It was a dare. A dare I gave myself, but still a dare: “I will ride in a mailman’s pouch all day, and write an article about it for The New Yorker.”
“But how will I take notes?” I thought. “It will be dark in there.”
You will write by the light of your compass, I answered.
“Yes, that’s it.”
It’s surprisingly easy to slip into a mailman’s bag — especially in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, people think a lot, but in Brooklyn they talk a lot. They say things like, “That patch of ice in front of the building is really dangerous,” and, “You’re right.” There’s a lot of concern about what’s dangerous among the people of Brooklyn. That’s why they’re in Brooklyn.
“I went to this club last night — Davies’,” the postal worker said. He was talking to a lady postal worker, so they looked at each other.
“It was pretty cool. They had a big wall in the middle, and you could climb the wall, and on top was like grass and trees,” the postal worker said, as I crawled into his bag.
“Real grass and trees?” the lady postal worker asked.
“I think so. I didn’t look too close,” said the postal worker whose bag I was inside. “There was so much smoke.”
“Smoke? There was reefer?” the lady postal worker asked.
“No, coming out of the ground. Fog, I mean.”
“Oh, fog,” the lady said. “It sounds like a good place. Where is it?”
“Thirty-third Street,” my postal worker said. “You oughta check it out sometime.”
He hefted his bag. “Man, this is heavy!”
“Yeah, I might check it out sometime.”
“Must be those TV Guides!”
I smiled inside his bag. This was the first time I’d been mistaken for TV Guide!
“Take care, Carl!” the woman postal worker called.
“You too, Loretta. I’ll be okay as soon as I get rid of these TV Guides.”
We walked out into the street. Poor Carl leaned over almost forty-five degrees. I wanted to peek out of the flap and say, “Excuse me, I hate to trouble you like this, but I’m writing an article for The New Yorker. . . .” Something stopped me, though — an intuition?
We lunged down 7th Street. Carl would take a few steps, then throw me over his back, grunting. The TV Guides dug into my ribs. It was as painful as eating uncooked rice, but I could not cry out.
I wanted to read those TV Guides, too. They were the ones with the article “Why We Watch Commercials — Even When We Don’t Intend To.” I’ve always wondered about that.
Then a hand entered my bag. It was Carl’s hand, reaching for something. It moved along my leg, around my hip, down my chest and finally into my mouth. It’s true! It went into my mouth. If I had been one of the Three Stooges, I would have bit him.
But I wasn’t one of the Three Stooges; I was writing an article for The New Yorker. So I made my mouth dry as paper, and my tongue very thin, so he’d think it was a letter. It must’ve worked, because his hand moved on.
We began to rise.
How can I explain what it’s like to have TV Guides pressed against every part of your skin? In front of my eyes were the words “Doral Lights,” larger than an elephant.
Mail all over the body feels like hands. I think it’s quite healthy, mail massage. But very few will ever feel it.
Few will ever wash windows professionally, as well. I’ve met hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in my life. Never have I met a window washer — or a person who was once a window washer. Where do window washers come from? One imagines them meeting every morning, after work (don’t they work at night?) at a clam bar on the West Side, and telling window-washing stories till they’re ready to go to sleep.
But are they capable of love, window washers? Somehow I doubt it. Once you’ve been suspended by a strap above death, love seems small.
Of course there are women who wait for them. Every time a window washer descends there is a woman waiting, often with a rose in her hair — for these are the same women who wait for bullfighters.
The men nod to them, and the women take their arms.
I’ve never wanted to be a window washer; I never wished to see that much. A window washer is technically responsible for everything he sees. If a murder is committed two miles away and he watches, he may be indicted if he fails to act.
But we in postmen’s bags are responsible for nothing. Perhaps if a TV Guide commits a crime and we are silent, we may be prosecuted. But the crimes of TV Guide are so subtle they are rarely detected.
Like this article on “Why We Watch Commercials,” which I have now read. Sales have been known to conquer death, it says. Avery Fishman, one hundred, stayed alive for the Sears Memorial Day Sale “one more time.”
