This story of voyeurism, innocent voyeurism, starts off simply enough. Pete was supposed to meet a friend when she got off from work. He arrived two hours early.
So to kill two hours, I was just wandering around in the alleys, digging through the dumpsters around there, seeing what there was. And as much as I like to look through dumpsters, there's not a whole lot that I'm excited about finding. I'm not real big on eating food out of dumpsters. So the one thing that really gets me excited is finding other people's mail. I love reading other people's mail. I actively look for it on the streets and in people's garbages, in dumpsters, at post office.
On this particular day, Pete found a big bag of letters, maybe 100 pieces of mail, written over a year and a half. He's excited. It seemed like hours of reading.
They were in no chronological order, so I just had to open the first one that I could grab. And read one after another that way, which was kind of confusing at first because I jumped right into the middle of what appeared to be a relationship between a woman and a man. But I slowly put it together as a puzzle.
Here's the picture that emerged as he put this puzzle together. The woman lived in another country. The guy lived in the United States. And while visiting her country, staying in a hotel there, he slept with this woman once. She wanted to see him again, idealized him, wanted to come visit him. But none of these trips ever seemed to happen. Pete only had the letters that she had written, her side of the story. But sometimes in her letters, she repeated things that he said.
And over the course of the correspondence, all sorts of things happened. This woman went to jail, and then lied about it to the guy, and then finally admitted the whole thing. She lied about a daughter of hers. She actually said that a daughter of hers had died. And then finally admitted, no, no, I was just lying about that. And over the course of these letters, this woman slowly puts her life in order. She goes to school, she gets a new job, often taking advice from the guy.
I think it is just she never had somebody to really lean on and to seek advice from or just to tell her problems to, or at least nobody who was stable. And so he says it's going to be platonic. And she says oh, that's fine, that's fine. But when you read between the lines, she just wants to see him and maybe once they reunited then the sparks will fly again.
As he read, Pete started to feel protective of this woman. The guy seemed to be sending mixed messages. The guy, to him, seemed like a total jerk, really. He was always making her think that he might want to see her, but then he would always quash any plans that they had to actually get together. And this is the thing about reading other people's mail, as you read you cannot help but read between the lines. Anybody with any heart, any half sense of empathy fills in the details that are missing. You're thrown into this world that's part fiction writer and part detective.
I had to keep in mind that he had just thrown these letters out apparently. And so no matter how important she may say that he is to her, at some point he puts it behind him. These letters now are in the dumpster.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you documentary stories, original fiction, radio essays, anything we can think of on that theme. Today's program, Other People's Mail, stories of people reading stuff they're not supposed to see in the first place, and how it moves their hearts, and what happens after that.
Act One of our program today, Dead Letters. Richard Lyons walks through a car junkyard and finds in the crumpled up wrecks letters and notes of the people who once lived in these cars. Act Two, Thief. A college girl steals other people's mail. Mona Simpson reads an excerpt from her short story. Act Three, Saviors. A visit to the only post office employees who are allowed to actually read your mail. These are the people who deal with letters whose addresses are unreadable or incorrect or nonexistent. They open up the mail to try to get it to where it's supposed to go. Act Four, Voyeurs, in which our own Sarah Vowell picks a fight with me. Stay with us.
Act One: Dead Letters
Act One, Dead Letters. Well, Richard Lyons is in the band Negativland, which is known for using a lot of found sound in their recordings. And a couple years ago he put together-- he xeroxed just a couple copies of it for a few friends. And it was made of these objects he had found, letters and notes. It's really this incredible document. When you open to any page, what you see is, on the right side there's a photo of some smashed up, demolished car. And on the left, there's a letter or a shopping list or some note found inside that totalled car. He agreed to tell the story here. All the names and certain identifying details have been changed.
The inspiration for my project came about in the spring of 1994 while visiting a local automobile wrecking establishment in Contra Costa County, California. While searching for a Bendix spring for Negativland's company mascot, a 1976 Mercury Monarch Ghia, I made a shocking discovery. I stumbled upon a metallic root beer 1971 Dodge Demon that I'd previously owned and meticulously maintained until selling it two years earlier.
To my horror, the car had been broadsided with great force and the occupants had been neatly extracted with the jaws of life through a perfect cut over the edge of the roof line. Upon further inspection, it became obvious that the car had not only been wrecked, but trashed over a period of time beforehand. Curiosity led me to search its interior for clues on what methods of torture could have brought my once beautiful car bomb to this endscape.
And what I found was fascinating. The melted plastic seats and orange carpet were littered with an assortment of paper scraps documenting the life of a 17-year-old single mother and her tumultuous relationship with an abusive 38-year-old boyfriend. The car smelled of sewage water and empty Pepsi containers attracted bees. But I continued to collect and collate everything I could find, love notes, hate letters, personal records, receipts, photographs.
