The J. Crew Catalog Destroyed My Spirit
Why mailmen give up.
So, who does notice? The discovery of hoards follows some common narratives: They've been caught by meter readers, by housesitters feeding a rabbit for a vacationing postman, and by state troopers making traffic stops. A number of "dead-letter cars"—old clunkers filled up like a junk-mail piñatas—have been discovered by mechanics and used-car dealers. And a number of cases are broken after the stashed mail catches fire: In 1974, back-to-back cases a week apart yielded 1,200 sacks of mail in a Louisville, Ky., attic and another tractor-trailer load in a burning attic in suburban Connecticut.
Discovery becomes more likely in cases where a rogue carrier indiscriminately tosses both first-class mail and junk. In 1978, the postmaster of Roxbury, Conn., was retired after postal inspectors in a late-night raid found letters in the central office's trash cans. Among the locals, both Arthur Miller and William Styron were missing mail. "I have had over the years a large amount of mail for a well-known writer—I guess that's the term," Styron mused afterwards to the New York Times. "And in the last year and a half I've been saying to myself, 'Well, is my stock declining?' "
All these cases, however, bow before the Chicago mail scandals of 1994. Ranked dead last among cities in postal customer satisfaction, that year Chicago found itself on the receiving end of hoard stories seemingly every week. Letters burning under a railway viaduct, letters rotting under a porch, letters stuffed into a dumpster: The stuff was even found hiding at the post office itself. The post office, indeed, was as much a problem as the individual carriers: "Complaint lines might ring as often as 85 times without being answered. …" noted reporter Charles Nicodemus. "Mammoth mounds of undelivered mail were found at several stations—including one pile 800 feet long, nearly the length of three football fields."
It seemed an almost inevitable coda when, five years later, a final Chicago stash caught fire in a home and took down its mailman with it.
To be fair, the problem is not peculiar to the United States. Postal hoards turn up everywhere from Norway to Malaysia, where a postal worker caught hoarding 21,255 letters complained, "Why should I deliver the letters when I am being paid less than 500 Ringgit?" He might have taken a lesson from Italy, which gamed the practice to squeeze some money out of it: In 1974, the Poste Italiane was caught selling new mail to paper-pulp plants for $14 a ton. "Most of the mail has now been turned into cheap cardboard suitcases," the Times of London reported. Shamed by the resulting outcry, the postal service then resorted to stuffing letters into unofficial "ghost trains" that circled the country without any destination.
True to form, though, the most spectacularly eccentric cases come from Britain, where in 2004 one Staffordshire carrier achieved a monumental stash of 130,000 pieces of mail. Far from simply being too tired to carry their mail, British carriers have given excuses ranging from low blood sugar to the post-traumatic stress of having served in Northern Ireland. Most memorably, last year a cross-dressing carrier in Leeds took revenge on local yobs by tossing their mail after they made fun of her newly acquired lipstick and heels.
But when one hears of a Yorkshire postman who filled every room of his house with 35,000 undelivered letters, it's hard not to find a more universal parable of the overwhelming reach of modern communication and consumerism. The carrier, Rodger Parkinson, seemed almost relieved that his mail stash was discovered.
"I'm glad in a way," he told his judge. "It needs sorting."
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.