Also, commercials appeal to the desire not to have sex. Freud spoke movingly of the libido, but rarely mentioned the anti-libido, which is often stronger. By presenting a parade of attractive women and sympathetic men with whom one cannot have sex, the anti-libido is soothed.
Commercials present dozens of frustrated dishwashers, headache sufferers, bunion-possessors, the hemorrhoidal. They are all saved within fifty seconds, to assuage our guilt for watching them. We feel we’ve healed them.
Commercials echo an immemorial motif — a seeker suffers until he finds the Charm. Most folk tales have this form. Money is rarely mentioned in commercials. No one ever buys what they need. It is given to them. The key is knowledge. In a Christian culture, it’s natural that the smallest dramas will take this form: “Tums can save you.”
A friend of my family, when I was nine, was in a headache commercial. I remember how trying it was to watch him, so much smaller than I remembered him from Chapman Lake, and obviously in pain. I felt protective of him, prisoner of a box in my living room. No wonder his head hurt!
And how did he join the People In Commercials? Did this mean they were all ultimately real? I refused to accept this heresy. Could I wake up one day in one?
The suffering in the 1959 commercials of my childhood — of men, particularly, who clutched their heads as white superimposed clocks ticked — was agonizing. Little hammers and labyrinths explained the mind with a clarity Jung would’ve envied. And the lines were always white, the most schematic color. Oh, now I remember: there were only two colors on TV then.
I grew up when TV was a reassuring gray, except at my grandmother’s house. For some reason, my grandmother Lena — a Russian immigrant — had colors on her set. This seemed proof that if you sat long enough, and were old enough, and looked hard enough, your TV would develop colors. She watched “As The World Turns” every day of her life.
But I didn’t want colors. The world already had colors. I suppose that’s why I haven’t watched television since 1971, and go to “art” movies. Some of us have never made the transition from gray.
When Picasso and Braque invented cubism, they voided it of color; color was a distraction from the pure beauties of form. Who would imagine I would grow to fifteen seeing only this way?
Ah, but the gray world is over — except inside this sack, which exists in a dim light on the brown edge of gray. The letters are a color like army uniforms after a war — a relaxing beige, a color to play volleyball in.
There is something military about the post office — not just the uniforms and indolence. There’s something of the sense of Mission — one hears it in the oath:
By deepest day By darkest night No evil shall escape my sight. . . .
No, that’s Green Lantern’s. Anyway, one senses a willingness to die to deliver the mail.
It’s as if there’s a counterforce, an enemy, against whom one delivers mail. A force that does not want the mail delivered. Is it entropy, the devil, or . . . Libya? Anyway, the post officers wrestle it to the ground daily.
In this country we have the Pony Express, about whom one reads as a child, at least if one is male, in a book called You Are There. One is nine, and believes one is actually there — this is before one learns books can deceive. In one’s bed, being read to by a mother, one senses oneself wearing out horses on the way to Wichita.
Perhaps that’s why every time one sees a postman one thinks, “That could be me.”
I had one friend in the postal service — a distant friend from college, named Carol. She joined one of those Trotskyist parties that believe Albania is the best place on earth, and entered the post office to help organize it. I suppose she thought it wasn’t organized enough.
When I visited her in Brooklyn, I was impressed she had a car — a new one. They make good money in the post office.
I wonder what the postal service in Albania is like? Goat Express?
Another friend, John, almost joined the post office. But he was a pothead, and they won’t let potheads join the post office, so I was going to urinate into a tube to help him pass the drug test. Then he changed his mind.
So my urine almost joined the post office.
Perhaps the postal service is the “moral equivalent of war.” The Flying Tigers are a military outfit that became a courier service. In a no-war world, former lieutenants might speed around bringing Rolling Stone to Mali.
The difference between the mail and war is that mail is fighting time, and war is fighting, usually, Germans. But this difference is illusory — often in war, time is the actual enemy. Whoever reaches the bridge first wins the Battle of Antietam.
