank account fall like a countdown.  And I haven't mailed a letter in a long time.  My handwriting, from lack of practice, has turned to scrawl and looks like my 9-year-old is pounding my back while I write.  So I have no (jittery) fingers to point.  I confess that my passivity is adding to the end of something.

I grew up as a letter writer, first in the 7th grade drawing rude pictures (with captions) mocking the teachers.  Then there were love notes to Marcia Buttner, which I recall were as shudderingly bathetic and filled with a morose pining and self-pity that would befit a senate ethics hearing.  I still have a few letters my 5th grade pal Dennis Hord and I used to send, encoded with vulgarity, reviewing movies, music and books over the long summer of 1961.

I have the little notes from my Grandma Jenny; she had about 20 grandkids and all of us got letters throughout the year with a couple of bucks on our birthdays.  She never forgot.  When she would make what was supposed to be a wisecrack, she'd write "Ha!" in parentheses lest we miss the joke.  And they all were postmarked from the exotic (to an L.A. kid) locale of Moorhead, Minnesota.  There's a box in the cabinet of my dad's old love letters that my mom kept, sent from his Marine post in the Pacific during WWII.  They're filled with homesickness, bread-and-butter news, reflections on duty, dreams of marriage and children and stability during times that must have made all those things seem achingly out of reach.  

Then I think of the expense of my Internet connection: the time spent Googling "stick match production Germany 1930's" (which I will account for on Judgment Day), the unnecessary stuff I've bought (we're still stepping around the box of Bendaroos my kids wanted at some moment of high inspiration), and the imaginative and powerful cursing of a dawdling screen "refresh."  I also think, romantically, on how easy it used to be before things became so easy.

The coursing impulse from brain to hand to ballpoint pen, rolling across paper, leaving greetings, thoughts of love, complaints, reports, and surprises.  The ritual folding (in third) of the paper, and the reverent slide into the envelope.  The address.  The instinctive feel for extra postage.  Then the finale: de-perforation of the stamp, the lick, and the careful placement.  The mailbox drop ("always jiggle the door," my mother warned me, "to make sure the letter went in."  Presumbably,  so no one would get in and start a file on me).

Then began the magic.  And the waiting, as the letter--one thin vessel tossed onto the sea--made its way, laser-like, to a pair of hands on the other side of the city or the world.  I never gave it a second thought at the time, but today it seems close to miraculous.  How many hands ushered that letter along to its last stop?  Then a week later, a complete reversal as a response arrived, savored before opening, responses I will sometimes re-read even 45 years later.  I don't expect to ever have such affection for an email.

So now I am going to quit this and write a letter to someone.  I don't know to whom, but I'm inspired.  And if I can get it in the mailbox before May 11, I'll save some money. (Ha!)


  1. Dear Charles,
    Your articulate affection for letter writing is lyrical and contagious. I am going to force myself to find nice stationery and a stamp to write you a letter.
    Sincerely yours,

  2. I still get a thrill every time I check the mailbox, hoping something exciting will be in there, even though I hardly send any handwritten correspondence myself any more.

    If you get a chance, you should check out "Post Office" at the Kirk Douglas theater in Culver City. It's a musical set in a local post office that's about to close. Melissa and I saw it on Saturday, and we both enjoyed it.


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