Things I Get In the Mail, or Welcome to America

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Like most people, or at least those over the age of 30, I’ve been getting mail for almost my entire life. For most of that time, it was something I looked forward to. How could I not? As a kid, it was mostly birthday cards with checks from relatives and letters from pen pals — kids from school who I didn’t see much during the summer, friends I met during our summer vacation at Indian Lake and kept in touch with, or friends who moved away. Or the J. Crew catalog, for which I lived, and the packages that ensued. It wasn’t much different in college. I’d order clothes and correspond with my friends from home during the school year, with my friends from college during the summers, and with everyone when I traveled abroad. Postcards from far away places were the most fun to send and receive, so I’d always make the effort to send those to family and friends, even though buying stamps could be a challenge in a European country where you didn’t speak the language and they sold them in odd places (incredibly, in this era of smoking being banned everywhere, tabacs are still a thing), and that you basically had to buy and write the cards the day you arrived to ensure they’d get home before you did. I also used to really enjoy picking out birthday cards for my friends that I thought suited them, and I continued to send those, with a long catch-up note, probably through my 20s.

Once I became a real adult, mail became a lot less lighthearted — probably around the time I started getting bills that way. When I got a bunch of nasty letters from collection agencies regarding my student loans, that just solidified how un-fun mail could be. Around that same time, though, I also started receiving paychecks via mail, so I guess the two things kind of balanced each other out. But in both ways, figuring out that mail wasn’t just about getting fun stuff was my gateway into responsible adulthood.

Now, nearly all of my correspondence takes place over email and on Facebook, with a smattering of Twitter. Getting the almost immediate gratification of connecting with someone far away (or not) in a matter of hours, minutes, or sometimes seconds is pretty phenomenal, even though I’m so used to it at this point that not hearing back from someone I email within a day has me convinced they don’t like me any more (unless they’re someone who I know doesn’t check email every six seconds like I do. Those luddites — you know who you are — get a pass). I was actually introduced to Facebook by friends I met traveling in Guatemala and Argentina in 2006/2007, people who I’d most likely have lost touch with if it didn’t exist. While there are days when I truly wish it didn’t (probably every day since the 2016 presidential campaign started in, oh, 2014), Facebook and Instagram have ended up being a great way of finding out what’s going on with those and many other folks, such as friends from other eras of my life who now live far away, and their parents; subjects from my documentaries, some of whom were barely more than toddlers when I first met them and are now actually old enough to use social media without violating their guidelines (talk about things that make you feel old); and people from work who I may only see once a year if that, but who always like my photos (you also probably know who you are, and thank you).

But as a result, I have completely stopped writing letters, and, for the most part, getting them. For a while I still sent postcards and birthday cards and holiday cards, but eventually I just felt like they were time-consuming and unnecessary in the age of the Internet. I replaced the birthday cards with e-cards, and then, when people told me they found the e-cards annoying (again, you know who you are), I just went with Facebook posts and maybe texts or e-cards for people who didn’t have Facebook, taking the attitude that if they didn’t like the e-cards they should just have joined Facebook, even though I kind of knew that people who didn’t want to join Facebook were exactly the type of people who would hate e-cards. But it’s the 21st century, this is how we do, or I do, because I never have enough time for anything (remember, I generally have 2-3 jobs I’m getting paid for and 2-4 that I don’t. Plus the time I spent on cards I can now spend on Facebook, and I do). The holiday cards were kind of the hardest to give up (see below), but also the cards whose discarding made the most sense. In addition to my time always being at a premium yadda yadda, I don’t really celebrate Christmas or Chanukah, and I don’t have kids – and we all know that sending pictures of kids is the reason for 99.9% of all holiday cards. I do have one good friend from college who still writes long, real letters when she travels, or when it’s my birthday or some other occasion. Whenever she does, I write her back a long email, and hope she’ll make allowances for the fact that she has more patience than I do, and better handwriting. I also started making all of my bills and credit card/bank statements electronic where possible, in order to save paper and end the overall negativity attached to receiving mail that I could see was going to come with the end of letter-writing.

In spite of the fact that I no longer get letters or bills, however, we still get mail, and I’m always the one who has to check it. Damon has a key to our mailbox, but it’s not even on his keychain. I asked him why and he said that, since he gets paid mostly by direct deposit and pays his bills online, he doesn’t get anything in the mail except junk. So I started paying attention to what we actually do get, and realized that there remains an odd subset of stuff that comes to us via our struggling U.S. Postal Service. What is it? I’m glad you asked.

