Cleaning out my cluttered house as my 70th birthday approached, I came across hundreds of old letters that my family accumulated over decades. It seemed vaguely disrespectful to throw them out without examining them, so I sat on my couch, pulled them out of their envelopes and read every one.
This took a couple of weeks, during which I came to feel a kind of tactile connection with the writers - grandmothers, parents, others long gone - that's missing from electronic correspondence. I also remembered that letters like these, which I mostly stopped sending or receiving with the rise of the Internet, had once been my favorite form of communication, even when I had nothing much to say.
And so, weary of social media and their vast networks of strangers, I began writing postal letters again: one to a different person every day, someone I know or used to know.
A frivolous diversion, or so it began; an amusing stunt. I had nothing pressing or even prepossessing to say to these people, many of whom I hadn't seen or communicated with in 30, 40 or 50 years. Still, I enjoyed holding forth, wistfully, playfully, with rekindled memories and retrospections they didn't ask for.
To J, with whom I shared a high school math class, I recalled that we always sat in the opposite corners of the room, and that my gaze regularly wandered from her to the teacher and back to her. To D, with whom I shared a third-floor San Francisco flat in the freewheeling early '70s, I inquired if he remembered the doleful pet monkey that lived next door, or the piece of mail that arrived in our box one day addressed to Janis Joplin.
Before long, I ran out of the usual suspects, but as names of long-lost acquaintances came to mind, I put them on a list. After several weeks, I set a rather arbitrary goal: 108 letters to 108 people. This proved to be a tidy way of recapitulating my life, or parts of it.
Each letter was handwritten, in one sitting, on a sheet of 8 1/2-by-11 copy paper. I usually filled both sides with my scrawl - 500 to 700 words. Now and then, I'd draw a picture or enclose a clipping. I did not provide my email address or any contact information other than the return address on the envelope. The unstated implication was that if the recipient cared to reply, he or she would have to do so in kind.
I set ground rules for myself: News of my immediate family was to be kept to a minimum, since most of my recipients knew nothing of my family anyway. Whenever I felt obliged to catch the reader up on my own, less-than-fascinating life, I tried to distill the summary into a few sentences. I resolved to steer clear of Trump and not to repeat myself unduly. Every letter had to be substantially different and, I hoped, somewhat entertaining, a taxing task.
For Professor L, a rare academic soul who excelled both as scholar and teacher, I summoned up the first collegiate honors seminar I attended that he presided over. To K, an old flame, I reminded her of the last time we'd seen each other: in a bar somewhere near Columbus Circle on Friday night, July 2, 1983. I told her I could pinpoint the date only because I had happened two days later to make my once-in-a-lifetime visit to Yankee Stadium, where I saw Dave Righetti no-hit the Red Sox - a July 4 memory that moves me to this day, and never mind that I didn't care much for either team.
I wrote to smatterings of old classmates, co-workers, landlords, relatives, neighbors, friends of my late parents and siblings, and in a few cases, to people I barely ever knew but wished I'd known better. Mailing addresses were remarkably easy to find online. The Postal Service returned seven letters as undeliverable; I found alternate addresses for four and sent them back out, with apparent success.
Drawing from my recent experience in a community orchestra, I encouraged my old friend B, who had spent his junior year in Freiburg, to listen to the old German student-drinking songs that infuse Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture." To college roommate S, whose musician father enjoyed an international renown I was utterly unaware of when I met them both on move-in day, I wrote a belated appreciation of his dad - based on what I was able to learn, just for the purpose of my letter, of the man's extraordinary virtuosity and humility.
Sometimes I sat down with no idea what I could possibly say to So-and-So, a casual acquaintance grown ever more distant over so many years. Yet a blank sheet of paper, waiting to be filled, imposes a discipline on imagination and memory that a blank screen, awaiting a text or email of indeterminate length, does not. What's more, buffered by time and space, I felt uncharacteristically uninhibited from teasing or flirting with people I hadn't seen in decades and perhaps never would again. Now and then I'd picture a husband peering over his wife's shoulder at my letter and muttering, "Who the hell is this guy?"
I reminded G, one of the barely known ones, that in junior high she had been class president but then had left us all behind as she ascended to the exclusive social circles of upper classmen. What, I asked her, had been her secret in gaining admission to those exalted ranks? A superficial Google search for M, whom I remembered fondly as a die-hard lefty of wit and sagacity, turned up an affiliation with a right-wing think tank. I had to ask him if he'd gone over to the other side.
Neither G nor M wrote back.
Nevertheless, at some point during this 3 1/2-month exercise (during which I ignored my social media accounts), I began to fantasize that my little campaign could be the vanguard of a counterintuitive new trend. Everyone calls it "snail mail," but I don't consider that to be pejorative. True, these letters demand more time, thought and effort than the typical email, but my reward is a sense of creative satisfaction as I come up with a soliloquy custom-made for a particular person. So what if this ancient medium is slower, and why shouldn't it enjoy a cultural renaissance along with other old-fashioned virtues, such as slow food, or vinyl records or high-altitude climbing without oxygen?
Another reward, of course, is the serendipitous receipt - among the daily surfeit of sales promotions, solicitations and other junk shoved through my mail slot by my postal carrier - of an envelope from a long-ago someone. I replied to every respondent, in keeping with another of my ground rules.
In my initial letter to D, one of my old tennis buddies, I regaled him with hoary anecdotes from our playing days. He replied with a brief letter affirming that he had gone on to a successful coaching career, expressing some puzzlement that I was reaching out to him in this peculiar way, and asking for my email address. Dear D, I wrote back by snail mail, I still have my old T-2000 (a vintage steel racket). Do you think it might be worth something? No, he answered by email.
Two months after I wrote the 108th letter, the in-kind response rate was 37 percent. Among the least responsive, by category: college classmates (1 out of 6), colleagues at a nonprofit where I worked in the '80s (1 of 7), cousins (2 of 8) and octogenarians/nonagenarians (1 of 11).
I did, however, hear back from a centenarian - Professor L! His daughter wrote on his behalf: "It was kind of you to actually write one of those letters many think of writing, but so often do not. You've cheered up an old man and his family."
I had better luck with high school classmates (10 of 17), former newspaper cohorts (7 of 13) and old girlfriends (4 of 6).
K, who is something of a celebrity, replied that she was delighted to find my envelope in a stack of her unwanted fan mail, and that she even recognized my handwriting. She said she loved hearing about my visit to Yankee Stadium. She told me about her son. How often did I get to New York City?
Several respondents chided me for the quality of my penmanship, but no one complained of illegibility. I relied on handwriting not just for the full antique effect, but for convenience. I could and did write these letters wherever I happened to be: in coffee shops, airport lounges, libraries and public parks, usually in the company of people pecking away on their smartphones.
I am not a Luddite. I own, and use, a smartphone, and I have nothing against email. Social media have their place, but not as forums for singularity, for nostalgically reflective and waggishly discursive, for graphically inventive intimations inspired by, and addressed to, one person alone. That's snail mail's domain. I came away from my letter-writing experiment thinking that snail mail is not only neglected, but underappreciated. Even people who grew up with it - including many of those on my list - don't seem to get it any more.
J, last seen and heard from in 1967, was one who did get it. She wrote back twice, and began the second letter with this:
"Your snail mail project of contacting people you have lost touch with must be bringing back lots of memories for you, first as you write the letters and then later when you read the replies. And most likely it has brought back memories to those you write to. It certainly has for me."
Whether my nonrespondents were similarly touched, I'll never know, but at least they let me have the last word.
Author Information: Tim Johnson is a former newspaper reporter who lives in Burlington, Vt.