Junk Mail, by Alan Jacobson

It was a hard, mean part of the winter of 2001-2002 and unusually tough to find work in Chicago. I was temping. The assignments were few due to post terrorism belt-tightening and perhaps the lack of lunch money weakened my defenses while augmenting my brain’s ability to absorb, become fascinated. Making the most of a bad situation, my general rule at every assignment was to always keep both the eyes and mind wide open: learn what I could, fashion something positive out of these often degrading and humiliating experiences...soldier on, dismiss cynical urges, and above all, be receptive.

Mystery motivates. We all apparently need to learn about each other. Voyeurism is big, big stuff especially these days (Big Brother, Friendster, Who Wants to Watch My Dad Engage in Foreplay, etc…) Now, I do not consider myself much of a voyeur. I cherish my privacy too much to employ scoptophilia (the perverse desire to gaze).

But what happens when a golden opportunity to study human nature, with the subjects none wiser, drops right into your lap? Can you just say no, as it were, due to some perceived personal boundary? Is there not a certain responsibility--as another human flailing about and trying to figure out what it all means--to scrutinize and pass on said examination, to take advantage of this superb and rare opportunity to learn and disseminate said learning as best as you can?

Trying to reconcile the doubts I had, my joy in things like Davy Rothbart’s fascinating Found magazine (a loving and hodgepodge collection of found notes, school papers, wedding photos, etc.), with the undeniable fact that mining this unique and wonderful opportunity seemed way too good to pass up, I had to ask myself a question.

What can be learned from going through another person’s mail? I found this inadvertently because I labored as a temp for a period as long as time itself. Temping is cliché to complain about, but speaking as one from the trenches, it really is tough. A temp collects the drippings of what is left, the absolute least desirable and fulfilling work at any given office and usually not enough of it to avoid credit card over-limit fees. But on the reverse side a temp travels to a new place sometimes every day, a situation that inspires a truly philosophical state of mind—every day can be an entirely different state of affairs with a new set of people, a new mini-society, to study.

Temping, however, is almost always the colorless commonplace and this particular assignment was no wild exception. But the mind was open. Occasionally, while caught within that constant, desperate grasping for something, anything interesting to create a rift in the tedium, something would grab me. I happen along a justification to the fact that my employment, the mere need to support myself, has created a suck on my financial and creative existence—a hole from which I can sometimes see no escape. But I digress, appropriately falling into an existential quandary due to the nature of my investigation.

This was a unique assignment I took in December, a dry month for work. At your typically tacky, nouveaux office in Chicago’s trendy River North area, I sorted junk mail solicited from ordinary people, “panelists”, who had returned said mail in gigantic Mylar mailbags to the company for a reason never explained to me in the few weeks I worked there—probably some marketing scam or other considering the creepy aura of that particular workplace. My job was to rip open an endless stream of those red white and blue bags and then sort the mail into what the company could “use” --usually mortgage scams, credit card offers, and the like—and that which the company had no use for. Keep in mind this was all junk mail, the supposed detritus of randomly surveyed peoples’ lives. Ironically, the items that this company found “useless” ended up being remarkably useful in tacking together the stories of these individual lives, in dilating from a piece of alleged junk. But more on that later.

Included in each original junk mail solicitation was a survey questionnaire. This inappropriately prying document, which accompanied each bag full of returned junk mail that I ripped open and examined, had to be filled out to make the respondent eligible for what I was told was basically a phony prize. The answers furnished, and often volunteered exclusive of the questions, often provided if not always a poignant or keen insight into some stranger’s life, at least something for the old to noodle to chew on, or at least an amusing respite from the ridiculously abundant (and, to be fair, often imaginative) marketing scams. I have included all of these quotes exactly as they were written.

Illuminating Unsolicited Responses: For those who thought “outside the box(es)”, or rather, simply wanted to add more color, more flourish, more personality to the form responses.

A form letter personally signed by Jane Dale, Director fills the front cover of each survey, explaining what the survey’s purpose and how the respondent is almost certain to win something.

A naïve respondent’s remarks: “Ask Jane Dale if should destroy name etc Before putting into envelope”

Sure, I’ll ask her--if she exists. I never found out if Janet Hall was a real person. I asked the permanent scrubs in the mail sorting area and they didn’t even know.

Question: How was this vehicle financed? Answer: D. (other—“X-Spouse”)

Like X-Men? Divorce is now a commodifiable product…or source of income anyway, which in this case may have helped to provide a new Dakota!