Time, in fact, is a thrilling enemy. It’s impersonal, and beating it is like beating God. Whereas one always beats the Germans, and afterward feels strangely guilty about it.
Besides, a mailman’s a messenger. Everything’s already been paid for. A postal worker just carries out prearranged deeds.
But even for them there are ethical crises — if they hear a package ticking, or as in the present case, put a letter in a mailbox only to realize it’s not a letter at all but a human being! What then?
There is no doubt I’m committing a federal crime. Almost certainly there is a five-year penalty connected to it. All the most trivial federal offenses have five-year penalties: blocking entrance to a passport office, etc. There is something about the number five the federal government likes. Perhaps it’s connected to the five-year plans in Russia.
Five is an odd number — in some sense, the oddest number. It’s awkward, even adolescent. No one feels threatened by a five. I don’t believe they’d really give me five years in federal prison for this. The number five seems to be laughing at me, saying, “Don’t believe it’s true.” But Charles Manson didn’t believe he’d go to jail either — and he’ll spend the rest of his life in the can.
Am I a paranoid schizophrenic? It’s so hard to tell in here. It’s dark, and there’s no one to compare me to — except TV Guide, which seems pretty paranoid schizophrenic itself.
But if I were a paranoid schizophrenic, I’d be worried I’d go to jail. Maybe I’m a plain, unflavored schizophrenic. Why would someone ride around in a mailman’s sack if he weren’t?
Of course. If he were writing an article for The New Yorker.
Perhaps journalism is a form of schizophrenia. Both professions believe they hear messages, and transmit them. “The Secretary of Commerce said today. . . .” “God told me. . . .” The difference is schizophrenics are not as confined by the five W’s.
We journalists are like shamans — we visit the Forbidden Realms and report back to the villagers. People who murdered their children speak to us, when they will speak to no one else — not even their wives.
But now, no one spoke. Only the mailman hummed:
Sundays will never be the same.
We stopped climbing. I heard a sound like a match being struck on a microphone. A door unlatched and my vehicle said, “Letter.”
A kind of plain voice said, “Did you hear the Supreme Court got a piano? The British Institute of the United States donated a six-foot ebony Baldwin. Leonard Bernstein autographed it last week. The justices all love to stand around a piano and sing.”
“Yeah, that’s crazy. You’d think they’d have something better to do,” my carrier said.
I agree. When I think of the justices singing — they must sing “Home on the Range” — I worry. The more harmonious they are, the more dangerous it is for the Republic. Justices are meant to be lonely. I want to buy eight more pianos.
Loneliness is what makes a woman great — using “woman” to mean “all men.” Look how prison seasons those inside it. Many great books were written behind guard towers — including the first novel, A Pilgrim’s Progress — though few great paintings were. Must an artist go to cafes to be a master?
Being alone allows a book to mature. That’s why I’m inside this bag: it’s a portable loneliness.
Journalists are not great writers, because they’re never alone. They must, by profession, stand and take notes as fire officials speak. Afterward, six of them converge on a tavern. Meanwhile, the poet is walking the beach, his back to Coney Island.
But I am the New Journalist — I’m in the bag. I carry around my own cave, like Socrates — or am carried around by it. I hear the justices singing, and I sing back to the justices. I sing:
O justices don’t comb your hair.
There’s something unkempt about the Supreme Court. There always has been. A really kempt justice would seem nefarious, like a genteel villain on “Batman.” A call girl who keeps her hair always in high coiffure is suspected of being insincere. Likewise a Supreme Court judge. “Don’t they have something to do besides groom?”
Yet a president must have an organized haircut, since Kennedy. Eisenhower skirted the issue by having no hair, and before him Truman had hair like a dentist.
Now a woman was speaking to my transporter. “Did you see this thing in the paper — Arabic was spoken on the moon?”
“Farouk El-Baz, of Boston, whom the astronauts call ‘King’ — he’s their geology instructor. ‘King’ is a reference to Egypt’s King Farouk, now deposed. Anyway, he taught the astronauts to say, ‘Maraba abol ord min Endeavor kum salat.’ ”
“Well, I’m happy to hear that. Good for him.”
