Cars, childhood, Culture, Thank You

Gus’s Coffee Shop

Mobs of students crossed Hwy #3 every day to Gus’s.

Gus Vander Elst was a genius. He was a father, uncle, pump jockey, counter clerk, cop, teacher and short order cook. But most of all, he was a genius who bought the Cities Service gas station directly across from Delhi District Secondary School.

Can one grow wealthy selling burgers and 10-cent coffee?  Yes.

My first memorable experience with a diner hamburger was Gus’s, and like 800 other high schoolers, I reveled in the unshakeable aromas of grilled hamburgers served up under chopped raw onions, and spiced with the intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke that floated across the tables of this busy, bustling hangout.

Gus’s was our off-property school cafeteria. Like the M*A*S*H Rosie’s Bar, Gus’s attracted a majority of kids, just for its noise, warmth, foggy windows, forbidden foods, back room and unstoppable traffic.  The coffee shop was a magnet, a cash cow, and Gus was king.

So it was that every lunch hour we exited the school driveway to the eastern curb of highway #3 and strode across to the center line in crowds, intimidating the stream of drivers going to and from town. With a break in the oncoming, our hungry mob would cross over the second lane to the white, two-story concrete block building, occasionally pounding on the bell wire by the pumps, and enter ground zero, our family teen haunt.

Lunch counter, or teen haunt, prepared for the daily rush at noon time.

Inside Gus’s was a lunch counter with six red, swivel stools. Diners could face the cook’s window, or turn to the two large picture windows that looked out onto the gas pumps. But more likely they faced two banquettes separated by a Wurlitzer juke box. The banquettes were perennial turf of the seniors–that’s high school seniors– and pretty much filled with bubbling squads of girls who laughed, screamed, rolled their eyes, primped, gushed and stared dismissively at the guys shuffling in front of them, the guys who studiously ignored their looks as if the table was circled by bags of oats.

At the south side of the small diner were two more tables where a junior or soph may get lucky to be invited to sit, but space was limited, so most visitors took their lunch standing up, the whole time, bumping shoulders and elbows while they downed their burger.

Gus managed the crowd like the Music Man. He was loud, smiling and all business, hustling orders to the cook’s window, spinning burgers onto buns, and dressing the patties as they appeared, “what’ll you have, mustard, relish? Onions with that? Cheese?” He bantered with his young eaters flipping on the extras.  He knew everyone’s name.  When an order was built he’d smack a bun top onto the mountain of condiments with a cupped hand like he was slapping down a set of dice on a sponge. We took our food happily, while his wife Jeanie took our coins in payment.

Wurlitzer: the heart beat of Gus’s Coffee Shop

The jukebox was a powerhouse.   It was always in motion, pounding a super bass speaker that shook around our ankles.  Sounds of Freddy Cannon, Little Eva, Gene Chandler, Chubby Checker, and Dion moved pairs of girls to dance in the crowd.  The guys would swagger and slouch as Dion would tell his story of The Wanderer.

The back room was where Gus stored the empty pop cases: stacks of large worn wooden crates that nested four 6-packs of empty Coke, Canada Dry and Wishing Well bottles.  These were lined along the walls, and leaning up against them was a cadre of guys, staring at each other through the haze, smoking, and telling impossible, implausible, and richly impressive stories about girls, cars and teachers.

Out front were the cars.  Old Fords and Chevys mostly, but always with doors and windows open for more conversation and music.  These were driven by seniors, all in grade 13, ready and restless to escape, off to university, off to work, back to the farm, off to the lake.  One drove a beautiful plum-coloured Volkswagen, and with help from four of his buddies, would rev up the engine, spinning the wheels while they lifted the rear of the Beetle a foot off the ground.  As the engine whined its loudest, they would let go of the bumper, and the car came down on those tires that screamed as he scooted across the pavement.

When Gus couldn’t reach the pumps in time, the guys would get their own gas.

