“You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket….”
Abby, in ‘the Postman’
I can’t say exactly when it was that I became a bit fascinated with the United States Postal Service. I can say it is not an obsession- fascination works perfectly well here. I can remember in the fifth grade how we sent letters to embassies and state information agencies and soon enough we would get envelopes back with information about some foreign country or state monument, or most important crop or product. I don’t think it was until during my summer at the Penland School of Crafts in the North Carolina mountains that I combined the photography I was doing with written communications acts out of that isolated mountain home to friends and family around the country. At some point I decided that a postcard would be better than a letter back in those pre-email times, and so I would take a print that was somewhere between a five by seven and an eight by ten, break out my rapidograph which had ink that would adhere to the back of those plasticky, resin coated papers, write a note and an address and slap on a stamp and send it off.
Generally those photos held up really well to whatever the mail sorters and the rigors of postal travel could throw at them. And for a while- actually I think it was the entire time I was up on the mountain- I used postcard stamps to send them. It made perfectly good sense to me- postcard stamps for postcards. But as it turned out, it wasn’t that simple. There was this size thing that I just wasn’t considering. There were many prints that went out that were on full eight by ten sheets, where your average postal card clocks in at somewhere around four by six inches. It was a bit embarrassing to find out that, in the end, I’m fairly certain that all of those cards (one of my friends called them lephos: letter-photographs) arrived with postage due and nobody that I sent them to ever said anything to me about that. When it did come up in a conversation years later, I did ask one friend why he never mentioned it, and he simply said he just enjoyed getting them and that the couple cents overage that it cost him was totally worth being able to bail them out from delivery purgatory.
I continued to send more lephos out once I left the mountain, and I corrected my incorrect postage metering. And instead of sending out random photos I had taken, I would occasionally create a photo scene that was an illustration for a simple story I would invent. Sometimes It got fairly complicated, where I would shoot the photograph and then create a letter stencil with graphic arts film and then print both on the front, then I would make a silk screen of words and drawings and screen that on the address side, so all I would have to do is add the address and the stamp. Making a few cards would sometimes take a couple of days.
A while after that, postcard things kind of wound down when I began a year at landscape design school. For some reason, around that same time, it was Mr. Zip, the cartoon postal mascot, who then caught my interest. The whole zip code thing had been around for a while, but I think maybe he had been trotted back out around then because the post office was adding four more numbers to all zip codes to more accurately enumerate where the mail was going. As it was, I started to draw in the likeness of Mr. Zip to the corners of my design drawings, partly because I thought it was funny and partly because it agitated my instructor. I recall one time when Mr. Z had an unusually prominent place on one of my drawings, and during my review of that effort the teacher remarked: “that little bastard shows up on everything you do….” Well, not really everything. Sometimes he had a stand alone panel all to himself. I think the thing I am most proud of from that period had to do with a one panel comic I came up with as a comment/ statement about the new, longer zip codes. I had Mr. Zip in the center, grimacing in pain and shock as a mystery battle-axe came in from out of frame, lopping off his pinky finger, which was being levitated through the air with motion lines. The caption for the panel was, of course, “Mr. Zip goes to nine digits”.
I think my postcard sending around then went to mostly finding weird cards, like tales of jackalopes or badly altered shots of giant trout on flatbed trailers. It was just easier, until of course that darn digital age came along. It was back in the early aughts when we were first going to the Burning Man that I started bringing along a digital printer that we powered off an inverter and the truck battery, and I was able to send photos of the wild and crazy playa events of the day through the Black Rock City Post Office to baffled people back in the real world. And then it was Canon that made a battery powered printer that could fit into a case the size of a toiletry kit without the toiletries, and it printed postcard size prints. Soon after, in ongoing trek’s to the desert in late summer, I was actually delivering mail for the BRCPO, which was an amazing experience that I think I wrote about here long ago. We delivered real mail and packages from the outside world to addresses that might or might not exist out in the dust of this, temporary, desert city, and it was kind of like a snipe hunt mixed with a detective story at times in order to get things to their rightful recipient.
At this point in the story we flash back to 1997 and ahead to now. It was kind of in the now of recent weeks when Kevin Costner’s 1997 film ‘the Postman’ was brought to my attention on the facebooks. I had mostly forgotten about this post-apocalyptic tale about a chance meeting between Costner’s character and a corpse in a mail truck, and how that changed the world. I had been looking for a reason to order up a copy of ‘Dances With Wolves’ on DVD, so I added the postal tale to the order, all for the price of a pricey six pack of IPA, and a few days later I was watching these flicks on consecutive nights. Having been thinking a lot in the last couple years about how westward expansion had obliterated and ignored the American Indian, I was surprised to see how sympathetic ‘Wolves’ was to an awareness of Native rights and culture, at least from Costner’s character’s perspective. In many ways, in hindsight and retrospect, the plot of ‘Wolves’ could have served as the way we white people might have assimilated into the culture that many people don’t to want to acknowledge existed here pre-Columbus. It could be seen as a “this is what we should have done” apology, even though in the end, the westward emigration and basic, capitalistic human nature most likely would have ensured that things turned out the way it did, regardless of how enlightened we might have been from the start. There is the Church and the pope and the doctrine of discovery that we talked about here recently to blame as well, but we will not rehash that again right now.
As a counterpoint to ‘Dances with Wolves’, in the post-apocalyptic world of ‘the Postman’, in which the story subtitles place the events involved there as the future past of 2013, there are not even cigar store Indians around to mess or join forces with the inhabitants of this postal tale. It is also curious that even though the story is set in the rural mountains and towns of south/central Oregon, the population is way more diverse in a Black and Brown sense than one would have expected from the whites only Oregon of its origins. There is also much here in the realm of prescience that borders on the creepy. The premise for the action is that a plague of some sort has decimated this place, and what we assume to be the rest of the U.S. population, if not the world. We don’t know for sure, since there is no communication link to be found anywhere. There is however a roving band of white supremacist militia nuts who go around extracting tithings from the relatively defenseless and somewhat hippie/peace-loving townsfolk. After seeing real-time footage of the Trump-supporter parade that invaded Portland last week with guns and big trucks and flags, it didn’t seem to be that big of a leap, besides the horses and the howitzers (I think) of General Bethlehem’s clan of thugs, as to where our current situation could degenerate to.
The essence of the overlying postal message here is that Costner’s chance and accidental revival of the post office in that time and place brings a renewed hope to the people through communication and reconnection. This was a feeling I got whilst delivering mail out on the Black Rock Desert, that there was some surprise and a bit of magic in a message or a package from home or a friend. If nothing else, getting a letter out in the middle of a dust strewn and heat-soaked desert is both a strange and reassuring event. In many ways there is an intimacy and an innocence and a basic tactile sense in the very essence of a written letter that has been lost to the tubes and dungeons of the internets. Perhaps it was the fact that the postal service of our real time at the end of the last century was then such a basic institution to us, that to base a science-fictional return of civilization from the brink of extinction to its resurrection from an unnamed fate was too big of a stretch for ‘the Postman’ to imagine, as at the time I recall this film was seen as a bit of a joke. But now, with so many basic institutions under threat from those who are supposedly there to protect them, we currently find ourselves looking at a hobbled Post Office that is now framed in an essential position in this voting season to help deliver us from our current malaise . Given the current polarization of thought and actions, it is difficult to imagine an outcome similar to the one that the final battle scene of ‘the Postman’ offers, let alone a real world, sensible resolution to our current insanity. We’ll see. In the mean time, send a postcard to a friend- who knows what that surprise might kindle?