Astronauts are like Eisenhower in that they seem innocent of hair. Besides, they wear bubbles, and the bubbles are hairless. In a different civilization, our astronauts’ bubbles would sport wigs. But civilizations that value hair do not launch men into orbit.
The decline of the freedom of hair in the presidency is worrisome. Without hair freedom, the office can only degenerate. Lincoln, our most unruly-haired leader, was the most profound.
Recently, my lover gave me a haircut. She is a dancer named Flora. She giggles a lot, and mumbles.
“I like you better in short hair,” she mumbled.
“But I must have long hair,” I explained. “I’ve been very influenced by Black Oak Arkansas.”
Flora cut my hair, and said, “Tomorrow, let’s wash those windows.”
The irony of journalism is that one’s articles, once printed and collected into a hand, make a window clean. Many attack ours as a dirty profession, yet we clarify glass.
But tomorrow, will we wash windows? No, that cannot be. Because that is the day following the day I hung in a bag — my day “in orbit.” Isn’t it clear I’m doing what the astronauts did — weren’t they surrounded by TV Guide, too? The last American heroes coiled in dark spaces and were carried around.
When I was youthful, I envied the spacemen — being feted with populous parades while I fell deeper into obscurity. True, I was president of my class, but that appeared even then a dead-end job. “I will never get on a stamp!” somehow I knew.
But the spacemen lost their luster, and we lost our lust to conquer the solar system. History will record that we tried at one time to subdue Southeast Asia and the moon — and that our soldiers came back saying, “It is a beautiful place, but not for us,” and our astral travelers said the same.
And our new heroes were such followers. Vasco de Gama and Sir Francis Drake were grand bastards and vision-havers, while Buzz Aldrin is just a guy who takes aspirin.
Journalists suffer the indignity of meeting their heroes, which is why so many drink. (Or used to drink — we young ones don’t even have the faith to be drunks. We can’t find a bartender we can trust.)
Do I believe in anything? When my penis is inside Flora, I believe in our love, but when she’s talking to the cats, I sense I’ve made a terrible miscalculation. And she spends such a great amount of time talking to the cats. (What does she say to them? “Are you still hungry now?” “There’s nothing in there, silly!” She teases them.)
Why do girlfriends talk to cats? The pleasure of speaking is so often diminished by the duty of listening. Cats remove this duty (and most duties), as you, dear reader, do for me.
But what do I truly believe in? Journalism? Can one believe in journalism? In my duty to inform you, the Inquiring Browser?
(I know I’m making a poor show of it, in this case — but what is there to say about the postal life? It is as it appears: a man placing letters in metallic boxes. Here comes the hand now, feeling along my knee for TV Guide. . . .
(But read my other articles to see the real me — the crusading, thinking newsman. My survey of potato-growing almost won the Newberry Award — except some smart aleck in Baltimore had to expose corruption among casket manufacturers. Norman Mailer called my three-part essay on incinerators “trenchant, and pious.” I’m not kidding! I probably wrote the best piece on the 1986 congressional elections: “Socks of the Candidates.”
(I admit I’ve come to a personal crisis. Suddenly I want to turn the microphone on myself, and ask me what I think. )
My carrying postman spoke.
A distant voice replied, “Yes?”
Was he in communication with William Blake?
But do I believe in journalism? Journalism is something one practices, like squash. But is it necessary?
No, journalism is not necessary. We lived millenniums without it, and still do — those of us in trailers in West Virginia who don’t know who’s president, and the Philippine tribe so innocent that animals sleep with them.
Journalism cheapens its time. Imagine a social order with no newspapers, only books. What a cautious era that would be! Hysteria would be gone. Contemplation would return to street corners. But would we be wise?
A journalist is a fool, but exposes himself to the scrutiny of other fools. A stupid lecturer learns the truth only after he dies.
Yes, I believe in journalism, because it gives me the chance to write this. This is a terrible short story, but an intelligent article. Every day I give thanks I’m not fictitious.
But do I believe in anything else?