Jeanie and Gus fed us from 1951-1969.

Gus looked after his customers like a parent.  On a wintry January day, a silly joke nearly turned violent until Gus walked out to settle the score.  It was cold, and the frozen, Brylcremed hair of a young student looked like it might repel water.  Experimenting with a bottle of Coke, a second student poured a couple drops on his head, and indeed, the Coke did bead up and roll off.  Moments later, a third student decided to pour a whole bottle of Coke down the neck of the second in retaliation.  That was enough to enrage student #2 who then smashed his bottle against #3’s bottle.  The tense exchange was viewed through those picture windows as the two kids faced each other with broken Coke bottles raised towards each other.   Gus suddenly appeared between the two, and with a few words took their weapons and shut them down.  I was thankful he showed up when he did.

Everyone who went to DDSS has a story about Gus, and the student body loved him and Jeanie for the place they took in our youth: steady, reliable, hard-working, dependable and non-judgmental, they were the older couple who parented us for an hour every day as we journeyed through our high school career.  He watched over us for nearly 20 years.

The last time I saw Gus, he was a much older man.  He lived in the Delrose Retirement home at the south end of town.  Always the spark plug in a crowd, Gus led a daily exercise and work out routine for the residents who lived with him there.  They loved him too.  He was wealthy in the best way.

Thanks for reading and sharing!   You can add your Gus memories below, too!

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Culture, Entertainment, Music, Thank You

Stones: They Gather No Moss

63,000 showed up for night two of the #nofilter tour

Two hours, 25 songs, superbly prepared and shared.

The Rolling Stones visited Soldier Field last night. 63,000 showed up to welcome them. Someone remarked that they had been together for 55 years..crazy!

Actually, based on the details I read off the back of a worn tour shirt two rows down in front of me, they have been making music for 57 years.

It is not surprising that they are here, despite their frenetic flight path. The secret is, they make good music.  Music that lasts and spans generations of fans.

I know this by their choice of “support” band that played for 40 minutes before the Stones. The warm up band, which will remain anonymous, came from a different generation.

Brought up from Texas, they are labeled as a southern rock band. They served up about 8 songs which were excruciating. Loud, atonal, angry, scowling and screeching, viciously hammering their guitars, they daisy-cut the audience.   Not that the audience mattered, because they never noticed we were there. Even their soft song was strident and angry.   When they strode off the stage the applause was one of acknowledgement of the effort, and thanks…for getting off the stage.

But back to the Stones. Lest we forget, they have been an item since 1962, so they are audience-tested, and found worthy.  Last night they packaged the evening with a controlled energy that never quit.

The Stones packaged the evening with a controlled energy that never quit.

They played for two hours, delivering 25 songs.  The sound system was the same as the warm up band, but the product was superbly better, which might be the genius of the Stones.  They showed us how good rock and roll can be, with considerably less effort and volumes more goodwill.

Keith Richards subtly picked his iconic riffs.

The music was real music: recognizable melodies obviously, but prepared so elegantly.

Keith Richards subtly picked his iconic riffs without raising a sweat.  Ronnie Woods rippled across the frets, and smiled to the audience like a proud chef building a plate. Charlie Watts at the age of 78 worked the drums for two straight hours without pause. You would expect he had forearms like Popeye, but no, he is a smaller, diminuitive man who executes with precision and focus, but not brute force.

And of course, Sir Mick danced across all of our heads smiling, exhorting, cheering us and the band on.  We were his pets for the evening.  It’s amazing what a heart valve tune-up can do for the soul.

It’s every rocker’s wish that the Stones will keep on delivering.  Maybe for the concerts, the community, the culture, but mostly because they have continued to produce good, clever, memorable music–a formidable and treasured body of work over 57 years.   It’s loud, but not abusive, rhythmic but not staccato, well played, and best of all, you can sing along, which we all did.

 

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Culture, Media, Thank You, Thanks, USPS

Will You Write Me?

