The Postman's Knock

June 19 1998 3:30 AM

The Postman's Knock

Seeking signs of remembrance in an electronic age.

And none will hear the postman's knockWithout a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?--W.H. Auden

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How archaic that now sounds, technologically! And how true it is, psychologically!

No one hears the postman's knock any more. I can't remember that I ever heard it. At home, I get my mail from a clerk at the desk six floors below my apartment. At my office, I either find my mail on a shelf or have it placed on my desk by my helper. In either case I don't hear the postman's knock or ever see him.

But the mail--now derisively called "snail mail"--is not the primary means of mediated communication; that is, communication at a distance beyond face-to-face contact. First, there is the telephone, today generally equipped with "voice mail," which allows you to retrieve messages left in your absence. Now, increasingly, there is e-mail, opening up a whole new world of instantaneous written communication.

Along with this technological change have come some changes of attitude. We no longer are in the position evoked by Auden, passively awaiting a connection with the outside world through the postman. Now we increasingly seek the connection. We go to a clerk and ask for our mail; we call our answering service to see if there have been any phone calls; we log on to our computer to search for messages.

With the proliferation of means of communication has come a degradation of the messages. In my youth, ordinary mail was the standard means of communication among people who knew each other, even those who knew each other very well, such as parents and children. Long-distance telephone was reserved for the announcement of births or deaths. Today, I send or receive hardly any personal post office mail, except when printed matter, such as a newspaper clipping, is enclosed. There is one person with whom I have a fairly regular postal mail correspondence, and that is because we are both trying to make a literary exercise of our writing to each other and he, alas, does not have e-mail.

Whatever personal communication there is in the mail I receive at home is buried in a mountain of solicitations for contributions from people or institutions I barely know. My usual response to receiving my packet of mail is not Auden's "quickening of the heart." It is more likely to be "ugh!" At my office, my mail consists almost exclusively of policy memorandums and pamphlets from institutions to whom I am but one name on an enormous mailing list. This mail makes me confront the feeling that I ought to study it all and the realistic knowledge that I ought to throw it out. Not much "quickening of the heart" there.

There is plenty of junk in my e-mail also. When I log on in the morning, I am sure to find a couple of messages offering me pornographic videos with one click of the mouse, and at least one message from someone ready to tell me how to earn $1,000 an hour working from home. But still, the ratio of personal communication to garbage is higher than for snail mail.

The proportion of personal communication is highest on the telephone. But even there, when the bell rings and I pick up the receiver I am likely to hear someone asking, "How are you today, Herbert?"--a sure sign of a stranger trying to sell me something.

The odds against getting a "quickening of the heart" by any of these media are high. But despite the odds, I find it worthwhile to try to make the connection. We have been warned at the apartment building where I live not to disturb the desk clerk by asking for mail before 11:00 a.m. But I am there at the desk at 11:01. In my office, two or three times a day I look into the room where the mail is shelved. I call my home phone from the office at least once a day to see if any messages have been left. From home, I call my office three or four times a day. (One of the saddest and most common responses is the operator saying, "Herbert Stein, no new messages.") Even more frequently than that I log on to one of my three computers, hoping to see the little message on the screen, "You have mail."