1) Birthday and holiday cards

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A lot of people still do send me holiday cards, while others stopped sending me cards when I stopped sending mine, and because I simultaneously am insecure and have a healthy level of Jewish guilt, I manage to juggle feeling bad about both situations. And I also still get birthday cards, which is really nice, although, again, I really don’t deserve it because I don’t send cards to anyone else, see above for attached feelings (see, I even speak in email these days). I have a feeling that soon, it’ll be down to just my parents and in-laws who send them, and hopefully by the time that happens, I’ll be okay with it. This birthday card has actually been on my bulletin board forever, it was not recently sent to me. I used to save all of my cards and letters in old overnight or bowling bags from thrift stores, but I finally realized that I couldn’t continue the practice and live in New York City and not have the apartment of a hoarder.

2) Checks and W-2s for my freelance work

This is the main reason I check mail. My payments from Brooklyn College are now direct deposit, and my TV work would be too if I worked on one show all of the time, so the fact that I still wait for paper checks to come by mail is really another symptom of the scattered way I’ve chosen (for now) to live my life. At tax time, because I work for probably 30 different payroll companies a year, and they are the ones who are my official employers, I have to go through my pay stubs and make sure that nobody is missing (some production payroll companies divide themselves up into 10 different companies with slightly different nonsensical names like EEES LP and NTVUBTL for some tax- or liability-related reason that I’m sure is not related to making my life difficult, but that’s kind of how it feels). A couple of payroll companies do now put this stuff online, which is good on the one hand, because I don’t have to comb through my mail for it, but bad because now I have to use my own paper and ink to print them out and mail them to my accountant. I mean, I might as well be carving my tax info into stone tablets.

3) Correspondence from my union or my union health insurance

My union and the MPIPHP (that’s Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans, duh!) still correspond with me via snail mail. Biannually, I’ll get something from my health insurance telling me that I’ve qualified for health insurance (yay!), but that I need to send money or Damon will lose his (yikes!). I also have to send in my union dues over snail mail, and in return, they send me a receipt and my new union card — which nobody has ever checked, but again, being in good standing with the union means we don’t have to worry about some day losing our home to pay for medical treatment (ain’t our health system grand?). The other things I get from the union are these one or two page updates on what’s news for them that month, like when the next general meeting that I won’t attend will be, what seminars on how to operate a scissor lift or something else I don’t need to know and therefore also won’t attend will be happening, and warnings about things people are doing that are illegal according to union rules which I am supposed to report but prefer not to notice because who wants to get their colleagues in trouble?

4) Political candidate mail

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We get this from our state senate, state assembly, congressional district and city council candidates. This is probably the first one I’ve read, which should tell you how well these mailings work. Because of where I live in Brooklyn, I pretty much know the winner is always going to be a liberal Democrat, so these go right in the recycling. I’m sure some people do take the time to read them, and I know not everyone has a computer so they can look up who their representatives/candidates are and where they stand on the issues, but how many people both have the time to read them and don’t have a computer to do their own research? Probably more than I realize, living as I do in my semi-gentrified democratic bubble, but still, do they reach enough people who both care and would vote for this guy to be worthwhile? Case in point, I’ve looked him up and he is not actually my city council member, he’s from one of the districts next to mine — and I found this out just by Googling and then plugging my address into the NYC City Council website. Could David Greenfield’s intern not have done the same and saved his office some time, money, and paper products by not sending this to me and everyone else in my building?

5) Theater ticket deals and other solicitations from arts organizations

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I love the arts. Being able to go see plays and performances of various sorts and visit a cornucopia of museums is one of the main reasons I live here. I do like being notified about cheap ticket deals for opening plays, and when the MOMA, of which I am a member, sends me info about their latest exhibitions. But the thing is, I already get all of this stuff via email. Do you people in snail mail and the people in email marketing not talk to each other? Why not? Couldn’t you even perhaps be the same people? No, of course not, silly question.

6) Just plain advertising

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Now we consume most of our advertising online — and the fact that advertisers still haven’t figure out the best way to do that should be evident to everyone who has to look at those horrible click-bait ads in the weather.com app that always involve some skin disease or someone really overweight or how much you are losing in mortgage interest. But have you ever looked at the ads for the companies that still solicit you by mail? They’re clearly companies that know their customer base doesn’t spend time online, or ones who think that a colorful piece of card stock with a 10% off coupon is going to convince them to run out and shop. That means it’s either discount stores, like BJ’s and Discount Shoe Warehouse, or businesses that we’ve already patronized who think they will get us to come back with some special deal, like Staples and the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team, or local stuff, like our friendly neighborhood dentist. I don’t mind the ads for cheap stuff or coupons since I am, as you know, a cheap bastard. I also enjoy reading about all of the Cyclones’ special promotions, like a Roger McDowell bobblehead, which sounds hilarious even if I don’t know who Roger McDowell is and don’t really want to know why he’s called “Second Spitter.” However, I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to choose a dentist on the basis of a flyer that combines poor font choices and stock photos with a tag line promising “Healthy Teeth and Gums for Life,” – not to mention that it’s welcoming me to a neighborhood I’ve already been living in for almost seven years. I know that all advertising is really about fear and sex on some level, but it feels to me like the ads I get in the mail are aimed at people who are easy prey, probably because they’re in poor financial straits or otherwise easily sucked in by taglines like, “Reminder: don’t miss out!” I find it sad to think that such ads might actually work on my neighbors, and then I wonder if the ones who they work on are the same people I saw on that map the New York Times put together, of How Every New York City Neighborhood Voted in the Republican Primary, who voted for Donald Trump. And then I’m both depressed and annoyed.

