Because I’ve done my time.
When I met my best friend Kate at summer camp, I was 13; she was a wise and wonderful 11. I lived in Cleveland, she lived in Detroit – 3 hours apart by bus (and in those days, your parents let you go on a Greyhound by yourself for visits. . . Just sit up front near the driver, dear). We couldn’t talk on the phone much, because long distance was so expensive that we actually had to invent a special code: one placed a collect call to the other from Alfred Quigley Birnbaum, the (anti-)hero of a song I had written; the call would be refused, of course (because who wants to talk to that wastrel?), but then we’d know the other was home and wanted to talk for as long as our parents would let us.
And so we wrote. Letter after letter, pouring out our hearts about the miseries and small triumphs of junior high and then high school, about books we’d read and people we had crushes on and mystic dreams we’d had and how much we hated our parents, sketching velvet dresses with long, hanging sleeves, or the lutes and harps we’d buy if we had the dough. . . Kate was great at decorating the envelopes, too. Often I’d come home from a bad day at school to a beautiful letter from her, and take it up to the quiet of my room and read it, and then write back immediately. Of course, it took 2-3 days for my reply to reach her, and 2-3 more days for her response. But meanwhile, we were acquiring even more to write about!
In summers, all my high school friends and I must needs write to each other, as family vacations or jobs or camp took us away from the 24/7 anthill of communication that is the lives of teenage girls. When Linda went off to college a year ahead of the rest of us, she wrote of her strange and wonderful adventures there. And when I followed suit, I did the same.
After graduation, the letters flew thick and fast. Nobody had the money for long-distance phone calls, but there was so much happening, and so quickly your pen could barely keep up with it!
I hate the fact that I don’t know what any of my newer friends’ handwriting looks like. Handwriting was as much a part of my friends’ identity as their faces were–maybe more.
We all wanted to be writers. And so we began submitting manuscripts, short stories in manila envelopes, with the requisite SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) enclosed. Then the vigil over the mailbox began in earnest! Not only might that little tin box on the wall with all the others in the lobby of W. 110th Street contain the latest comfort from a friend, but it might. . . just might. . . not be your return envelope at all, but a slender white one with a magazine’s return address, your SASE no use to them because THEY WERE TAKING YOUR STORY!
And so, to this day I check my mailbox often. Even though the doorman in my New York apartment building insists–helpfully, he thinks–on informing me that the mailman hasn’t come yet, or that my wife Delia’s already been and brought it in.
He doesn’t understand. It might be something wonderful. Something life-changing!
Or at least, a letter from a friend.