Dearest Jack, if you love me as much as you say you do, will you please spend time with me and the baby? You said you'd take care of me and I don't know what I should do to make you keep your promise. I love you, Jack, and I hope you'll forgive me for not being able do some things good enough. But I want you to at least be here for all of us. And I hope you can see my point. Will you please come back? Love, Erica.
Several days passed before I fully realized the extraordinary effect this experience had on me. I couldn't help wondering if she'd been killed or badly injured, and what about her infant son? Was she even in the car? Perhaps her drunken beau, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, had taken the Demon on its fateful joy ride.
If Jack doesn't want to be with me or Max, he can do whatever he wants. I don't care if he wants to do crank and everything else to get high. I can find someone who will be better for me and I know will be around at least sometimes and care about me and us both.
I recalled observing similar remains in other discarded vehicles. And upon further consideration, I picked up my camera and left to see what else was out there. The older cars were the most interesting-- unpaid parking tickets, failure to appear notices, unopened mail from collection agencies, lottery receipts, losing game cards from fast food restaurants. Then there were the letters. I found one letter in a 1977 Buick Regal, whose roof had been completely torn off and the body was twisted in half.
My love, Joe. Hi. How are you doing? I hope I can get through this hell hole. I love you with all my heart and miss you very, very bad. I got four months, that's 102 days here in jail. Joe, if you love me like you say, will you wait for me, please? Whatever you do, don't leave me. Come see me on Saturday. Visiting hours, 2:00 to 4:00 PM.
I heard you were here to see me, but I never seen you. What happened to you? Well, my love of my life, I won't be here too long. I'm hurt because I never seen you in court with me. Calvin said you was here. I'm trying to get a three-way phone so I can call you. If you can find someone with a three-way phone, please get the phone number and let me know. Well, Joe, this is just a little letter to let you know what's going on. When I get more paper, I'll write you more, longer letters. I love you, Joe, with all my heart. Miss you real bad. Forever your love, Debbie.
Joe, Virginia said you don't want to talk to me so we are through with each other and I am getting abortion. I don't want your baby, so leave me alone. Love, Debbie.
I photographed every car I searched and compiled the information in the form of a xeroxed book, transcribing the text exactly as it was written and positioning it next to the photo. I pulled a list from a crushed 1987 Volkswagen Fox entitled, What I Need. Couch, love seat, chair, coffee table, dinner table, TV, radio.
I found a writing assignment by a local community college student in a totalled Chevy van. Apparently, he hadn't learned his lesson. James D., English 122, November 22, 1993. One, a car accident two years ago taught me the dangers of drinking and driving. A car accident, it's bad. Two, Who? Him and his buddies. What? Drove drunk. When? 11:30 PM, Easter eve. Where? Route 11. Why? Young, stupid, high on beer. Three, Yes, he answers all questions. Four, Monte Carlo Super Sport, night before Easter, Route 11. Five, Yes, it all leads up to driving drunk.
I came upon a 1979 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, whose front end was so mangled that the engine was pushed through the firewall and up into the windshield. In it was another student paper, only this one was probably passed quietly in class.
Natalie baby, so how are you sweets? You look so cute. Say, next time you talk to Marge, tell her I hope she feels better. Why is she so sick? Well, how's your baby? I can tell it's going to be so cute just because you look so cute. Happy 25-week anniversary. Yeah.
So what you been up to? Since you forgot to write me, I wrote you. Cool, huh? Well babe, pretty neat note, huh? Not. I gotta go, but you better write back to me. See ya, Audrey. Tell baby I said hi.
I found a letter in a 1978 Toyota Celica Liftback. The car was so badly crushed on the left side that the driver's door took up the entire front seat.
Bill. Hello, how are you? I am OK. A week ago, I got burned on my right hand. We had a grease fire in the kitchen and I received second degree burns on my hand. We were going to make tacos. We left for three seconds and it went up in flames. That's why my writing is not that good. It's really not as bad as it sounds.
I can't remember if I told you, but I had a miscarriage July 8. But it's almost been a month and I'm doing a lot better. I was in the hospital six hours. I thought I had three IRs, but my ex-roommate, Michelle, said I had five. I'm kind of glad I lost it since I wasn't in love with the guy. I told him I was pregnant and he really seemed like he didn't care. That's OK. I didn't love the guy. He was hooked on crack and the baby probably would have come out mental.
Here's a picture off-guard. I don't have any more pimples. And I am not that white. My hair is getting a little longer and better shaped. Well, I'm going to let you go for now. My hand's starting to hurt. Write back, please. I'll enjoy it. After you send the money order, don't write because I'll be on my way. I'll call and let you know as soon as I get it. Love always, Ginger Joy.
In about a month's time, I'd collected more than enough documents to complete my book. But the act of gathering them had become an obsession and it was difficult to know when to quit. I finally stopped myself after an eerie discovery in a car that had been demolished beyond recognition. It must have belonged to a member of the church choir, and strangely, it was the only thing in the car-- a single photocopy of a hymn by Dion de Marbelle, "When They Ring The Golden Bells."