Back in Delhi, my home town, everyone got their mail at the post office.   Built in the 40s, this was the largest civic building in a small tobacco town of 3,000.  We climbed, what seemed at the time, a grand set of concrete steps, and entered by a glass and steel door into the lobby which held a vault of perhaps a thousand burnished steel postal boxes, secured by brass key locks.  The vault had a permanent pungent fragrance of paper, and marble floor cleaner.

I took those steps two at a time for several years through my early teens, hopefully opening our PO box #580 in search of letters for me.  The trick was to get them before the folks got there, because these letters were my first tentative steps into romance, and I couldn’t stand the investigatory barrage I would endure, had someone else seen them before me.  Worst of all, my brother, who might be on a letter quest of his own.

What’s the power manifested in these testaments of our youth?  To clutch the page that had been in the hands of someone special, reading over the words they had written bravely, carefully, giddily, for our entertainment and contentment.  I treasured every one.  And I wrote back in kind.

I just reviewed the latest report from the United States Postal Service wherein it reports that ‘single-piece first-class letter mail’ is down 7.3% from a year ago and 48% since 2009.  Now granted, the category includes small business invoices, bill payments and volumes of responses to direct mail. But among that steadily disappearing tide of mail, swept out to the depths of a dark, unforgiving and wordless ocean, there is a loss too profound to ignore, and that is the personal letter.

The post office reported that post cards are down 11.4% from a year ago. 67% since 2009. What clearer evidence can there be that we no longer send picture post cards from a remote station at the edge of Grand Canyon, or outside a cabana in Puerto Vallarta?  Maybe off a log boom in Vancouver?  Now, it’s Facebook, Instagram, IMs and Twitter all the way.

The reality we are ignoring is that hard copy has staying power.   Despite the pervasiveness of social media imagery, if we want to leave a trail for others to study years from now, we will have to rely upon the impulsive selfies we posted as the core sample of our achievements. There will be no words to explain.

Wise beyond his ten years, my grandson cautioned me not to commit stories to email. “That’s technology. It’s gonna disappear. You need to write it out, so that it’s saved.”

Smart kid.  Long live the printed book.

But more than the written word is lost. We received a letter from a long-missed friend a few weeks ago. In it, she recounted the routine of her days, the status of her children,  and their families, her health, the current politics of their village, and what to wear to a party.

While the news touched many levels of importance and substance–both high and low– it was the actual writing of these items that made the impact. Putting it all down on paper was a commitment to her personal history. Had she merely emailed, the missive would be digested and eliminated. Instead, her letter is saved, rubber-banded with others.

All our parents wrote, and frequently.  Last summer I took the time to read and absorb about 100 letters that my mother wrote to her dad in New York City. From 1943-1945, she was a newly married war bride, making a home in England while the war continued.  By 1948 she had moved to Delhi, and to a new world.  Her tale is all on paper.

Thank goodness she hadn’t emailed her stories, or they would not exist.  I learned more from those letters than I would have otherwise, even if she had told me face to face.

Letter writing isn’t difficult.  Once you start, it just flows.  The challenge is getting paper, stamps and envelope, and time.

Time is the premium resource.  It takes time to sit and consider what to say.  Why?  Because you know that your written word will be received, read, re-read and pondered upon.  Unlike a text, a two-line email, a photographic burst on Instagram or a re-post of someone’s pithy life motto, your written letter is a physical fact, and it will be read carefully.

It’s a shame really we squander our thoughts on slippery social media choices, only to find they are misinterpreted at the receiver’s end.  ‘Would to God I never wrote that!’ is a common remorseful statement following a late-night email that really did not come out right.

If you do consider taking up the pen, a good place to start is with a simple thanks. We keep an inventory of greeting cards–blank inside– which we use simply to thank people.  Thanks for the gift, the visit, the letter, the phone call, the gesture.  Thanks for just being there.

Some would call this just good etiquette.  And old fashioned.  But that again shows how much we have fallen when even ‘thanks’ is relegated to a text.

