You’ve Got Mail (You Never Open)

A little over a year ago, I was broken up with via the U.S. Postal Service. It was a handwritten letter announcing the demise of a long-term and serious relationship, and although it was the content that wreaked serious emotional havoc, I clung to the details for later, to adorn the outraged retelling. (That offensively thick creamy paper! The X-Men stamp!) “This is what I get for opening my mail,” I told friends, who couldn’t help but laugh. For, as most of them know, I have a bit of a mail problem. Meaning: Except on rare occasions like this one, I don’t open, let alone read, my mail.

I know that ignoring the mail can be bad for you, just like putting off that dentist appointment or neglecting to renew your driver’s license (wait long enough, and you’ll be taking a road test). Read the Andre Dubus book (or see the Ben Kingsley/Jennifer Connelly movie) House of Sand and Fog. It might be the only horror story told about what can happen when you don’t open the mail (lose a house, provoke suicide, major despair, etc). I’d be lying if I said that one didn’t give me serious pause.

All kinds of people can’t cope with their mail. Some are organizational disasters who can’t get anything together. Some are old people, or recent college graduates. Yet others are like me. I always pay my rent on the first of the month. I’m neurotically early to the airport and the movies. I remember people’s birthdays. But when it comes to dealing with all that arrives via that front-door slot, I’m paralyzed. The pile of credit-card applications; bank statements; Con Ed, Keyspan, Verizon and Time Warner Cable bills; requests from my college for donations; catalogs for stores I’ve never shopped in; the slippery takeout menus and so on—all this and more wind up on an out-of-sight table, stacked in orderly fashion. If it looks pretty, surely it will be easier to deal with! But it’s never been. And so, numerous and important things have been lost: freelance checks, a new ATM card that went unactivated, insurance documents, tax statements.

A woman I know who is 34 has a big and impressive design job. She always looks pressed and polished, and she owns her own apartment. But has also never opened her mail, which once included student loan notices. She never paid. Years went by, and eventually after notices from the collection agencies were ignored, her wages were garnished, and even then it still took her two years to notice because she never opened the letters from the government, either. “Don’t you think they should have sent those in a red envelope or something?” was her final thought on the matter.

The magazines and junk mail are fairly benign. It’s the bills and bank statements that poison the rest. Opening those statements and bills can set into motion a whole chain of events that basically boil down to having to deal with your life. And from there, the next step is to take out your checkbook. And then, when you see that paying Con Ed the $60 for May seems like a hardship, you have to rationalize your exorbitant rent; the 80 bucks left for that casual Tuesday dinner; the cab ride to Brooklyn at 10 p.m., when taking the train would have been fine. Opening the mail brings a day of reckoning.


David Amsden, a 28-year-old New York Magazine contributing editor, said his mail generally doesn’t even make it up the stairs to his apartment; after he flips through for magazines or anything handwritten, the rest gets swept into a junk box (provided by his landlord, who was fed up with his previous system of stacking his mail on the communal ledge) without being opened. Because of this, he said, he has managed to overpay on parking tickets (he refers to the tickets as “mail under your windshield”) and has overlooked numerous calls for jury duty. “I opened this last one a little late and got this noncompliance notice—something about how willful disregard of this notice can result in criminal contempt charges, imprisonment, or a 1,000 dollar fine,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s actually going to happen.”

Jail as punishment for ignoring your mail is pretty extreme, but possible! More terrifying is the prospect of identity theft, that scary specter who, according to our own banks and credit-card companies, is waiting to take up residence in each of our Bank of America accounts.

Radio and video producer Matthew Cavnar, 30, a Carroll Gardens resident, shares an apartment with his sister, who sorts through their mail, taking her own and leaving his in a stack on his bed. Once the stack threatens to become bed-size, he throws everything in the trash unopened (he’s mailed his bed, now he has to lie in it). “As a freelancer, I get a lot of checks in the mail,” he said. “I’ve learned to recognize these envelopes, but I put them in their own pile and usually don’t even open them until I’m standing at the ATM machine, about to make a deposit. Sometimes I save things that look like they’re from the bank, worried that people might steal my personal information, but in the end I throw them in the trash too, just two or three months after everything else.”

It is indeed ironic that while our banks and credit-card companies are constantly warning us about the dangers of identity theft, they are in fact responsible for the majority of statements clogging up the mailbox, threatening our security and provoking our financial anxiety (overdraft! late fee! do you have your retirement planning packages?). If you’ve made it far enough into grown-up life to have any kind of investment, the paper trail quadruples with prospectuses and quarterly statements. Since you fear throwing this stuff out, it’s a great excuse for a brand-new pile of clutter: the to-be-shredded pile. How many people actually have a shredder, anyway? And out of that group, how many have it in a place where it’s not doubling as an end table, or step stool?

Mail Bonding

But put aside bills and financials for a moment. Even wedding invitations, probably the last bit of personal mail that is nearly always delivered the old-fashioned way, are being swept up in stacks of denial, mistaken for invitations to overpriced benefits or lost in between the pages of Consumer Reports. “One of my best friends got married two summers ago, and it was embarrassing because she had to call and ask if I was coming. I knew when the wedding was, and knew I was going to go, but I had never actually opened it or sent in the RSVP,” said Jamie Wong, 27, a researcher at The Daily Show. But, she said, “most people have a wedding Web site anyway. I’d rather just check the Web site than open an invitation.”

And there, in a nutshell, might be the craziest part of all this—crazier even than the fact that there are, in fact, so many mail denialists out there. The Internet, with its neat-o technology, has made it so that, for the most part, not opening your mail doesn’t really matter.

“I don’t have a fundamental fear or anxiety that makes me avoid the mail – it just seems relatively uninteresting, and probably most importantly, doesn’t arrive when it’s relevant. I don’t want a bill to tell me it’s time now to pay by showing up at my door. I just got home from work, asshole!,” said Mark McMaster, a 29-year-old senior account manager at Google. “At Google, we wax philosophical about ‘the cloud,’ a metaphor for all the data that’s kept in a server farm that could be in Oklahoma or Beijing but you can instantly access from any computer or phone or BlackBerry that’s connected to the Internet. I put as much of my life in the cloud as possible.”

But the cloud doesn’t have feelings. And some of us are still wistful for a time when a trip to the mailbox held an air of mystery and discovery. Perhaps
the most upsetting moment in the recent Sex and the City movie was when Carrie takes out Love Letters of Great Men from the library and bemoans the fact that no one writes those ye olde letters like they used to. Upsetting because I agree with her, and that so many requests were made for the book, it merited a news article letting all the millions who had clamored for it know that it was invented for the film. These women know that the best we can expect now is E-mails from Loser Ex’s or Texts from Busy Husbands.

Unless, of course, you meet someone who can deal with the mail. The man who wrote me that breakup letter from a year ago has resurfaced. And, thanks to him, my mailbox has become a gentler, friendlier place, with cards and letters and package slips for surprise gifts, signed with love. For now, I’m fishing them from the debris.

But soon, I may actually open the catalogs and coupons and Con Ed notices, too. You’ve Got Mail (You Never Open)