"When our days shall know their number, And in death we sweetly slumber, When the King commands the spirit to be free, Never more with anguish laden We shall reach that lovely Aiden, When they ring the golden bells for you and me."
Richard Lyons is in the band Negativland. His xeroxed book of crashed car photos and text isn't available anywhere. But the band is posting some of it on their website, if you're curious. The address of that website, www.negativland.com. And you spell Negativland, N-E-G-A-T-I-V-- no E there-- L-A-N-D.
[MUSIC - "STEALING PEOPLE'S MAIL" BY DEAD KENNEDIES]
Act Two: Thief
Act Two, Thief. While there can be consequences to reading other people's mail, a friend of mine told me this story about his first job. In this job, he was a reporter at a small newspaper in a small town, and they had a basic office computer system. And then one day on a whim, he tried to log in as the owner of the newspaper. For the password, he just typed in the name of the guy's grandson. It worked. He suddenly had access to every file in the newspaper's computer, every story, every accounting record, every email.
My friend says it was miserable. Most of the mail was depressingly banal, not worth reading. The main thing that he learned was that at the beginning of the year, nearly everyone in the office had gotten a bigger raise than he had. Reporters whose stories he thought were terrible had made much more than he did.
When you open other people's mail, things can happen, unless you're careful. With that in mind, we turn to Mona Simpson. She's the author of numerous books. This is an excerpt of a short story she wrote a few years ago, called Lawns.
I steal. I've stolen books and money and even letters. Letters are great. I work in the mail room of my dormitory, Saturday mornings. I sort mail, put the letters in these long narrow cubbyholes. The insides of mailboxes. It's cool there when I stick in my arm.
I've stolen cash-- these crisp, crackling, brand new twenty-dollar bills that fathers and grandmothers send, sealed up in sheets of wax paper. Once I got a fifty. I've stolen presents, too. I got a sweater and a football.
Mostly, what I take are cookies. No evidence. They're edible. I can spot the coffee cans of chocolate chip. You can smell it right through the wrapping. A cool smell, like the inside of a pantry. Sometimes I eat straight through the can during my shift.
Tampering with the United States mail is a Federal Crime, I know. Listen, let me tell you, I know. I got a summons in my mailbox to go to the Employment Office next Wednesday. Sure, I'm scared.
The University cops want to talk to me. Great. They think, suspect is the word they use, that one of us is throwing out mail instead of sorting it. Us is the others. I'm not the only sorter. I just work Saturdays, mail comes, you know, six days a week in this country. They'll never guess it's me.
They say this in the letter, they think it's out of LAZINESS. Wanting to hurry up and get done, not spend the time. But I don't hurry. I'm really patient on Saturday mornings. I leave my dorm early, while Lauren's still asleep, I open the mailroom-- it's this heavy door and I have my own key.
When I get there, two bags are already on the table, sagging, waiting for me. Two old ladies. One's packages, one's mail. There's a small key opens the bank of doors, the little boxes, from the inside. Through the glass part of every mail slot, I can see. The AstroTurf field across the street over the parking lot, it's this light green. I watch the sky go from black to gray to blue, while I'm there. Some days just stay foggy. Those are the best.
Once you open a letter, you can't just put it in the mailbox. The person's going to say something. So I stash them in my pack and throw them out. Just people I know. Susan Brown, I open. Andy Larsen, Larry Helprin. All the popular kids from my high school. These are kids who drove places together, took vacations. They all skied. They went to the prom in one big group. At morning nutrition-- nutrition, it's your break at 10 o'clock for doughnuts and stuff, California state law, you have to have it-- they used to meet outside on the far end of the math patio, all in one group. Some of them smoked. I've seen them look at each other, concerned, at 10:00 in the morning. One touched the inside of another's wrist, like grown-ups in trouble.
And now I know, everything I thought those three years, worst years of my life, turns out to be true. The ones here get letters. Carrie's at Santa Cruz. Lily's in San Diego. Kevin's at Harvard. Beth's at Stanford. And like from families, their letters talk about problems. They're each other's main lives. You always knew looking at them in high school, they weren't just kids who had fun. They cared. They cared about things. They're all worried about Lily now. Larry and Annie are flying down to talk her into staying at school.
I saw Glenn the day I came to Berkeley. I took a walk through campus and I'd been walking for almost an hour. And then I see Glenn coming down on a little hill by the infirmary, riding one of those lawn mowers you sit on, with grass flying out of the side. He's smiling. Not at me, just smiling. Clouds and sky behind his hair. Half of Tamalpais gone in fog. He was wearing this bright orange vest and I thought, fall's coming.
I saw him that night again at our dorm cafeteria. This is the first time I've been in love. I worry. I'm a bad person, but Glenn's the perfect guy. I mean, for me at least. And he thinks he loves me. And I've got to keep him from finding out about me. I'll die before I'll tell him. Glenn. OK, Glenn. He looks like Mick Jagger, but sweet. 10 times sweeter. He looks like he's about 10 years old. His father's a doctor over at UC Med, gynecological surgeon.