7) Credit card offers

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If you don’t think the credit card industry is taking advantage of people, look no further than your mailbox. I already have too many credit cards and don’t need to get these every week, along with balance transfer “checks” begging me to move my debt to their card.*

*for an exorbitant fee asterisked at the bottom in teeny tiny print. Who doesn’t know at this point that that 0% APR is going to jump to 20% right when you’ve forgotten about it? Again, for easy prey, so again, annoyed and depressed. 

8) Mailings from our local licensed real estate salespeople

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This is another kind of advertising that is ubiquitous in any gentrifying area in Brooklyn. Ryan Roberts, wants me (or not me, since this was actually sent to someone who hasn’t lived at our address for at least 12 years, which is a whole other issue I have with the mail) to know how much apartments like mine are selling for, in case I want to call him to sell or buy. Does he think a mailing like this will convince me to do one of those things, or that I’m more likely to hire him because I’ve seen his professionally-styled-and-lit headshot? The whole thing about putting your picture on your ads I just don’t get. And while it is somewhat helpful to know what a one-bedroom like ours is going for, because some day we probably will sell, I could also walk by one of the zillion real estate brokers’ offices that have taken over a ridiculous percentage the commercial real estate in Brooklyn (how many are there in Park Slope now? Like, 50? I’m not exaggerating). So, again, an unnecessary waste of card stock, and also an unhappy reminder of the fact that soon, nobody not in the 1% will be able to afford to live within the five boroughs.

9) Statements from Apple Bank

We’ve officially stopped getting all of our bills via snail mail because we signed up for paperless notifications, and the same is true of all of my bank statements except one: Apple Bank. This is because Apple Bank exists in another era, I think most likely the 80s, as evidenced by this picture Damon took of the machine on which we validated our bank cards and pin codes. 

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As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a fascinating place visit. Our banker is a nice Russian lady who always wears something low-cut and leopard print, and who puts on her makeup with many large trowels — eyeliner that swooshes out to her profile, shadow in multiple colors, the eyebrows completely removed and drawn back on in attention-getting black even though her hair is dyed a bright red. Any visit, like our most recent one, includes a conversation shouted back and forth across the office:

“Jennifer!”

“What?”

“Guess who opened account for them at Court Street branch!”

“Who?”

“Carol! Who used to work here!”

“Carol?”

“Yeah, remember how she moved to Court Street? Small world!”

“How about that!”

So yeah, no surprise that they don’t do electronic statements. I recently signed up for online banking and it turns out you can only look at your account, you can’t actually do anything with it. I guess we can’t complain though, since we had to open a business account for our Rustle Works LLC, and picked a tiny bank because they had no fees to match the no money that we have in it.

10) Magazines I read

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This is just one magazine, actually, The New Yorker. See this pile? See that it’s not only in the basket but underneath the basket? Remember what I said about not wanting to live like a hoarder? Well, this is the one area in which I’ve given up. I can’t keep up with the one weekly magazine that I really want to read and am afraid to throw away for fear of missing something good. Maybe I could keep up if I spent less time on my phone during my train time and downtime at work — keeping up with email and Facebook, but also playing Carcassonne and now Pokemon Go (I try to justify it by saying that we design games, even though we most likely will never design anything like Pokemon Go. Really, I’m just a 47-year-old who misses collecting stuffed animals) — and if I also read it before going to bed instead of the five pages of whatever book I’m currently reading on my Kindle. But then I’d have to avoid the articles that are upsetting enough to keep me awake, and it still probably wouldn’t be enough.

11) Magazines I don’t read

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Because I’m a member of the Independent Feature Project or IFP, I get Filmmaker Magazine, and because I’m a Stanford alumna, I get Stanford Magazine. I don’t have time to read either one, which really means I don’t make time to read them, because I don’t want to. I love my alma mater, and I stay a member of IFP so that I can go to their events (even though I never do) and free Spirit Awards screenings (although I hardly ever do), but I really wish they didn’t send me magazines unsolicited that I have to feel, yes, guilty about not reading. They generally sit on the mail pile until it gets too big, and then end up in the recycling.

