Oct 15, 2023

Stop and Wonder Why

Russ Smith

My full cup is sweet as the punch. What year is it (#291)?

Just minding my business last Wednesday afternoon, playing Meat Is Murder at a high volume to drown out the noise from the Baltimore City construction crew that's torn up our street, and torn it up again for good measure, for the better part of three weeks—blocking access to the road, as if residents don't have to get in and out—and then the workers disappeared (a short, union-mandated I’m guessing, work day of nine-three) and realized the Department of Public Works had forgotten to turn the water back on. Not like it was as disrupting as a power outage, but can you spell inconvenient? (Not a trick question). I took a walk outside to consult with neighbors, who all said call 311 and complain with urgency—"And do it at least twice"—and since I follow orders from my betters in maneuvering the Byzantine (that's Sunday-morning charitable, sort of like comparing Succession or Seinfeld or Matlock to Aeschylus or Homer) morass at downtown's city hall.

Windy, windy, windy, that's how this storm is going, but stick with this and carry on. I took the opportunity to clean up my upstairs office, which is a ramshackle mess, and was bonked on the head by a small shoebox of old letters from decades ago, and that got me curious, figuring I’d learn (or re-learn) details of the to-and-fro from friends and relatives who are all much older now or punched their ticket to either Happy Trails, Over-the-Rainbow or Oblivion, an open question for yours truly. Because… all rational ruminations aside, you just never fucking know!

I’m a senior citizen (though discounts are scarce!)—though not yet in second childhood—and I’m allowed to natter and natter about an America, for better or worse, that no longer exists. For your consideration today: when was the last time you received a letter from the now-dilapidated USPS that was a personal catch-up? Years for me, dating back to the Easter Rebellion probably, but oh what a time it was. (I think the rapid, if fleeting, popularization of the fax machine in the 1980s precipitated the end of personal letters, although it was a "double-down game-changer" at offices nationwide.)

I had before me two letters from a college friend in Houston—unfortunately, an early ticket-puncher—and though they were filled with some fluff (I wasn't too interested in buddies of his I met once in Austin), both missives were meticulous, one typed, the other hand-written on 10 loose-leaf pages, and not a spelling error to be found. There were a few white-outs, meaning he didn't want to commit his thoughts to paper blemished by grammatical errors, even though, as he noted in one letter that he was composing while hindered by a thumping hangover. That, right now, is remarkable, and wasn't uncommon: I did the same with the five or so regular correspondents I carved out time to send a letter filled with news, sarcasm, and laying the groundwork for a future visit. Needless to say, that care isn't taken today with texts; despite long resisting the commonplace sloppiness of such messages—all lower-case letters, not a dash of punctuation, etc.—about a year ago I realized I couldn't fight city hall (on lack of water or robo-calls about Baltimore's draconian curfew for teenagers). I was worn down by my kids, both well-educated, who text me in a Casual Friday-way, omitting periods and question marks, for example.

I blame a lot of the 21st century's sloth—in dress, attention span and whining—on Casual Friday.

It's a fascinating exercise in recalling one's past by reading old letters. The "headlines" stand out still, such as when one of my brothers, very tight on cash, said he couldn't afford toilet paper so used the daily newspaper instead, but it's the tossed-off sentence or paragraph that shed some light—minor at this point, but still interesting—that made me think for a melancholy several minutes. For example, Mark, my Houston correspondent, told me in one of the letters pictured above that he was working as a bellboy at the downtown Holiday Inn. "It's a good job. I carry a few bags, try to keep a smile on my face (sometimes difficult, since half the customers are pricks), and get a lot of tips."

(Coincidentally, at that exact time I was working at a retirement home in Baltimore's Roland Park, helping the widows with their groceries, and received warm thanks but NO tips.) Mark was also moving furniture while trying to finish a thesis for his college senior year; he ripped into a professor for his racism and anachronistic hatred of longhairs. Four months later, he’d abandoned both the Holiday Inn job ("too boring") and any plans for law school. "Why, I’ve wondered, does Texas need another lawyer? It doesn't, so maybe I’ll teach English." I’d forgotten the ribbing he gave me for taking an "Advanced Mythology" class in my own senior year, although he allowed that it was kosher since I was carrying seven courses because of past academic dereliction. He also wrote at some length about seeing Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson at a mini-festival; gave thumbs-up to H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Harold Pinter; and his dislike of Jane Austen and Henry James.

Look at clues for the year: The rings of Uranus are discovered; Spain legalizes the Communist Party; A.J. Foyt wins the Indy 500 for the fourth time; Pele plays his final game; Focus on the Family is founded by James Dobson; Rob McElhenney is born and Charlie Chaplin dies; Toronto Blue Jays play their first game; Led Zeppelin's final U.S. concert is in Oakland; Bowie makes music in Berlin; John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday is released and bombs, just like William Friedkin's Sorcerer; Colin Hanks is born and Peter Finch dies; Diane Keaton stars in her most iconic role; and Bill Murray joins cast of Saturday Night Live.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

My full cup is sweet as the punch. What year is it (#291)?