Meanwhile I still recall the adrenalin, the blush, the quiet excitement of opening that mailbox and seeing an envelope for me.  Irreplaceable, even today.

I hope you find the time to write!

“Well I got my mail, late last night, a letter from my girl who found the time to write…”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Big Steel Rail Blues”

“I read again between the lines upon the page, the words of love you sent me,”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Song For A Winter’s Night”

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Culture, Media, Thank You

The News Making The Rounds

  • I searched the hotel lobby where we were camped in Michigan for a USA Today. It used to be that this amazing newspaper was written, assembled, composed, printed locally across the country, and appeared for free in most hotels and inns next morning.

Not so much, any more.  Its lightweight reminder is now available for $2.00 on the newsstands, but faces heavyweight competition for readership, and thus, for advertising revenue.

The quest reminded me of my early days in Delhi, a small town in southern Ontario where newspapers abounded.  We enjoyed our weekly Delhi News Record which was mailed to us, rolled and sealed.  The Simcoe Reformer was another weekly that came by mail. And every morning there was a faithful, reliable delivery by news carriers on bikes of the London Free Press and Toronto’s Globe and Mail.  Those morning news boys were held in high regard.  Afternoons– citizens had a choice of the Brantford Expositor, The Toronto Star and The Toronto Telegram.

Nowadays, morning newspapers are delivered by slow prowling cars whose drivers steer from the passenger seat as they pitch bagged editions through the dark onto the driveway.  Newsboys, and newsgirls are history.

My parents drafted me when I was 10, and advised that I would be delivering the Expositor.  It had a circulation of about 30 subscribers across our little town of 3,000 souls.  Pretty quickly, a strong, steel-banded carrier basket was bolted to the front of my bike.  I was presented with a wrinkled, torn map of Delhi, and told to ‘dot’ the streets where I would be making a delivery.

The process of learning a job was uncomfortably strange.    My Dad drove me around the route the first time, taking me to little homes, back alleys, upstairs apartments, small mansions, businesses and eating places.  While I had seen most of town on my own, I had never identified, remembered or organized street names before.

More intimidating–the subscribers.  Delhi was a town of many backgrounds and nationalities.  Hungarians, Belgians, Ukrainians, Polish, Germans, English, Irish, Scottish, Italian…many newly arrived after World War II… all figured in the readership.  While I may have sat beside their children in school, or skated with them down at the rink, I had never seen their homes and yards so intimately or struggled with their accents and temperaments so regularly.  Knocking on their doors, and collecting ‘paper dues’ was mind-expanding.

The newspaper was 2 or 3 sections, and could lay flat on a doormat, or folded inside the screen door, or tucked between the door knob and the jam. Delivery was five days a week, no Saturdays or Sundays. Weekly fee: 40-cents.  I delivered the Expositor for a year, but I don’t recall ever reading beyond the headline.  My brain was just too small and overwhelmed, and less than curious about the world beyond our town.

Next year, I got to deliver the Toronto Telegram.  It competed handily against the Toronto Star.  I had 40 subscribers, a bright red Telegram newspaper bag, and a giant steel ring with green subscriber tickets on it, each punched ‘paid’ for the preceding two weeks.

The Telegram was big money for me, and opened my eyes and hands to the attractive feel of cash in my pocket.  I was getting a penny a paper.   Every two weeks I slid the funds across a magnificent marble counter at the post office and filled out a money order payable to the Telegram, at the corner of Bay & Adelaide Streets in Toronto.  My world was expanding to strange and exotic places in a city I had never visited.

But still, the adventure was the daily route.   The papers were dumped in a wire-bound lump at the town hall.   I broke them open using a notched steel washer.  One twist across the wire and the papers exploded with relief.  They filled the bag, heavily, and hoisting that onto my bike carrier, I wobbled to my first customer, Russ Christiansen, a jeweler at the corner of Main and Church.  Above his store was an apartment.  With care to fold the paper in its own sleeve, I learned to toss it to the top of the stairs where it would open flat at the door. This worked any day but Saturday when the extra sections could burst open five steps up, and that would require a major repair.

