Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Joy Of Letters

Originally published on September 30, 2011 9:06 am

Postal workers held rallies around the country this week, trying to save their jobs. The U.S. Postal Service faces a deadline Friday for billions of dollars in debt payments it can't afford. It's considering closing hundreds of branches.

Commentator and former NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins says she doesn't plan to cut back on writing letters.

The other day I fished the mail out of the box and there, among the home decorating catalogs, was a handwritten greeting card. I wondered: Who could be sending me well wishes all the way from Washington State?

My secret admirer turned out to be my long distance provider, which has gotten pretty clever about getting me to open their mail.

But I still get more excited about what shows up in the mailbox at the end of my driveway in New Orleans than I ever could about the e-mail catch of the day, or the hoots and tweets of what I like to call a-social media.

There are some things in this world that still should be done by hand. A thank you note. A condolence letter.

Last spring, I called a friend whose son had died. In the middle of the conversation, the line dropped out. A letter would have been a better idea.

The saddest letter I ever read was written in November 1937. It was from Joe "King" Oliver, the great cornetist, trumpeter, band leader and mentor of Louis Armstrong. Oliver was ailing and broke in Savannah, Georgia.

"Now Vick," Oliver wrote to his sister, "I'm going to tell you something but don't be alarmed. I've got high blood pressure. Was taking treatment but had to discontinue... I am weak in my limbs at times and in my breath, but I am not asking you for money or anything...[But] should anything happen to me, would you want my body?"

Oliver was dead by April. A tweet of the same letter would read:

"OMG, hypertension! Weak, but don't worry. If I RIP, WTF 2 do with body?"

Letters fill in the emotional gaps of our history writ large and small. And the best letters, the kind that pass from hand to hand, are material reminders that love once passed this way.

When Hurricane Katrina laid waste to my house, I was most sorry to lose family photographs and my small accumulation of love letters, which were both precious and out of date. It was somehow reassuring to know they were in my big wooden desk. Now, they are still in that desk, somewhere deep in a landfill, along with other desks and other love letters written to my neighbors. Maybe one day something stinky sweet will grow there.

Years ago, in a post office in Paris, I couldn't believe how long the French took to decide on stamps. The clerks and customers would pore over any number of choices and discuss postal aesthetics. It was so artistic. So impressionistic. So...irritating.

But when my turn came, and the clerk pulled out France's embarrassment of stamps, I was beguiled. I realized every little thing about a letter says something meaningful about the sender, and the recipient.

Makes you think twice about what you write. Today, I think I'm going to write a letter and I already know the ending:

"Love, Gwen."

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

For the past few weeks, we've been having conversations about the economy with people I met back in 2009. At the time I was traveling across the U.S., trying to understand the recession through the eyes of people in their communities. And no one sees more of a community than the mailman.

I met postal worker Mark Sinnen in Bradenton, Florida. He's been delivering the mail for three decades and proudly has the U.S. Postal Service eagle tattooed right on his thigh. As we rode along his route in his mail truck, he told me about the changes he was seeing.

MARK SINNEN: Every now and then you'll see the father of the family that you never used to see, and then he'll be home and he's in a foul mood when he comes up to grab the mail, not been able to find a job.

GREENE: Some of the people without jobs in Bradenton were showing up at a day center for homeless people, one of the stops on Sinnen's mail route. The shelter's coordinator is Martha Childress, and when I met her in 2009, she said she was seeing all kinds of new faces.

MARTHA CHILDRESS: We're seeing a much better class of homeless person now. And I see people that do this to me: Look, I have never had to ask anybody for anything ever before. They're really embarrassed about it. They need me to help them, but they're ashamed to ask me to help them.

GREENE: So that was the picture in 2009. To get a sense for how the economic picture has or hasn't changed in Bradenton, Florida, we asked both Mark Sinnen and Martha Childress to join us again.

It's been two years since meeting you both. It's really good to talk to you again. Thanks for being here.

CHILDRESS: Sure. Hello.

SINNEN: Hi, David.

GREENE: Mark, I wanted to start with you. You and I, as we were driving along your mail route, talked a lot about how you were seeing people who had lost their jobs. And that was back in 2009. I understand that your own job might be at risk now with the U.S. Postal Service feeling the financial strain today.

SINNEN: I've been preparing. My wife and I have invested quite a bit for a long time. I would miss the postal service, but we'd be OK financially. The postal service could either start excessing(ph) folks - the junior folks with less than six or seven years in the postal service would be (unintelligible) first, and then they would work up the food chain until it got to the older folks.

And it could also go the other way. Representative Darrell Issa wants us to get rid of the older folks like myself that have a lot of years in or are close to retirement.

GREENE: Well, you were so kind to let me ride along with you in the truck back in 2009. And I certainly saw a lot of Bradenton. Bring my listeners into your truck if you can and describe what kind of community you see every day.

SINNEN: The last time we spoke, the real estate slump had hit my blue collar customers pretty hard. But now it's trending toward - the middle class folks are getting hit up. Some of them were small business owners or government workers who had pretty good jobs, placing them solidly in the middle class.

But since the recession has dragged on, I'm seeing indicators that these folks, especially folks with children, they're starting to get mail indicating that they're getting assistance from the government through our Department of Children and Families to feed and provide medical services to their kids.

GREENE: And so you actually ? you actually see, coming through the mail, I mean, things like food stamps, Medicaid, I mean that kind of literature going to families that you would've a year or two considered middle class, small business owners?

SINNEN: Absolutely. And they're indications that they're really having a rough time. Foreclosure notices, you know, multiple messages from the bank. It gives you an indication that not all is well with their housing situation.

GREENE: And, Martha, let me turn to you. One of the stories that we've been following nationally is the poverty rate. The numbers tell us that more Americans are living in poverty right now than at any time in at least 50 years. Does that surprise you based on what you're seeing every day at the shelter?

CHILDRESS: No. Two or three years ago, I would see 250 visits in a month. At that time I could put all of my new clients onto one sheet of paper and have a lot of paper left over. And now I turn in six to eight absolutely, completely full sheets of paper.

There are people that have done everything that they've ever been told to do to be successful - go to school, don't drink, be on time for your job. They've done all of that. Now not only have they lost their jobs, but they've lost their confidence.

GREENE: Are there jobs in Bradenton right now? Have you seen people, you know, able to leave the center and they come in and say, Martha, I've got a job?

CHILDRESS: Not so much. Well, there's restaurant jobs. There's telemarketing jobs. But most of the really good jobs that are out there the people who's got them are hanging on for dear life.

GREENE: I wanted to just ask both you briefly to step back a little, if you can, and give me a sense of your optimism right now that, you know, things, the economy, are going to get better at some point soon. Mark, I'll start with you.

SINNEN: I'm not too optimistic. For the next three to five years in the United States, I see that the greater middle is not holding up.

GREENE: Martha, what's your level of hope right now?

CHILDRESS: Good grief. I'll tell you what. Some better decisions are going to have to be made and it's going to have to be made right away. People in positions of power who have the ability to make these decisions need to start making them. We can fix it. We're supposed to be smart. We're supposed to be powerful. Aren't we?

GREENE: That's Martha Childress. She's the coordinator of the Open Door Day Shelter for the homeless in Bradenton, Florida. Martha, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today.

CHILDRESS: You're mighty welcome.

GREENE: And Mark Sinnen, who has spent more than 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Mark thank you so much for talking to us again.

SINNEN: It was a pleasure, Dave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.