God doesn’t exist in journalism. No, that’s wrong — what about the recent article that Jesus didn’t write the Lord’s Prayer? God is in the news, but only the way a rapist is, or the president of France — as a character. God has no clout in papers. The Christian Science Monitor exists to one side of all other journals for this reason: its own goodness.
So belief is not a province I can enter. The closest I can come is being carried around by a mailman in his sack.
(And again I felt us rise, like the first reluctant motion of a Ferris wheel.)
“Did you see this ancient Akkadian inscription unearthed near Tell Leilan in the Times last week?” I heard an Armenian-accented voice inquire. “ ‘As for me, the scouts which came in my power I have released.’ That’s from Jakun-Asar to Til-abnu — two kings, around 2500 B.C. It was so pretty I memorized it.”
“Hmm. Maybe one of the letters I’m carrying will be remembered like that. Here’s yours.”
“Yes, but I doubt this will persist as long. It’s from my ex-wife. She wants to buy a steam locomotive. But I love that message: ‘the scouts which came in my power I have released.’ The great thing about being a king is scouts come into your power and you can release them. How many of us can say that the scouts which came into our power have been released?”
“I once let out three Boy Scouts who were trapped in an elevator.”
“There you go. That was a kingly act.”
I began to know — bobbing back down the Ferris wheel of stairs — that my postman was not a mere mailman, but a Supreme Mailmaster, a man of strong quietude to whom the populace spoke freely, in whose hands they trusted their most private thoughts. Suddenly I wanted never to leave his bag, but to live there as in a tepee, as our ancient American forebears roamed the future Wyoming. As they trusted in the buffalo, I would trust this nameless propeller of messages — or was it “Carl”?
He felt along my forearm for an inscription.
I love to look in hieroglyphical museums at letters from distant milleniums. Any message, old enough, is personal — like the warmth when a dog looks you in the eyes.
What survives is apparently random. Not the best king of Enlil-Shamash is preserved, but the one whose seals stayed driest. He may’ve served as the Hitler of his day or the Winston Churchill, but to us he’s only a tiny man we hear talking — a sort of Jiminy Cricket.
I love Akkadian, because The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in it, and I saw a manuscript page once — it was entirely slashes. How appropriate that the First Book was written in the most violent language. All of us writers want to slash, but we nowadays cannot; the language has been tamed, the blunt marks rounded. The only remains of the Akkadian Slash are in certain headlines.
The curious role of journalism is to make the unthinkable mythical. Kitty Genovese — at first a freak story that made one vomit — has become a cultural myth like Sisyphus; a truth, or even “truism.” In 1988, Bush’s election seemed a curse, like “may your father be stung by bees.” Today it’s a certain fact, like the Bahamas. Journalism is a door nightmares pass through and become true.
A woman in a Hispanic voice said, “Did you read this? ‘A controversial theory that the earth’s oceans are filled with water from snowballs that fall by the millions from space is gaining support from once-skeptical scientists.’ ”
“Gee, I can barely believe that.”
If water came from outer space I would be disappointed. People may’ve come from outer space. There is something about people that reminds one of outer space — something lonely.
We must be from outer space, because whenever we’re really alone on earth — in a sweating subtropical jungle, or a desert — we think, “Omigod, what if I break my leg? I’ll be dead!” Whereas if we were really earthlings, we’d feel trust. Instead we all gang up together in cities, like Italians who moved to Australia at the same time.
I came from another world. I can almost remember, though I can’t quite hear its name — something like “Quon”? It seems to me pencils were sharper there, and doing laundry was much more likable — you got in the washer with the clothes.
I miss my planet, with its large, conical money one wore on one’s head like a hat.
But wait! The carrier put down his bag and said, “I better check there are no more letters in here” — the moment I’d feared since I’d stepped in the bag. The sound of the zipper was like a hacksaw against my thighbone.
I compressed myself into the bottom of the bag, pretending to be dust — or “knurr,” the word for lint in pockets.
He looked into the bag a long time.
“Nothing here, I guess,” he said, placing me on the floor, and left the empty post office.