Up Main street, across King, I left a copy at the Delhi News Record offices and then headed east along King to the Belgian Bakery.  The breads and doughnuts there were not to my liking; they used granulated sugar and a lot of oil. But what they did offer, and I treasured, were aircraft cards.  These were trading cards, printed, black-and-white glossies of WWII fighter craft and bombers.  At a dime a pack, they were in my budget.

Several stops later, I dropped off at DorCliff Printers.  The owner, Cliff Whitehead, always smiled as I called him Mr. Dorcliff.  It wasn’t til years later that I learned the business was named for him and his wife Dorothy.   Crossing over James Street, which was Highway 3, I hauled up the Brantford Road to the top of Bell Street to leave a paper in a reader’s garage.  One snowy night in January I entered the garage and found a small cocker spaniel.  Stretching over to pet him, I pulled my hand back with a string of red streaming tooth marks as a reward for my gesture.

Across Delcrest, along Connaught, behind the high school and over the tracks, past Flemish Motors, I headed down to Pal Cleaners which was the southern corner of my route.  Mr. Bruder was a jovial man who always greeted me with a joke and a tease.  While the clothes hung in rows, the air was full of the hot smells of cleaning fluid and noises of driers and laundry.

Back behind Wills Motors and Smiths Lumber along Orchard street I had to pick up the bike speed to out-pedal an aggressive Boxer dog who looked forward to seeing me daily.  Twice I came home with a blue bruise on my thigh where he took a bite.  Why didn’t I take a different route?  Because it was the game we played.

Over on Imperial Street next to the tobacco factory I had two customers, and I can recall hiking up the stairs to one, finding their daughter wrist deep in flour, looking for newspaper money.  The aromas of vanilla, chocolate and warm cookies were tantalizing, and the event still remains vivid today, 60 years later.

Back along to Ann Street, and under the railway tunnel, my next stop was Dunn’s Variety.  They didn’t take the Telegram, but she sold ice cream.  There is nothing so exquisite as biting into a sugar-coned, peanut Drumstick in the middle of January.  With snow and slush covering the spokes of my bike, I pedaled, steering one-handed down William Street to Gilbert.  On the left was Maes Lane, where our customer was the Verspeetens.  Little did I guess then that this name would own probably a couple hundred tractor trailers that race along the 401 to Detroit every day 40 years later on.  I am proud of my association with Verspeeten, and tell my wife I knew them before they went big time.

Maes Lane opened up at the corner of Main and Spicers Bakery.   Spicers was the number one client on my list, and was also the source of the world’s best glazed doughnuts, expertly crafted by Mr. Palmatier.  Even today, in a crowded field of Tim Horton’s, Dunkin Doughnuts and Krispy Kreme, Mr. Palmatier’s touch remains unequaled.

North and east bound, I would head back, passing Luciani’s whose store was a robust vegetable display worthy of Rembrandt.  He is a plump, older gentleman with silvered brush cut hair and dark eyebrows.  He growls a friendly smile and places two apples into a used paper bag with strong, old, permanently tanned hands, and sends me up Main Street to the Kinsmen Hall.  Outside is a remarkable cherry tree that we would raid every summer.

My last delivery was on Queen Street to a house across from Mr. Hanselman.  He was a WWI vet who lost his arm in the war.   Across the street, I drop my last paper on the porch.  I won’t see this house again for many years until I get a job re-roofing.  On a rainy afternoon in the summer of ’69, I slide down their roof, grabbing the eaves trough on my way.  They find me on the porch, and pick me up, not realizing I had been there many times before.

