Postmaster General William F. Bolger, who points out that only one out of every 29 letters is a personal one, has proclaimed this to be National Letter Writing Week -- a move I spiritedly oppose. Although, in fact, I love to write and receive letters in about the same sense that I love to ride the old trolley car that once went out to Glen Echo Amusement Park, and with about equal hopes of ever having that experience again. But not all the things we like are good for us; and while marijuana may or may not lead to heroin, it is certain that letter writing leads to far worse things; and in fact, is responsible for the miserable condition in which you see me today.
This all began innocently when I moved up here from Atlanta, was living in a literal garret and could afford no more luxuries than a blue Scripto pencil and a packet of notebook paper. Foolishly, as it now seems, I wanted to keep in touch with some old friends from Henry W. Grady High School, and would write long, so-satisfying letters deep into the night, telling exactly what I'd seen in walks about the city; how people's faces looked, and what they wore and talked about; and how the facades of the buildings seemed to change as the light did; and the way White Tower coffee tasted or Nick's Delicatessen smelled. I would rant about injustices suffered at the office, express my bewilderment at the loud chaos of things, lay out my own doings and schemes before friendly eyes, and be better off than if I'd paid some psychiatrist to hear the same things. Most of all, I wanted to keep the old warm ties, and have interesting, friendly reading waiting in the mailbox when I got home from my wretched little clerk's job.
I had not figured on how busy everybody was, or how boring they would find me to be, and seldom got any written replies; just a few guilty, hasty phone calls, although it seemed to me back then, and still does, that a phone call, contrary to what Ma Bell would have us believe, is a terribly cold act that offers all the leisurely satisfaction of making love to barbed wire.
Anyway, it was one of those phone calls that started me on the road downhill. This came from a medical-student friend of mine who, being obliged to spend his nights with cadavers, had not much time left to squander on living creatures; and who made the infernal suggestion that I ought to keep a journal.
Mine were such wonderful letters, he said, that they ought not to be wasted on any one person, and what I ought to do was buy one of those big record books with expensive paper and numbered, lined pages and write with a fountain pen, for posterity's sake; and maybe even write by candlelight so as to feel myself more in the 18th century, where he, and others since, evidently thought I belonged. And, so I bought a $1.50 fountain pen, a black Morocco leather journal trimmed in red costing 10 times that, and a packet of candles that dripped all sorts of waxy primary colors down onto the Chianti bottle; and would sit up late into the night, writing -- with mixed results. On the one hand, I could say what I pleased, which was a lot different from what obtained when gray day obliged me to shuffle over to a fluorescent office and do the "yowsah, boss!" routine. On the other hand, I was writing only to myself.
This went on until there got to be a whole shelf of those red and black books, and I had found out by then that slick, empty pages are better listeners than anybody else in this town has time to be. That's because conversation in Washington is interjectory. People bust into the middle of your sentences to finish them for you; and look askance if you insist on finishing them for yourself; and are convinced that you are drunk, stoned or berserk if you go so far as to deliver a whole paragraph.
-- Well, you know how it is. One thing led to another, and at last a book publisher got hold of one of the journals and phoned to tell me how truly swell it was and how I was a chump not to write for money. And so I went along with him and wrote a couple of novels and a biography. But there was the matter of length; my journal, which now ran to 7,500,000 words, had seemed about the right length for what I wanted to say. But the book publisher wanted no more than 125,000. Everybody was in a hurry, he said.
It was at this point that my uncle, who wished only to be helpful, suggested that I write magazine articles instead.. these would pay better, he told me. Although, of course, one would be obliged to cool it with the really way-out graphic obscenity which alone was capable of describing the actions of certain public figures in our town. And it would be necessary to cut the wordage down to 5,000.
Finally, when it was too late, I began to realize that there was a certain trend to what was being asked of me. Sure enough, I was soon approached by a newspaper, which required that I keep the words down to 900; and then a national radio show, which would take nothing longer than 350. And this is when I began to suspect that being successful in this town means being paid to shut up. What will come next, no doubt, is a national prime-time television show, starring yours truly, bound and gagged on a stack of hundred-dollar bills beneath a flashing neon sign that says, Freedom of Expression!
And so we had all better beware of National Letter Writing Week. Because what starts innocently as a simple desire to communicate with one's fellow creatures can lead to public disgrace. I ought to know.