What kind of car do you own? “Calverlior” (for Cavalier, I assume). This one kept me amused almost all day as I kind of sang it to myself—to the jaded annoyance of my jaundiced coworkers, the regular employees.

Certainly, there was a surfeit of amusing spelling and grammar mistakes, providing a quick flash of the person writing them. Prying a bit deeper, we become privy to an even richer view of the writer’s psychology. Pathetically and often for what seemed to be intensely personal reasons, some panelists took the survey a bit too seriously, leaving many unsolicited apologies scratched into the margins and spaces between the questions.

The company processes roughly 26,000 questionnaires every month. Every survey returned held the promise of the panelist being automatically entered into a drawing to win a $100 American Express gift certificate—coincidentally, a drawing held but once a year with a scant 1 in 62,400 chance for winning. What were these mysterious certificates for, anyway? Why American Express? Would the lucky panelist win $100 off of a $1000 purchase with an AMEX card? I wouldn’t doubt something like that since this company was a virtual hotbed of sleaze micromanaged by a bizarro team of cocaine-fueled, fast-talking, slickster Brits.

As a side note, I bumped into a former coworker a month after I was done with the assignment (by the way, I made a thrilling $8/hr) who complained of a cruel and unjustifiable discharge, letting me have a view of much of the uglier side of what seemed like a strange and strict place at the time. But I had no idea. I later ran into other current and former employees at a party who verified and amplified his many gripes. But a morally bankrupt company in today’s economy is hardly all that interesting and sadly not unique. Back to the meat and potatoes, the unnecessarily revealing comments:

A pointed and direct response to the form letter and specifically the director regarding her generous prize drawing:
“THAT SUCKS! ME AND 23579746 OTHERS, HA??? JANE, JANE HAVEN’T YOU LEARN: ‘He who thinks every body is stupid is stupid.”

This one runs the gamut from all-caps outrage to lowercase somber advice.

More Anger:

In the scrawl of outrage: “I Refuse to Comply with This Survey!!”

Very effective, but why bother sending it?

“Sorry—I ‘refuse return to sender’ & put in a US Mailbox & toss small inserts, I CANNOT gather This crap. NOR do I accept unsolicited phone calls, ESPECIALLY computer generated Bluck!”

A couple of problems: you DID reply and...what is this “Bluck” and where can I get some?

And in regards to the entire process, says “Spouse Don”, a toughguy speaking for his wife, with a touch of sympathy for my position peppering the comment nicely!:
“The Direct Mail we received in Dec-its our business sorry about the survey.”

Now to the very sad section, to round out the drama:

Sad/Covering all bases: “called to tell you that I can’t participate in this one because of family physical conditions.”

Sadder/graphic: “Can’t Do Direct Mail Will Be In Hospital getting New Hip.”

Saddest: “Due to a Death in the Family, I have not been able to do this survey”

Segueing nicely into… The lonely old lady section:

In old lady cursive (OLC): “I get usually only clothing catalogs and weekly supermarket ads. ‘Sorry’.”

OLC, hopes she’s still in the running/someone’s listening:
“I usually get a lot more pre-approved credit card applications, etc. than this. This is not indicative of what I normally get throughout the year.”

Mrs. Barry Gladson, in yet more OLC:
“Received mail But do Not Send Any Anyplace but trash.”
Made me EAT those words.
As a side note, strangely, I scrawled this in my notes in regards to Mrs. Barry’s response, but can’t remember why at the writing of this article: “Will this be gone in 50 years?!?”

Here’s an odd one seeking forgiveness. A quick OLC note in regards to the apparently insufficient amount of junk mail this person was able to muster: “Please Excuse Me. There were more I know, but some were discarded in the holiday rush!”

And to round out the unsolicited notes… Holiday greetings from New Jersey:


Again, why take time out of your soon-to-be-anthrax-shortened life to risk melting all skin off by opening this mail, scratching off this ominous note, and sending back the Mylar bag??

And with that advice on junk mail handling practices…

Is it simply "junk?"

On to the actual “junk” and what it can tell us.

Panelists sent an odd variety of mail, some of it ironically exceptional despite its obviously being a mass-mailing. The more interesting included an array of Christmas cards—some unopened, then Texas Governor George W’s letters thanking fellow Right-wingnuts (he looked “forward to leading our great country”), and an amazing number of similarly creepy scams which seem to overflow the mailboxes of the aged ranging from post-Sept. 11 pleas for money necessary to prolong the end of the world by a variety of evils to brightly-colored notices proclaiming the recipient a the winner of a new car (with an actual key included in the envelope which could be used at the dealership once one found the vehicle) or a “Rascal” (paradoxically cheery elderly gentleman waving from the seat of a bizarrely sporty and kind of sexy electric wheelchair/scooter device).