Fast forward, 2019. Curious, I just checked the internet today, and find that The London Free Press, Brantford Expositor, Simcoe Reformer and Delhi News Record are all still in circulation, but owned by the same company, Postmedia Network.  The Toronto Star, and Globe and Mail continue to thrive.  Only my old employer, The Telegram, has hit the bin, being replaced by the Toronto Sun.   I wonder about USA Today and its future.

And the paper route? A youngster’s entree into life, society and work?  Truly a thing of the past.

Thanks for reading this Iliad.  Names like Doug Foster, Grant Smith, his brother Bob, Ken Antosuc and Barry Boughner come to mind as those news carriers who made the rounds, long ago!

 

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Culture, Thank You

Spare The Rod

Fifth grade: Our town’s future mayors, teachers, nurses and milkmen.

Recently I was encouraged to retrieve my old class pictures from Delhi Public School, the grade school where we got our first taste of reality.

You see, on Facebook, there is the group site opportunity to tag your old home town, and to ping all those folks from long ago. The operative phrase is, “…do you remember when?”

Pulling out the 1957-58 5th grade class picture stirred up a tsunami of remembers, not the least of which was the lady who was our teacher that year. Call her Pearl.

A feisty woman, she ruled the class with an iron hand, attached to a wrestler’s arm, driven by the righteous morality of a battalion of angels and archangels which were in immortal combat for the possession of our souls. For a 9-year-old, the stakes were not so much salvation, as merely ducking her swing with her hickory stick.

Pearl’s encourager of choice. She avoided the knuckles in deference to the Nuns’ territorial imperative.

Pearl was a motivating force that kept us in our seats, eyes in our books, when not furtively glancing about like dogs listening for the sound of a rolled up news paper.

A classmate just wrote me, “She tried to put the fear of God into all of us, but I had much more fear of Pearl, than I did of all the gods put together. She was a holy terror with the pointer and the strap.”

Indeed for the smallest infraction, Pearl would swoop down the aisle, stick raised into a ballplayer’s grand slam swing, and bring it down smartly across an arm or a back. She had a knack for avoiding the knuckles, probably deferring to the nuns’ specialty at St Francis School across town.

But she had her good humor too. Daily we would submit our workbooks to her for marking, and next day, she would stand at the front of the class, and lob them, frisbee-style across 7 columns of school desks to our waiting hands. Those were light moments, in contrast to the darker ones.

Listening to a strapping session glued us to our chairs.

Of course, the most feared instrument was the strap. She never threatened with it, but on the one occasion that she committed to use it, we were transfixed in our seats as she marched “Ben & Jerry”, not their real names, out of the class and into the hallway. Out there, out of sight, under the supervision of the principal, she administered numerous swings of scholarly rectitude down on the calloused hands of the two boys.

For us, inside the class room, it was like seeing the lights dim for a moment when the voltage was turned on.

Then moments later, Ben and Jerry returned. Ben was sniffling a bit, but not crying. Jerry, who was the older by 3 years, was white in the face, but stern and disgusted. From that day on he was my hero. He embodied true moxie, a guy’s guy, even if he was a chronic trouble maker. I admired his guts.  I bet he’d gotten worse at home.

Pearl’s Plan B. Long, slender, but no match for hickory. The rubber tip shot like a bullet across the room.

For me, pushing 60 pounds soaking wet, I was constantly in fear of Pearl’s stick. One day, after she had wound up a little too tight, she broke her cudgel over a boy’s back. After the shock of it wore off, we nervously stifled a laugh while she picked up the broken weapon. “Hurray! No more stick!”

Wrong. Pearl reached into her closet, and extracted a new pointer. A little more slender, but 36 inches long, with a black rubber tip for pointing.

Within a day, the pointer was out in the air, flailing some poor sap for his writing, or arithmetic. After that, the rubber tip popped off, and shot across the room like a bullet.

Laughable pointers for cartoon teaching. We should have party hats, too.

