R2-D2: Working Stiff

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03/09/2008

Corner of Broadway and 43rd, 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

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In commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of “Star Wars,” a number of mailboxes around the city have been made over--shrouded in an industrial strength decal--like R2-D2, my preferred mailbox among them. The USPS website quotes a postal representative as saying it was a “natural fit,” the tone of his hyperbole exuberant. My suspicion is that it has more to do with promoting the recently issued “Star Wars” stamps. I was a kid when “Star Wars” came out but, while everyone else was caught up in the craze, it didn’t make much of an impression upon me. It’s blend of mythology and cutesiness, I found simultaneously pretentious and cloying--which was that much harder to reconcile given I was a huge “Lost In Space” fan. All things considered, I’m willing to give R2-D2, working stiff, a chance to make good.

I send a lot of mail. I still pay bills by mail. Then there’s Netflix; I mail three red envelopes every week, religiously. But mostly, I send out query letters. I’m a writer, and mail hundreds of query letters a year. The mailbox I employ is in Times Square. On the NE corner of Broadway and 43rd. I work on 44th, and pass the mailbox on the corner of Broadway and 43rd on a daily basis. There are actually two mailboxes, one next to the other. Coming from the main Times Square subway station on 42nd, I stop at the one closest to the corner, and if that’s full, proceed to the second one.

When I mail something local from the mailbox on Broadway and 43rd, it usually gets there next day. I can mail a Netflix at four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday I get an email from Netflix informing me that it’s arrived. I’ll watch a Netflix over the weekend and, rather than mailing it from where I live on Staten Island Monday or Tuesday, wait till I go back to work on Wednesday to mail it from the mailbox on Broadway and 43rd. I call the mailbox on Broadway and 43rd, tongue planted firmly in cheek, the “magic mailbox.”

Recently, I put together a mailing for my play, “Asterisk.” “Asterisk” was produced for three weeks in June, at The American Theater of Actors, and this query is an attempt to get it picked up by a bigger theater, hopefully Off-Broadway. It takes longer to do a mailing than you might imagine. You have to research each theater company as to their submission policy. Some accept a full script. Others request a writing sample. Most simply want to see a query. Then there are those that won’t read unsolicited material, or don’t offer any guidelines. I query them, too.

I’d spent the weekend putting thirty or so mailings together. Several scripts. Some writing samples. And a stack of query letters. While I go out of my way to mail letters at the magic mailbox, manila envelopes I mail at my local post office, sacrificing efficiency, rather than lugging around my own mailbag. So, Wednesday afternoon, I leave for work early, and stop at the St. George Post Office. I surrender my stack of scripts and writing samples with a silent “Godspeed,” and make a panicked last second decision to check the weight of the query letters, since they contain not only the actual query letter, along with standard SASE, but also synopsis, Backstage review, and article that MLB.com did about the play. The mailman, after unofficially weighing a letter in the palm of his hand, then officially weighing it on a scale, informs me it requires an additional 17¢ postage. He offers to do it for me but, much to his chagrin, I decline, and instead purchase the requisite number of stamps--there actually is a 17¢ stamp--that I need for my stack of query letters, and stamp them on the Staten Island Ferry.

Walking through Times Square, I get the query letters out of my bag and flip through them, checking postage and labels one last time as traffic and humanity pass me in all directions. But when I pull the handle on the magic mailbox, it jams. It seems to be full more often since assuming the guise of R2-D2. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Or perhaps, the businessmen and -women working in Times Square are more nostalgic than you’d give them credit for. And bigger fans of “Star Wars” than I. Opening the companion mailbox I hear, “MMMM-MNNNN!” I turn to see a mailman hurrying toward me. Actually, mailwoman. An African-American woman in her forties, to be precise. Who proceeds to admonish me for nearly mailing my regular mail in the Airmail mailbox.»

I guess I should have recognized that the second mailbox was for Airmail. But prior to the magic mailbox’s conversion to R2-D2, the two mailboxes appeared identical. For nine years, I’ve been mailing mail from the corner of Broadway and 43rd, the local mailbox my mailbox of choice, but regularly settling for the second mailbox, or what I now know as the Airmail mailbox, and my mail has always arrived without incident. I explain that I wasn’t aware that it was an Airmail mailbox, but she doesn’t accept my ignorance as an excuse for breaking the law.

“Why do you think there are two mailboxes on the corner?” she asks.

“I thought the second one was a backup,” I say.

She just stares at me.

“The first one is often full,” I explain further.

She looks me up and down.

“It’s full now.”

“Didn’t you ever read the notice?” she asks.

“No.”

“No?”

“I never noticed it.”

“It’s right there.”

She points out the notice. Right in front of the drawer. I don’t have anything to say for myself. Victorious, she grabs the mail out of my hand and inspects it, manhandling my weekend’s work. My life’s work.

“Is this for a company?” she asks.

“No.”

“No?”

“It’s mine.”

“All this?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Humn.”

“This is a query for my play.”

She considers this. “You’re lucky this isn’t for a company,” she says. “If this was for a company, you could be fined.”

“Fined?”

“Up to a thousand dollars.”

“A thousand dollars?”

“Per letter.”

“But just companies get fined?”

“You can be fined, too!”

“I’ve been using these mailboxes for nine years. And it’s never been a problem.” Huff. “I’m late for work.”

“You been doing this for nine years, and you didn’t figure out that this mailbox is for Airmail?”

I point to the magic mailbox and, in my best late night talk show host delivery, say, “This mailbox looks like R2-D2. For all I know, it’s for intergalactic mail.”

She doesn’t laugh. I’m glad I didn’t go with my joke about how, since the mailbox looks like R2-D2, that must make her C-3P0. Or I might have been looking at upwards of thirty grand in fines. I promise that I won’t use the Airmail mailbox for my regular mail anymore, she throws my stack of query letters into her basket, and I quickly lose myself in the crowd.

I’ve kept my word, and haven’t put my regular mail in the Airmail mailbox. When the magic mailbox is full, I stick my letters back into my bag and continue on to work. Sometimes I mail them on my way home. But usually, I forget, and have to mail them the next day. A couple times I’ve forgotten altogether, and discovered them in the bottom of my bag, several days later, worse for wear. It’s completely thrown off my Netflix schedule, and made me late with an Amex bill. Not to mention stalling my career.

Epilogue Following my encounter with the mailperson, the Airmail mailbox on Broadway and 43rd disappeared, leaving R2-D2 all alone. Recently, I noticed that the R2-D2 mailbox was back to being a regular, earthbound mailbox. I wish they’d put a second regular mailbox on the corner, to handle the overflow.

 

Tom Diriwachter has worked as a playwright in New York for over a decade. He is currently at work on a book of non-fiction.

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