First time we got together, a whole bunch of us were in Glenn's room, drinking beer. Glenn and his roommate collect beer cans. They have them stacked up. We're watching TV and finally everybody else leaves. There's nothing on but those gray lines and Glenn turns over on his bed and asks me if I'd rub his back. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. I knew I didn't have to do anything. I just had to stay there. It would happen. I was sitting on his rear end, rubbing his back, going under his shirt with my hands. All of a sudden I was worried about my breath and what I smelled like. Glenn's face was down in the pillow. I tried to sniff myself, but I couldn't tell anything. And it went all right anyway.
I don't open Glenn's letters, but I touch them. I hold them and smell them. None of his mail has any smell. He doesn't get many letters. His parents live across the Bay in Marin County. They don't write. He gets letters from his grandmother in Michigan, plain, even handwriting on regular envelopes, a sticker with her return address printed on it. Rural Route Number 3, Gunn Street. See, I got it memorized.
And he gets letters from Diane. Di, they call her. High school girlfriend. Has a pushy mother, wants her to be a scientist, but she already got a C in Chem 1A. I got an A+, not to brag. He never slept with her, though. She wouldn't. She's still a virgin down in San Diego. With Lily, maybe they even know each other. Glenn and Di were popular kids in their high school, Redwood High. Now I'm one because of Glenn, because I'm his girlfriend. I know that's why. Not because of me. I just know, OK. I'm not going to start fooling myself now. Please.
Her letters, I hold up to the light. They've got fluorescent lights in there. She's supposed to be blonde, you know, and pretty, quiet, the soft type. And the envelopes, she writes on these sheer cream-colored envelopes and they get transparent. And I can see her writing underneath, but not enough to read what it says. It's like those hockey lines painted under layers of ice. I run my tongue along the place where his grandmother sealed the letter. A sharp, sweet gummy taste. Once I cut my tongue.
That's what keeps me going to the bottom of the bag. I'm always wondering if there will be a letter for Glenn. He doesn't get one every week. It's like a treasure, Crackerjack prize. But I'd never open Glenn's mail. I kiss all four corners where his fingers will touch, before I put it in his box.
I brought home cookies for Lauren and me. Just a present. We'll eat them or Glenn will eat them. I'll throw them out, for all I care. They're chocolate chip with pecans. This was one good mother, a lucky can. I brought us coffee, too. I bought it.
Yeah, OK, so I'm in trouble. Wednesday at 10:30 I got this notice I was supposed to appear. I had a class, Chem 1C, pre-med staple, your critical thing. I never missed it before. I told Glenn I had a doctor's appointment. OK, so I skip it anyway. And I walk into this room and there's these two other guys, all work in the mail room, doing what I do, sorting. And we all sit there on chairs, on this green carpet. I was staring at everybody's shoes.
And there's a cop, University cop, I don't know what's the difference. He had this sagging, pear-shaped body, like what my dad would have, if he were fat. But he's not. He's thin. He walks slowly on the carpeting, his fingers hooked in his belt loops. I was watching his hips. Anyway, he's accusing us all. And he's trying to get one of us to admit we did it. No way.
"I hope one of you will come to me and tell the truth. Not a one of you knows anything about this? Come on now."
I shake my head no, and stare down at the three pairs of shoes. He says they're not going to do anything to the person who did it. Right. Want to make a bet? They say they just want to know. But they'll take it back, as soon as you tell them. I don't care why I don't believe him. I know one thing for sure, and that's they're not going to do anything to me, as long as I say no, I didn't do it. That's what I said, no, I didn't do it. I don't know a thing about it. I just can't imagine where those missing packages could have gone, how letters got into garbage cans, awful. I just don't know.
This tall, skinny guy with a blonde mustache, Wallabees, looks kind of like a rabbit, he defended us. He's another sorter. Works Monday, Wednesdays. We all do our jobs, he says. None of us would do that. The rabbity guy looks at me and the other girl for support. So we're gonna stick together. The other girl, a dark blonde, chewing her lip, nodded. I loved that rabbity guy that second. I nodded, too. The cop looked down, wide hips, and the coffee-with-milk-colored pants. He sighed. I looked up at the rabbity guy. They let us all go.
I'm just going to keep saying no, not me, didn't do it. And I just won't do it again, that's all. Won't do it anymore. So this is Glenn's last chance for homemade cookies. I'm sure as hell not going to bake any. I signed the form, said I didn't do it. I'm OK now. I'm safe. It turned out OK after all. It always does. I always think something terrible is going to happen and it doesn't. I'm lucky.
I was walking just a little while ago today, down Telegraph with Glenn. And these two policemen, not the one I'd met, other policemen, were coming in our direction. I started sweating a lot. I was sure, until they passed us. I wish sure it was all over. They were there for me. I always think that. But at the same time, I know it's just my imagination. I mean, I'm a 4.0 student. I'm a nice girl, just walking down the street with my boyfriend.