The kid is wheezing, staring bug-eyed at his work book waiting for the next flogging. Behind him, not missing the opportunity, the smallest, most obsequious guy in the room, smart, but not canny, stutters out helpfully, “Mrs. Pearl, ah aha,ah,ah, your rubber tip f-f-fflew off your your pointer.” We all groaned.

Pearl would not be impressed with today’s teaching aids.  Pointers, for one.  The wooden stick is pretty much gone, though you can pick up little one-footers with cartoon fingers on the ends, much like tiny back scratchers.  Pearl may have gravitated to the new laser pointers.  Good up to a hundred feet, she could cauterize the retinas of any truant in a nano second.

The Logitech R800: green laser, accurate up to 100 feet.

Grade 5 was the year that we studied grammar in earnest.  “Using Our Language” was the name of the text.  It was a dreary book that drilled us on adjectives and adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions, compound sentences and subordinate clauses that modified God-knows-what.  Every day Pearl assigned us homework from the text with 10 problem sentences identified as A. through J.

I will die with the memory that the tenth letter of the alphabet is a J.

J for me however, was a bridge too far.  I hated the homework, didn’t understand it, and invariably, would grind to a halt around F.  For days I had submitted my homework book, and every day, Pearl would frisbee the book back to me.  No words were spoken, no warnings or admonishments.

In a moment of thought, checking the cotton batten.

I knew that my days were numbered.  I cringed in fear of that pointer, or worse yet, the strap.  I wouldn’t be the brave kid like Ben & Jerry.  I would be a miserable little suck, I knew it.  So, I practiced.  At night I would strap my hand with my belt.  Didn’t really put my heart into it, but I tried.  Heck, it hurt!  Every morning, I carefully padded my arms with cotton batten, held in place with rubber bands.  If she came at me, they would cushion the blow, I hoped.

And like time, tide and taxes, that day did come.

“Philip!  Come here!”

She sat at her desk at the back of the room, like the eagle’s nest, where she could stare at the backs of the bobbing heads and noggins of the town’s future mayors, teachers, nurses and milkmen.  I scurried up to the side of her desk.

“Yes?”  She had my workbook open, staring at a scrawl of jumbled thoughts, terminating around E or F .

“Look at this, Philip!  What do you see?  Here!  Right here!”  I came in closer to the desk, and stared at her lacquered fingernail, pointing like a sharpened dagger at a smudge in the lined book.  “Look at it !!  What do you see?  Look closer!”

I knew this was it, and for an electric moment, I thought about those protective cotton battens on my arms, and how I was going down.  I bent in closer to look at her finger.   It is angrily pulsing pink and white from pressing the page.

I am bent almost double from the waist, squinting at the page whose blue lines are shimmering before me, and then– “WHACK-WHACK-WHACK!”

She got me, right across the butt.  Like a new sergeant, I went back to my desk with three fresh stripes.

I laugh at the time now, but it was a major event back then.  In fact, not only do I laugh, but honestly, I am thankful.  I never submitted a shoddy workbook again.  I accepted A through J.  What’s more, I went after the entire alphabet after that, upper and lower case.

Thankfully, she did teach me to read, and to write.

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Culture, direct mail, Media, Science, Thank You, USPS

You Are Still On My List

A written card, delivered by mail. Old fashioned, and meaningful.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly featured the story of a father in Valdosta, Georgia who has sent over 20,000 post cards to his kids since 1995. The kids have saved every one, and their bookshelves are packed with volumes of fatherly words to his children.

As a devout postal fan, I was intrigued and pleased that there was a fellow writer who still believed in sending cards and letters.  Indeed a while back I wrote about the beauty of the written thank you note.

It drove me to look at the latest USPS Revenues Pieces and Weights report that measures the postal pulse of the nation. What I found was both disturbing, and a little puzzling.

Direct mail surrendered some market share to the web.

We know that mail volumes have conceded their dominance to email and online transactions. Even direct mail, which is a vibrant, robust medium has also given up share to the web.

