BOONE, N.C. -- If only the UPS man had time to lean against the porch railing a moment, chat about the weather, even flirt a little, I might give junk mail a chance.
But no, each time he brings something I've ordered from a catalogue, he's bounding back down the front steps before I can say, "Hot enough for you?"
The human touch: It should be at the heart of society. But the drive for efficiency behind every mail-order transaction cuts out the neighborly contact and the caring so important for healthy communities. Junk mail is a melancholy substitute for Main Street.
Everything about junk mail is predictable to me now. For all 12 months last year, I catalogued every piece of junk mail that came to my house, partly out of curiosity and partly to see how the merchandising world pegs me and my family. I collected it in a picnic basket in the dining room. At the end of each month I weighed it, counted it, recorded it, then hauled it to the curb to be churned into the county landfill.
Now the hard facts of my survey are in: Over the 302 mail days of 1990, my husband, three school-age children and I received 99.75 pounds of junk mail -- 878 appeals to buy and give, or just under three pieces every day. More precisely, we were the targets of 239 glossy color merchandise catalogues, 511 solicitations for political or charitable causes and 112 grocery store circulars and missing-children postcards.
If I were a direct-mailer, I wouldn't rate the Chase household as a particularly hospitable target. That ceaseless flow of come-ons coaxed a meager half-dozen mail-orders -- worth less than $200 -- from five presumably typical American consumers. And much of it was for compact discs and some favorite coffee that we would have bought anyway.
January: 9.85 pounds, 78 pieces. No purchases. The pile included 43 solicitations for money and 28 catalogues, including two (identical) from L.L. Bean and five from office-supply companies. They're not paying attention: My office is an alcove off the dining room with no room for file cabinets. However, I needed computer paper. So I walked two blocks to an office-supply store, plunked down $25 for a big box and 15 minutes later had it hooked up to my machine.
My 9-year-old daughter needed some warm school clothes. I took her to the department store in town and bought her two pairs of pants, two shirts and a sweater for $54 -- the price of one dress in The Wooden Soldier children's catalogue.
February: 6.6 pounds, 63 pieces. One purchase: My 11-year-old son bought a $50 unicycle by mail with his birthday money.
Here at home, my husband got some shirts at a menswear store where there's always local political gossip thrown in for free. I bought a great pair of slacks from my favorite ladies store. The proprietor and his assistant flattered me shamelessly, and successfully: I bought a blouse and sweater to match.
March: 8.35 pounds, 77 pieces (including 52 solicitations for money). No purchases.
In town, I bought school clothes for my older son and $25 worth of travel books to plan the summer's long-anticipated trip to Eastern Europe -- where I intended spend all available disposable income.
April: 6.5 pounds, 61 pieces, including 40 solicitations. Purchased CDs for for my husband ($50) and a dinosaur for my younger son's birthday.
I also learned that a state hiring freeze might eliminate my part-time university teaching job in the fall. It didn't put me in a spending mood, especially since we're facing a new roof, car repairs and a cold month's worth of heating oil.
May: 8 pounds, 70 pieces. No purchases. All spare change is going into the travel kitty.
Here in town, I bought a lot of groceries and two transatlantic airline tickets.
June: 4.5 pounds, 49 pieces (only seven catalogues). No purchases.
In real life, we had a yard sale -- a great success. I cleaned out closets and made $250, then spent half of it downtown on a pair of ostentatious bookends and used the rest to take the kids to the water-slide amusement park.
On June 13 we drove the kids to the grandparents in Washington and the next day left for London and then two weeks' driving through Hungary and Yugoslavia.
Part of our mission was to see life without junk mail (and part to see life without children). One day I watched a postman in Budapest cycle down the road with a leather pouch over his shoulder. No junk mail. He only stopped where he had a letter to deliver.
July: There it was, waiting when we got back -- seven pounds, 59 pieces. No purchases, but I did actually read my junk mail. To see what I had missed, I suppose. And to gloat a bit. Why, the price of that terrycloth robe from Hammacher Schlemmer would pay for a night in the best hotel room in Dubrovnik. For the price of a jar of Ratto International Grocers' Nicoises olives, we got a three-course dinner in Budapest. Can't buy both memories -- the silvery Adriatic as the evening sky turned a soft golden-pink -- and terry-cloth robes.
August: 12.37 pounds, 97 pieces. No purchases. Christmas season officially began on Aug. 24 with the first Yuletide catalogue.
My daughter had a clothing crisis this month, and for once I was glad to have several dozen catalogues to paw through. When I realized she was down to one pair of cutoff jeans and three T-shirts for school, we went to every clothing store in town. Nothing appealed. Look through the catalogues, I said. Order whatever you want. But there was nothing she liked; it was the same stuff we had just seen in town. We finally found a store in the next town that was loaded with matching outfits. Peace restored.
September: 7.14 pounds, 49 pieces. One purchase: $10 for CDs for my husband.
October: 10.5 pounds, 99 pieces. Spent $10 on CDs and $40 for Halloween supplies and little Christmas gifts from a Nebraska novelty house.
I am disgusted by the volume of mail this month. More and more it goes into the basket unopened. Despite endless opportunities to buy bed linens by mail, we went to the mill outlet in town and got them. I still am not in the market for French lace curtains or down quilts.
This is the charity season: 60 solicitations, including some from out-of-state political candidates and universities where we have no connections. (Still holding on to my own university job, by the way.) Neither North Carolina candidate for U.S. Senate asked us for money, but we sent $100 to one of them. And we gave to local charities when friends called to solicit.
November: 13.13 pounds, 111 pieces, including 32 in honor of Christmas and four for alumni magazines from schools I never attended. Purchased $10 worth of coffee and replied to a request from the public library for volunteers.
I'm too angry and depressed by world events to buy anything but necessities. We hit the local stores and bought $85 worth of shoes, socks, pants, shirts and underwear for the kids. We also did the Christmas shopping, most of it downtown or at a nearby mill outlet.
December: 5.81 pounds, 59 pieces, including three identical letters from the Coalition for Democratic Values. No purchases
On Dec. 29, Damark, a gift company that has sent a catalogue nearly every month, informs me that I am a valued friend but if I don't order something they'll have to drop me from the mailing list.
On the last day of the year, along with the last piece of official junk mail, I received a dangerously depressed letter from an old friend overseas. It reminded me that mail used to have a serious function in society: communication rather than sales. I didn't count, but I probably received fewer than two dozen "real" letters all year -- and sent even fewer.
When I began this project on Jan. 2, 1990, I was angry about junk mail: the waste, the persistent annoyance, the cost in time and money to deliver and dispose of it all. But in the end, I softened. So what if Global Office Supplies wanted to send me a catalogue (or two or three) every month? If they haven't got my number yet, then the Big Brother bogey lurking in junk mail can't be all real -- or effective.
When I read over my notes, I realize that, like most middle-class Americans, I bought and bought all year long: clothes, housewares, toys, furnishings, tools, art, musical instruments, haircuts, horseback riding lessons, stereo equipment, gifts, garden plants and groceries enough to feed an army. But I hardly bought anything or gave anything through the mail.
I did it on Main Street (or the local equivalent) whenever I could. When I bought clothes, I could feel the fabric first, check the workmanship and try them on. I could carry them home. When I shopped downtown, I could hear the latest news (the important kind that's not on television). Whether I bought anything or not, I liked the warmth of visiting with my enterprising neighbors. We need each other.
My dictionary defines commerce as social intercourse. But with the frenzy of the mail-order trade, real social intercourse is replaced by increasingly frenzied consumption. The UPS man rushes up the street -- often an empty street -- and leaves a package by the door.