Novelist Mona Simpson, reading an excerpt from her story, Lawns. Coming up, postal employees reading your mail and bending the rules for you, yes, you. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Three: Saviors
Well, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we pick some theme, invite a wide variety of writers and performers and documentary producers to take a whack at that theme. Today's show, Other People's Mail, how it grabs your heart, whether you want it to or not.
We have arrived at Act Three of our program, Saviors. If you work for the US Post Office, opening and reading other people's mail is actually one of the worst things you can do. You can be fired, investigated, imprisoned, unless you work at a Mail Recovery Center. There are three Mail Recovery Centers in the United States, in Atlanta, Sacramento, and St. Paul. Mail that cannot be delivered through any other means ends up there. There it is opened for a good cause, to look for clues to get it to you. Paul Tough visited these mail saviors in St. Paul.
There are a lot of reasons why things end up at the Mail Recovery Center. Someone left an address off a letter, someone moved and didn't let anybody know, someone's envelope got wet and then the ink ran. For whatever reason, it ends up here.
And a lot of it ends up here. There are 150,000 pieces of mail that arrive here each day. And the 75 people who work here all basically have the same job, to open up the mail, look inside, and see if they can figure out where it's supposed to go. And they see some pretty strange things, things that the rest of us don't. It's sort of a postal cross-section, a random sampling of what America mails. A clerk named Lauren [? Dicosad ?] told me about some of the things they find.
Sometimes there will be mice, dead mice, naturally dead mice. Or bugs, they're sending it to somebody and telling them to bug off. And they'll throw in a real bug that used to be live. Things like that. When you're scanning, you just open it. And then you jump, because you don't know what it is. And then you'll dump it out and you'll find it. Dog poop, we hope it's dog poop. Cigarette butts, they'll empty their ashtrays into an envelope and send them to somebody.
And that's in packages or in letters?
That's in letters. It's amazing. They'll put things in the letters that should never be there. Never, ever should be in a letter, but they'll put it in there. Tape it shut and throw it in the mailbox. And we end up with it.
The goal is always to return lost mail, if it's possible. Sometimes it's not too hard. There's a check in the envelope and there's an address on the check. They send it back. Sometimes the person's moved and left no forwarding address. In that case, there are clerks who scan through these huge computer databases of names and addresses. And sometimes they can find a good address that way. Sometimes they have to resort to real detective work, like Ken [? Grolkey, ?] who's been working here for eight years.
I came across a Christmas card and it had a bunch of photographs. And one of the photographs, there was a-- I know it was the person that had sent the letter. I could tell because she was showing off her house and her Christmas tree and her presents. And she was standing by the fireplace. And there's a whole bunch of her Christmas letters along the mantle there. So what I did was I took a magnifying glass and me and a friend were able to piece together her address from these five or six different Christmas cards that she had on her mantel piece. And a little bit of eye strain, but we couldn't get her name, but we got her address, her street address and her city and ZIP. Looked up the ZIP. Then we sent back her photographs. She probably never knew how we found that out. But I'm sure she got her photographs back.
Even with all these people making all this effort, only 10% of the packages and 30% of the letters that come into the Mail Recovery Center are successfully sent on. With some items, there's just no way to get them to their destination. There's no address, no return address, nothing at all. But then there are other items that maybe could be returned if you were willing to put the kind of effort into it that Ken [? Grolkey ?] did with the Christmas photos.
The question is, is it worth it? And that's when the job gets tricky, deciding what's worth sending on and what's not. Greg Hawthorne is the acting supervisor on the day shift. He's management. He's not actually in there, dealing with the mail every day. And so, maybe a little predictably, when I ask him how you decide what gets sent back, he tells me that you go by the book.
We have a-- it's called the Mail Recovery Manual. And I think it's 106. And all the regulations are in there. And we've had the same regulations for years and years and years. So somebody, somewhere down the road came up with these. And that's what we go by.
What that someone, somewhere decided was essentially what out of everything that we put in the mail is most valuable? Well, here's what the regulations say. Checks, they always get sent back. Legal papers, stock certificates, those get returned. With personal letters though, the basic rule is that if there's something worth $10 or more, that gets sent back, if it can. But everything else gets disposed of.
When we receive 150,000 letters a day, we don't have time to sit and read everything. So personal letters are basically shredded.
That's Greg's version. But when I talk to the people who actually deal with the mail, I heard a different story. This is Anne [? Zeemer. ?]
There are policies on what our limits are. But we make our own exceptions. If we see a piece of foreign mail, for instance, that looks important, a wedding invitation that would still be able to be returned in time, something like that, policy says no, don't return it. But probably, in my judgment anyway, I would return it. And most of those other girls feel the same way, too.
The reason for this difference of opinion is pretty simple. It's not that Greg is a by-the-book square and Anne is a rule-bending softie. It's not that Greg is management and Anne is labor. It's that Greg doesn't read other people's mail all day. And Anne, and Ken, and Lorinda, and all the other clerks I spoke to in St. Paul, they do. And that changes things. They're face to face every day with parts of our lives whose value is hard to quantify.
