Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Hazards of Suburbia

Every once in a while, an old friend in New York asks me about how we’re adjusting to our new life in the suburbs.  Just kidding.  They almost never ask me anything.   Frankly, I’m not sure some of our old friends even know where we live.  Maybe they think we just moved way downtown, and enrolled our kids in a magnet school.  And that’s too far to visit, because it means changing trains.

When New Yorkers do visit, they frequently marvel (aloud) at the discrepancy between our old and new lifestyles.   Last summer, we brought a visiting New Yorker to our neighborhood swim meet.  For a period of about 30 minutes – after which he abandoned his feigned interest in the entire endeavor of sport, and strolled off to get a cappuccino – he mostly sat in a folding chair next to our mini-tent and read the Wall Street Journal.  Later, he remarked how amazing it was that all of these parents devoted every Saturday morning to watching their children do nothing but swim.   What he really wondered, I think, was why we didn’t all just delegate this onerous business to our nannies.

I get his point, though.  Life is slower here.  One thing I really miss about living in a city is the amusing drama of daily life.  New Yorkers don’t necessarily have more aberrant lifestyles than the rest of humanity, but their interesting eccentricities are more vividly on display.  When you live upstairs from a guy who sleeps in a coffin, for example, every elevator ride is an opportunity for wild (and nervous) speculation. Given how many drag queen shows I attended in the meatpacking district, it’s possible that I have an unusually high appetite and/or tolerance for drama, even by urban standards. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that suburban life is a lot more entertaining if you chase the drama down the street yourself. 

I was thinking about this yesterday, after I chased our postal carrier down the street.   A few minutes before, I’d spoken to a guy named Josh over the phone.  He worked at the post office, and sounded exactly like John Corbett.  He was very affable.

“Hey there,” I said, trying to sound like I was just calling to help out.  “What should we do with this card we got in our mailbox?  It says HAZARD WARNING CARD."

When I said the words, HAZARD WARNING CARD, I couldn’t help speaking just a little bit louder, like I was pronouncing the capital letters.  Since getting this card, Mike and I had pretty much been walking around the house, yelling out words from the card at random intervals.  We were terribly amused at the contrast between the urgency of the word HAZARD, and the non-urgent nature of the words NEW and RAKE.   We knew so little then.  But now, I was determined to learn more.

Josh: “So you got one in your mailbox then?”  

I don’t know about all of the Midwest.  But people in Wisconsin put the word then at the end of sentences sometimes.  They either do this because it’s a culturally ingrained verbal tick, or because they are accustomed to conversing with Lutherans, who may need extra narrative encouragement to continue talking, rather than to leave and go ice fishing.   I took his encouragement and confirmed his assumption.  Josh told me to put it back in the mailbox.  He would call our carrier, and let him know to pick it up.

I sensed that Josh needed to get back to work.  But I also felt that my extreme postal helpfulness now gave me license to trap him on the phone. So I followed up with a probing question. 

“Josh,” I said, meeting his affability and raising him. “Exactly what is so hazardous about a rake?”  

Maybe Mike and I are na├»ve.  Sometimes, we assume we don’t know ordinary suburban things because we spent the first chunk of our adult lives in urban apartments, where building staff did most of the grunt work.   But we could not figure out why the postal service would have generated a HAZARD WARNING CARD for a rake.  Was it a terribly dangerous rake?  Was it endangering the lives of not just postal employees, but everyone in the neighborhood?  Josh laughed, like he was telling someone from California about winter.

“No, it doesn’t mean like, a rake.  It’s the slang we use at the post office, for the former tenant or resident of a building, so the new person doesn’t end up with the old person's junk mail.”

At this point, I figured it was over.  I mean, I had tried my best to make this dramatic.   I had a weird postal card in my possession.  I had talked to Josh, who basically could've starred in Northern Exposure.  I had learned some cool postal service slang that made no sense whatsoever.  But all I really had was my civic duty and the memory of some hilarious capital letters.  I hung up the phone, and got ready to walk over to the elementary school for my weekly volunteer shift.   Another humdrum day in suburbia.

But when I got to the end of my driveway, I noticed that the mail truck had just passed.  

“Oh Shit!” I yelled, sprinting up the block with my book and my coffee in one hand, and the HAZARD WARNING CARD in the other.  I waved it furiously in the air.  This maneuver probably seemed rather peculiar to the tree-trimming guys, who were standing around like roosters in the middle of the street, clucking at the icy rain.  But I was determined to make this card count.   The driver opened the door, and smiled.

 “Uh, oh!”  he said cheerfully.  “Whaddya got there?”

Josh obviously hadn’t gotten around to calling him yet.  So I told him about our earlier conversation.  He went on to explain that while he’d been working for the postal service for 36 years -- and got all the address changes pretty much memorized right away -- the part-timers needed these cards so they would know where to put old junk mail.  When I asked him for another example, he pulled out another HAZARD WARNING CARD to illustrate the point.

I guess a lot of people might have left it there.  Hand over the card, and walk away.  As a seasoned conversational digger, however, I long ago figured out that people are more likely to share things when you prompt them with suggestive emotional words.  This is especially true in Wisconsin, where almost every nugget of personal information -- past a casual greeting or polite introduction -- is pretty much considered TMI.  I sharpened my verbal knife.

“So tell me,” I said.  "Why does the postal service use a card with the word HAZARD written on it?  Moving is more like an EVENT.  Doesn’t the word HAZARD just make it sound SCARY?”

“Well,” he said, “It’s funny you mention that.”

Game on.

I can’t pretend to remember everything the mail carrier told me.  Not in enough detail to recreate a faux-accurate conversation, anyway.  But what he told me was the suburban drama equivalent of pay dirt.   In my world, anyway.

Very recently, it seems, the post office decided to change the HAZARD WARNING CARD to… wait for it… WARNING CARD.  Why the big change, after decades of HAZARD WARNING CARD?  Because even though these cards are supposed to stay in the vehicles, they often end up in mailboxes just like mine.   Which would be fine, if the mailboxes were actually just like mine, and the recipients were just formerly urban drama queens who periodically called Josh to amuse themselves with the challenge of getting random information from a total stranger. 
As it turns out, however, some mailbox owners aren’t so much amused at these cards, as they are frightened by them.  So frightened that when they go out to get the mail, and see a card with the word HAZARD on it, they assume that someone (ISIS maybe? A revengeful enemy? A more local terror cell?) has targeted her with a bomb, or a mailing envelope full of anthrax.

So they call the police.  Whereupon the police jump in their SUV's and convoy over to the post office, demanding an explanation for the HAZARD WARNING CARD.   Which makes total sense.  Because wouldn’t the post office – rather than keeping the anthrax on site and reporting it, maybe to federal authorities – just go ahead and deliver it to the postal victim, accompanied by a helpful card that indicated she was possibly about to be poisoned or exploded?

Just letting you know, Mrs. Peterson.  There might be some poison in this letter.  All in a day’s work.  Carry on.  Signed, HAZARD WARNING CARD.

I would never mock someone’s fear of terrorism.  Believe me, I take it very seriously.   But this wasn’t about a real threat of terrorism.  It was about a bad, pre-9/11 postal card – that probably does need to be changed -- and someone for whom suburbia probably already has enough drama.    It’s probably good she lives here.  Me, I'll probably keep chasing it down the street.