Most bags of junk mail were boring. Some were odd, others disturbing. For example, a volume of porno mags and catalogs arriving at a reverend’s house—why send them along to us except as a safe means of confession? There were also diamonds in the voyeuristic rough—the odd personal note and other similarly intimate and/or important-seeming pieces. And I would hardly call a mysterious arrest warrant listing bail at $20,000 junk mail.

The Sad Sack

The most interesting and utterly heart-rending mailbag that I dug into belonged to June from Statesboro, Georgia. From what I could tell, she was old, infirm, and completely disconnected from her family. I was touched and depressed when presented with a collection of exhibits which painted a dark image indeed, with most family correspondence unopened while every piece of absolute junk mail had paradoxically been pulled out and sorted with care.

For example, I immediately noticed that June opened each and every one of the dozen credit card solicitations she received that month, but none of the notes from her granddaughter’s class regarding a fundraiser.

The imaginary drama played in my head like a TV movie of the week. I became very involved; even kind of angry on June’s behalf. Was there some sort of falling out? I assumed that this poor, old lady was on bad terms with her family. Perhaps they only contacted her for money; nothing else. My heart tightened.

Cementing this assumption for me, the next piece of “unusable” mail I found was a baby shower invitation on a tasteless Babys –R- Us card. This one was actually open and a handwritten note, creepily positioned directly below the script stating they were registered there, referred to how June was probably not able to attend, but they were “thinking of her”.

Despite, or maybe because of the phoniness of, this last note, I was left with the feeling that this was a pack of blood sucking relatives who only kept in touch because June had money. That June had included the family mail as junk was nearly strong enough on its own. But every last piece of a month’s worth of correspondence from the family included at least some financial implication.

Adding to the sympathetic pain I felt for June, another piece of this poor old lady’s mail was a bill indicating that she had had an expensive and probably extremely painful colonoscopy. Did her family avoid any contact with this extremely sick and lonely woman except when they needed greenbacks? All evidence in this mailbag supported this assertion while none provided that essential counterbalance. I found myself hating this family and loving poor June. I imagined her sitting abandoned in her stately southern domicile, bitterly stewing in nagging memories over a family that consistently disappointed her until she simply had to cut off all ties to retain whatever dignity she still had.

What Does It All Mean?

Big Brother and the like are smash hits, cultural phenoms. But the people we exercise the old scoptophilia upon (even when simply pausing as we flip from station to station) are complicit—they know millions are watching them. It is different when the object doesn’t know. Are we sick voyeurs, just ghoulishly peeping on lonely old ladies? Unless you derived some pleasure out of June’s (implied) story, then I’d say no. I am certain that the gut-wrenching sadness of isolation is apparent and will be deeply felt by anyone with the red stuff pumping through his or her body.

Is it all sad? No, all in all, a whole heck of a lot can be learned about human nature—we’re talking the breadth of human experience stuff, here. People get angry, almost to cartoonish excesses. Other amusements and enlightenments abound—especially to the way we live today. Pretty good reflector of the times, that junk mail.

But I picked up something less obvious, more pedestrian, and more useful from this experience. I learned that its best to make the best of a bad situation. Here, I simply kept my eyes and mind open and found (out) some fascinating stuff. Mental alchemy, I transformed what could have been an extremely dull and, let’s face it, pointless expenditure of that most precious of commodities, time, to gold.

Strangely, for an eternal cynic, I now begin to wonder if we can improve the seemingly purposeless or unpleasant with a change in point of view. Look around you, wherever you are, there’s just got to be something there to exercise the brain while you fester trapped at your cubicle, insufficient counter space, or lonely park bench. Make the best of what you can find and try and answer some Big Questions at the same time because life is all about that eternal quest for meaning and significance—especially these days in a market that increasingly dehumanizes us all--since we are all potentially part of that elite(ist) group, “the creative” (artists and writers are for the most part perpetually unemployed, or worse: temping), stuck with jobs that no one else wants to do. Its best to keep those eyes and minds peeled wide open, because when it is least expected a person can really end up finding out some potentially life-altering things about him or herself, those around us, and even gather a subtle hint of what it all means—whatever that is. All quotes are included verbatim, but all names and personal details have been altered and/or intentionally left vague to protect the identities of the people at this company.
Alan Jacobson is the music columnist for Chicago’s Citylink, an educator, and avid people watcher.

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