What is important to one human being is maybe not important to another, but these people that are sending--
This is Betty Jones.
And I'll give an example. And this is something that I do, which probably not a lot of people do. For example, people send little angels through the mail. And it's a real positive thing that they're saying to someone who is in real bad-- having a really bad life or they're very depressed or they're on the verge of suicide. And you kind of scan it and see that there wasn't maybe enough postage on it, there wasn't enough whatever. I send it forward to the person that they're trying to send it to.
And it may seem unimportant to someone else. And perhaps the postal service wouldn't think it was maybe important, but I feel it is. And I feel it's within our realm to make that judgment.
The clerks here say it's a strange experience to see into all of these lives. Strange, and not always happy. One day after work, Betty and I sat out behind the Mail Recovery Center, at a picnic table next to the loading docks. And we spoke for awhile about what that experience is like.
You see a lot that's going on, just like you see in the news. And you think oh, I see that in the news. I see that at work all the time. This goes on or that goes on. These people's lives change. And we see it in the letters that we have to scan.
Betty actually had to fight with the post office in order to keep her job at the Mail Recovery Center. She first came here in 1989, on a temporary basis after she developed carpal tunnel syndrome at her previous job sorting mail. But after five years, she was told that she couldn't work here anymore. They said that because of her injuries, she wasn't able to do the job. And that was despite the fact that she'd been doing it successfully for years.
She filed a grievance. And after a few months in limbo, she won her job back. And of all the people I talked to here, she's the one who seems to be the most affected by what she sees in the mail. I don't know if it's because of everything that she had to go through to stay here, but I think it might be.
It bothers me to see a lot of people that are in so much pain and problems and they're sending these sad letters to someone and it doesn't get to them. I've seen a couple letters that were like long lost loves, trying to contact each other. And it was sad when you couldn't find an address to send it on to or back to.
And then there are people in the world that are very needy. They have very little in their life. And you feel like you wish you could reach out and take all the names of all these people, which we're not allowed to do, and write down the names and addresses and go out and try to help them out. Just take up a collection for them or something.
I should say at this point that all of the clerks I spoke to, especially Betty, emphasized that they're not just diving into a pile of mail and reading through people's personal letters for curiosity's sake. They open first-class mail to look for items of value, things that are worth more than $10, like maybe some cash or a pin or some photos. And then they scan the letters. They don't read them, everyone told me. They scan them, looking for an address or a name or any information that might help get the letter to where it's supposed to go.
I believe everyone who told me this. I don't think anyone at the Mail Recovery Center reads mail for any kind of voyeuristic thrill. But I also believe that, like everything at the Center, the reality is more complicated than the regulations. And when you've just opened a letter from a child to her mother who's in prison, or from a man writing to his dead wife, the human material in front of you is so incredible that you can't help but scan a little more slowly than is perhaps absolutely necessary.
Someone telling someone, it's over, I don't care for you anymore-- or gee, so-and-so died, or so-and-so got killed last year, or your daughter is dying of cancer. People writing-- oh, they'll have maybe a birth certificate or something inside. And they're writing to someone, here's your daughter's birth certificate. You can take care of the kids. I'm leaving. Or people breaking engagements--
That feeling of personal connection that the clerks get from reading other people's mail is sometimes painful. But it's also precisely what makes mail recovery one of the most sought-after jobs in the post office. I didn't quite realize how sought-after a job it is, though, until I spoke one morning to Jerry Jacobson. He doesn't work at the Mail Recovery Center. He works for the union in Saint Paul that represents these workers. But before he got his union job, he spent 12 years working as a postal clerk, sorting letters. And he told me that about half the people who work in the post office work out of sight of the public, in warehouses, where they operate the giant machines that sort the nation's mail.
On the machine that we worked at, they would call them LSMs or MPLSMs, multi-position letter sorting machine. There's actually like 12 consoles. And it would take a crew of about 18 people to run it or operate it.
People would be sitting at all 12 consoles. We had a couple of people that were loading. And then people that were on the back side of the machine that would sweep the mail. We had to learn to see a letter that was on the machine, on the console. And it would drop the mail into a slot, basically right in front of us, one at a time. And it would stop in front of us. We had 4/10 of a second to look at the mail, read the ZIP code or the address, decide where it was to go, and then the mail would take off. And as it was going into the machine, we had 6/10 of a second to key a series of buttons as far as a code or sequence for it. And then that was, of course, computerized. So it would go into the machine and the machine would drop it in a specific bin on the back side.
Almost everyone I interviewed that worked at the Mail Recovery Center had spent at least a few years on a letter sorting machine, punching in 60 codes a minute, eight hours a day. Ken did it. Lorinda did it. Betty did it. That's how she got carpal tunnel syndrome. No one I talked to looked back on those years with much fondness.