12) Solicitations from charities

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Damon and I give a fair amount to charity, but the frustrating thing is that, the more you give, the more mail (and email) you get asking you to give. There are so many worthy causes, not least of all, probably, Disabled American Veterans, who I know nothing about, they just happened to be in the pile when I decided to write this. But I really dislike when charities give you free stuff, like mailing labels or cards, expecting you to then feel obligated to make a contribution. Again, as a cheap bastard I love free stuff, but not when it has strings attached. I mean, shouldn’t I give to your cause because I believe in it and know that my money is going to go to people in need rather than to making mailing labels with someone’s name on them that will just make them feel bad when they throw them away? And you already know how I feel about the manipulative, grab-you-by-the-emotions tagline – complete with the annoying asterisk they borrowed from the credit card industry: 

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On a certain level, I suppose a piece of mail like this should be celebrated, because eliciting the response, “Oh fuck you ‘Women for Women’” from a feminist who really wants to support causes that support women is an impressive achievement. Needless to say, it went right in the recycling, unopened.

13) Catalogs

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Here’s another thing that it’s hard for me to believe in the internet age: that people still need paper catalogs. I haven’t bought anything at Crate & Barrel in probably 20 years. I kind of thought that they, like Conrans, no longer existed, and I am certainly not about to run out and buy a marble disk topped by a glass pyramid with a nipple on top to display my cheese. But this catalog, again, wasn’t addressed to me, it’s legacy mail addressed to “So-and-So or current resident,” which means it, like the Terminator, is just going to keep coming until the end of time (or until I blow up Crate & Barrel and then crush what’s left in a giant hydraulic press). We also get catalogs for B&H, which I know I am sort of responsible for, having bought stuff there online at some point in the past five years — although now that I know how they treat their employees I plan to go elsewhere (even though Amazon, my next choice, also treats their employees like shit, but at least they distribute the abuse in an equitable manner). Even so, why would I need a gigantic catalog when I’ve been making my purchases from there online? Yeah, see how it makes no sense?

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I recently got this catalog for the first time. It is the single most depressing thing in this pile of mail. Why? Because it’s a catalog for a union that represents people “who work in, or are retired from, New York’s schools, colleges, and healthcare facilities,” where everything can be paid for on the installment plan. What could be a sadder indictment of America than that? And for details of just how sad, just turn to page 31, where they’re selling a Princess Diamond Bridal Set for 26 payments of $38.46.

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14) Ads for radio stations

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I put this in a separate category from the other advertising because this might actually be the saddest indictment of America in my pile of mail. Not only has Z100 become a terrible pop station owned by Clear Channel, a behemoth bully of a conglomerate which now dominates the airwaves thanks to the deregulation of the industry in the 90s, guaranteeing that the ten or 20 songs on its playlists – which are really just basically five songs considering how many of them sound the same – will probably be the only music you’ll ever hear on the radio. On top of that, their big giveaway in this ad is not tickets to a concert, or a meeting with your favorite pop star, no, they’re offering to pay your bills. Thusly, this ad displays a combination of how untrammeled business interests are killing our society, the dominance of sameness and celebrity in pop culture, and the fact that our economy has all but crushed the middle class in a hydraulic press – all in one, neat, graphic design horror of a package.

It’s interesting that I started this wondering what my mail said about me and ended up thinking about what it says about us…right around the time I had a job inside NYC’s central post office. 

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Sure, it looks fantastic from the outside, but inside is a warren of abandoned, decaying offices, like the one pictured at the top of this post, and interminable hallways straight out of a Coen Brothers film, if there had ever been a Coen Brothers film about wandering around for fifteen minutes trying to find a bathroom. And while you wander the halls, you listen to the cries of seagulls who for some reason circle the skies over head (control-click on that and open it in a new tab to listen while you look at the pictures, that way you’ll be the full effect), adding to the eerie and surreal nature of the place that makes it perfect for filming dream sequences (which is what we were doing there), and you come upon crazy shit, like a pedestal for a missing sculpture, or a yellowing flier for a lost balloon, or a strange collage on a bulletin board that was once for mail handlers that looks like it was put together by someone who the postal system has driven off the deep end – all of which also seems like it just has to be the product of an inventive mind with a penchant for the bizarre.

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And so I leave you with this decaying edifice housing a dying institution in dire financial straits as a metaphor for where we’re at right now. We are a nation of people with too many messages and too little free time because we work too much and make too little. We’re struggling to keep up with how the world is changing and our place in it while being suckered into thinking we want things that we don’t need, and that the only way to get them is to do exactly what we’re told by predatory entities who have no qualms about using our deepest fears and longings to get us to give them what little most of us have left. It’s not surprising that Donald Trump appeals to a large swath of America right now, and even if/when he loses, the problems that brought us his candidacy won’t have gone away. We’ll still have a lot of thinking to do about how we ended up in this crazy place, and how the hell we can get out. 

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