Who Needs the Mail? by Matthew Olshan
You can’t retire,” cried Diamond Jacques. “The people need you!”
“Perhaps,” Lalouche replied, “but even more, the people need their mail.”
At the end of the nineteenth century — just as at the beginning of the twenty-first — the tradition of sending handwritten letters was under siege. The telegraph was already a mature technology, and the advent of the telephone meant that more and more people were turning away from pen and paper for the instant gratification of a spoken conversation.
Nevertheless, the French postal service, or “La Poste,” offered no fewer than eight collections and deliveries — per day — in Paris on weekdays, and a mere five on Sundays and fête-days.
If those eight deliveries didn’t suffice, there was another technological wonder in the wings: an elaborate system of pneumatic tubes that could whisk a letter from one end of town to another in the blink of an eye.
The preferred method of delivering mail was changing, too. Horses were phased out in 1873, thanks to the greater efficiency of trains. Twenty years later, in 1893, La Poste authorized its carriers to use newfangled bicycles for their routes on an experimental basis — although without compensation. Perhaps they were worried the carriers would have too much fun!
Within a few decades, practically all the mail would be moved by automobile. But where’s the romance in that?
The pleasure of seeing a real, tactile, bona fide letter, addressed by human hand, come wiggling through my mail slot was one of the starting points of The Mighty Lalouche. Everyone remembers the childhood excitement of getting something in the mail — a letter or package, sent from who-knows-where, arriving as if by magic at the front door.
I still feel that magic when our faithful postal carrier delivers a special letter — or better yet, when he rings the doorbell to alert us to a package.
The sound of that bell takes me right back to childhood, when I first came to understand that the envelope had my name on it; that just those letters and numbers spelled out the place where I lived; that someone, somewhere, had fed this letter to a big blue metal box with a noisy mouth.
How the letter got from the belly of that faraway box to my trembling hands was a mystery; for all I knew, the brave men or women in postal uniform were adepts of a secret society whose sole mission was to connect me with family and friends.
The bright “ding!” of an incoming email reminds me of the pleasure of letters, but in a diminished way. In my little world, the arrival of the mail — the real mail, be it six times a week or merely five, be it full of grocery store circulars or no — is still good for a daily thrill.
“Why get so excited?” my friends will ask. “These days, it’s all junk. Anything important happens electronically.”
Of course, they’re right.
“Perhaps,” I say. “But for whatever reason, I need my mail.”
MATTHEW OLSHAN is the author of Finn: A Novel, a modern telling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with girls as protagonists rather than boys. His latest novel, The Flown Sky, is a fantasy in the tradition of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. He is also the author of the recently published picture book The Mighty Lalouche. Olshan lives in Baltimore, but also has a little farm in south central Pennsylvania, called Pencil Creek. Visit him at MatthewOlshan.com.