But the people who work at the St. Paul Mail Recovery Center may, in fact, soon have to go back to the mail sorting jobs that they escaped. When I visited, everybody was talking about this proposal that had just been floated that would shut the Center down in just a few months. No one's sure now whether it's really going to happen. Information's hard to come by, even for people that work there. But next October, the post office's board of governors is going to meet to discuss the Center's future. And they might decide to shut it down for good.
A lot of the people I spoke to in St. Paul saw this as a symptom of larger changes that are going on in the post office. A few years ago, there were seven Mail Recovery Centers around the country. Now there are three. And there's talk of closing another one soon. The reason is that the people in charge of the post office have, over the past few years, been concentrating more and more on cost cutting, and that means automation. Every part of the post office, from letter sorting to delivery, and even to mail recovery, is becoming more automated. The result is that postal workers, the ones I spoke to anyway, feel less and less valuable to the people in charge.
I think it was you, Betty, who said that if the people at the top really knew what was going on in here, knew what sort of work people were doing in here, they wouldn't be trying to close it. What is it that they don't know?
They're in Washington. And they're far away from this facility. Some of them have never worked on a workroom floor. These people that are in charge of-- the Postmaster General, I don't believe, has ever been a postal employee. So they don't have any concept of what goes on in the system. The sad part is even if those people came here physically, they just-- I hate to say it, my opinion-- I don't think they would care. And that is sad for the customer and it's sad for the employee, because you take pride in your work and you want to do what's right for the customer. And these people are making decisions that are so illogical.
The great thing about the Mail Recovery Center is this, you've got this vast machine called the United States Postal Service, which is becoming more and more automated, less and less human. And then here in this little out-of-the-way warehouse on an access road in St. Paul, you've got 75 people who are doing work that takes brains and heart, that makes them fulfilled, and makes the people they serve happy. It's like the land that time forgot.
One of the weird things about talking to the people at the MRC about the possibility that they might lose their jobs, was that they were upset about it. But they also seem kind of resigned to it. It's like they knew that they were out of step with the new go-go, super-automated post office. It's like they felt that they've been getting away with something by having interesting jobs, and now they've been found out.
On the wall of the Mail Recovery Center are posted a slew of letters, mostly handwritten, from people who have had things returned to them. All the letters are filled with gratitude. And what's more, they all have this air of amazement to them. None of these people knew that this service even existed. And then suddenly, they got their insurance forms or their bank deposits or their engagement ring back. One letter that Greg Hawthorne showed me said, "We want to let you know how much we appreciate you taking the time to find our Christmas gifts. You've restored our faith in humanity." You have to wonder if 10 years from now, the post office will still be getting letters like that.
[MUSIC - "THE LETTER" BY MEKONS]
Act Four: Golden Rule
Act Four, Golden Rule.
Hold it right there, buddy. There is something indecent about the entire premise of this week's show.
This is Sarah Vowell, a contributing editor to This American Life.
The title says it all, Other People's Mail. There's an apostrophe stuck on to that word, people. Now, I know that it's small and you could miss it pretty easily. But there's a world of meaning packed into that teensy little mark. It connotes the possessive case. And maybe I'm being too literal, but the apostrophe draws a line between your stuff and someone else's.
Alternative titles I've considered for this, the Other People's Mail show, are None Of Your Bee's Wax, or I Got One Word For You, Gestapo, or Hey You, Get Out Of My Trash. I don't mean to sound self-righteous. Sure, what human being can resist reading over her neighbor's shoulder in the subway or looking in someone's window, if it's all lit up. But I'd like to think that in a democracy, in This American Life, Mr. Glass, the words personal and private still mean something.
Still, I have a job to do. And my job is not to prejudge, but to evaluate fair and square. So I went to Boston, as assigned, to visit Phil Milstein. He works as a graphic designer and lives in a normal apartment, filled with an abnormal number of shelves. He's a serious collector of other people's stuff, not just their mail-- crumpled notes he finds on the street, pieces of gum chewed by minor celebrities, and grocery shopping lists, which he scoops off the supermarket floor and pastes into scrapbooks.
Here is one of my very favorites, a typed shopping list. And best yet, they have cheese twice in a row. They really want cheese-- garbage bags, beans, cheese, cheese, lysol, rug cleaner, sponge, and bread.
And they forgot to capitalize Lysol, because that is a proper name.
But they don't capitalize anything. So maybe they just were too lazy to hit the caps lock key on there. It's a manual typewriter, you'll notice. And so I can forgive them, not bothering with the caps-- those caps locks are heavy on those manuals.
As voyeurism goes, the shopping lists are harmless. All Phil is doing is trying to catch a glimpse of another human being in the most mundane series of nouns.
There is an element of strangeness that this reveals. I think that you're really getting down into a person's real inner psyche when they draw up a shopping list. I mean there's something very raw about the way people write these things. And that's part of what I'm after.
Phil also collects those little pieces of paper you doodle on in art supply stores to try out the pens. And he claims that they, too, tell him something about the inner life of random strangers. But this collection is altogether more magical. Even though these scribblings were created by people trying to decide between BIC or Pilot Precise, they're done in very striking colors. And many of them look like fairly acceptable abstract art.
Some of them really do kind of reveal a person's subconscious, because when you're just testing the marker you're not really thinking about what you're writing. And so perhaps some truth might emerge that you're not really in control of. This person made some nice drawings of pirates or something using different colored pens and some markers. They're very colorful. And I think they're really pretty just to look at. This person drew a lot of music notes.
We're kind of skating on the edge of something that some people devote their professional lives to. And I'm flipping through this book. I mean, especially the abstract-- like you said the abstract ones are kind of the most beautiful. And flipping through, I think oh, there's Kandinsky, and there's Cy Twombly, and there is Jackson Pollock, and there is Helen Frankenthaler, or whatever. But it's not-- I mean, how has looking at these changed the way that you look at real art?
I'm not sure that I do look at real art. I mean, I'm a sucker for these clashing, garish colors. Like hypnotizing a chicken, it's just not that hard to get art that appeals to me. Just put a lot of nice colors in and I'll be there.
If I could, I'd like to just get a plug in here for Western civilization as we know it. I've always been more interested in the things you need card catalogs to find than the stuff you just come across willy-nilly on the street. I like James Baldwin and Pablo Picasso and Sonic Youth.
Is that it with you? I mean do you really think you just have low standards? I mean, what do you see as the common theme of the things you collect?
I think what interests me-- and this is almost in direct contrast to classical literature and art that you refer to-- I enjoy the snapshot of a moment of an average person's real life. I find it more interesting and more revealing than classical art or self-conscious art, art created as art. It's hard. You have to really think. And I just find the average person's work more interesting. Maybe it's a matter of, as a person of limited ability myself, I relate to that more.
What bothers you about excellence?
It's intimidating. I can't relate to it. It's beyond my abilities. And it makes me-- because deep down I want to be able to do great things, but I've never really been able to. So there is an unfulfilled desire that I'm forced to confront every time I see something great. In myself I just say, wow, that's above anything I could ever do. And it makes me realize all over again my own ordinariness.
But, I mean, we're sitting in this room next to your record collection, and I'm looking at it, and I'm like, there are the Stooges, who I think are great. There's Little Richard, whom some days is my favorite singer. I mean, this room is wall-to-wall greatness.
Yeah. But a lot of that comes from the period of my life where I was striving for that myself. And much of the more recent acquisitions is from the period in my life where I resigned myself to never being great, and switched my interests instead to documenting the abilities of everyday people.
[MUSIC - "ELVIS" BY PAULINE D. WASSILCHAK]
These are the kinds of records Phil listens to these days. They're called song poems. They're written by amateurs who answered ads in magazines asking for song lyrics, and studio hacks set their words to music for a fee. Phil doesn't just collect them. He's compiled four CDs of them and is writing a book about the phenomenon.
This particular one is called "Elvis," by someone named Pauleen D. Wassilchak. And while it has its charms, I don't think Iggy Popp has anything to worry about.
[MUSIC - "ELVIS" BY PAULINE D. WASSILCHAK]
Phil's most morally questionable collection is the bag full of a college student's love letters to her boyfriend. Not only has Phil read her letters, he's published them in a zine called Rollerderby, and put them up on the World Wide Web. Most of the letters are pretty saccharin, beyond banal. Many of them are written on cutesy, teddy-bear greeting cards. And no, because of that apostrophe I mentioned earlier, you won't be hearing this woman's secret thoughts on the air. This is a private correspondence. And even Phil can't justify his claims on it.
Ethically, this makes me scum. She certainly comes across as vapid. And inane as she comes across-- ethically, morally, she's clearly superior. She's trying hard to be a decent person. And you get that sense through her letters. And I, in a sense, am a total scumbag for picking apart her private life and making fun of it.
It was at this moment that I noticed that all the shades in Phil's apartment were drawn. He doesn't want other people, people like him, to look in. I tried to make light of it. But every time I asked him a question as a joke, he responded point-blank, for real. Yes, he has binoculars. Yes, he uses them to peep into windows. Yes, he'd watch you having sex and better yet, getting killed. And yes, he's seen Rear Window, six times.
And no, he doesn't want other people, people like him, to read his mail. So he's considering buying a paper shredder. They're coming down in price, you know.
Every time I go into the office supply store, I look at the shredders. And when they get cheap enough, I probably will get one because I do have personal things that I throw out. And I hope no one ever does to me what I do to them.
Sarah Vowell enforces her moral vision of the world as a columnist in the online magazine Salon, and here on This American Life. Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Paul Tough, Alix Spiegel, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Our current staff includes Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, Starlee Kine, and Todd Bachmann.
To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you know you can listen to most of our programs for free, absolutely free, on the internet at our website, where you can also find all sorts of stuff that we don't put onto the radio show, www.thislife.org. Thanks Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who insists--
I don't have any more pimples. And I am not that white.
I'm IRA Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.