But what was revealing about our culture are the declining totals of personal mail for the last three months, from October to December, 2017.

Simply put, we stopped writing.

Year over year, the Q4 volume of “single” letters slipped 5.9%. A blip? No, because single letters had dropped 5.1% the previous Q4 as well.  A single letter is typically a bill payment, a business letter, or a personal letter.  Or perhaps a greeting card.

The Greeting Card Association reports 7 billion cards are produced every year.

Percentages don’t really tell the story though. This past quarter, the single letter volume dropped 313,044,000 pieces.

To put that into terms we understand, I remind you that every Q4 we celebrate Halloween, Remembrance or Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and approximately 75,000,000 birthdays.

The USPS counter selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The Greeting Card Association reports that we purchase over 7 billion greeting cards every year.  And it turns out that the USPS delivered 17.5 billion single letters in 2017.   Maybe the remaining 10.5 billion single letters are just business and bill payments.  So, did we stop sending personal letters, or did we stop paying our bills?

The answer again pops up in the USPS reports.  In 2017, Presort First Class letters, aka, bulk business letters dropped over 5%: 787 million fewer bills and statements going out; fewer checks coming back.

It further develops, according to the USPS 2016 Householder Diary that Americans sent 3.6 billion letters “household to household”.

Conclusion: consumers are doing their business online, receiving and paying their bills electronically.

This is a huge relief to me, because it means that we are still writing personal cards and letters…I think.

For certain, the volume will never drop to zero, because of the persistent efforts of a father in Valdosta who still writes his kids every day.

How often do you?

Thanks for sharing!  If you would like to see the USPS reports for yourself, click here!

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direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, Thank You, USPS

Their Appointed Rounds

The United States Postal Service closed out their fiscal year September 30.  Never mind that the rest of the world goes by the annual calendar; the USPS wanted to beat the Christmas rush.

All in, the giant continues to perform well, within the confines of its quasi-government walls.  I wish the rest of the Federal government departments spent as much time looking after their own performance and expenses as does the USPS.

But from the latest Revenues Pieces And Weights report, here are a few glimmers of surprise and excitement.

  1.  It is a $69.6 billion dollar enterprise.  In the Fortune 500 list, it hovers around #37, bigger than Target, and smaller than Procter & Gamble, both good neighbors.  Like both of these companies, the USPS is an indicator of the USA’s pulse rate, though we will admit that it has slipped a bit.
  2. In 2017, the USPS revenues fell $1.8 billion.  We know why.  The Web, social media, email have all disenfranchised much of the USPS core business: first class mail and standard mail.
  3. First class mail continues to fall, $1.9 billion.  Compared to last year, it delivered 2.5 billion fewer pieces of mail, a drop of 4.1%.  Why? Because we receive our invoices, checks and statements electronically.  We pay electronically too.
  4. Standard Mail, now called Marketing Mail, dropped 2.6 billion pieces, about 3.2%.  Why?  Last year was a mail-infused election year.  It was distinguished by huge volumes of mail, from you know who, despite his predilection for Twitter.
  5. Overall, in its market dominant categories, that is, where it holds monopoly rights, revenues fell just over $4.0 billion.
  6. In the open competitive markets, ie., parcels and packages, revenues were UP over $2.2 billion, a 12.5% increase.  Wow! Who knew?

The Web Taketh, And It Giveth

Here’s what I find impressive about the USPS.  Despite the constant nagging of the digital futurists who want to write the Obit for the post office, it continues to hold its own.  In an environment where Internet media are running rampant, the USPS has found a broad new niche: parcel delivery, a $20 billion business.  If anyone should be worried, it will be the brick and mortar retail stores. Ask Sears.  Ask Toys R Us.  Ask Amazon.

American consumers have taken to the Web in all respects, but at day’s end, they need physical product delivery, and the USPS has risen to serving that need.  After all, they were coming by our house anyway.  Their two main competitors are UPS and Fedex, the latter using the postal carrier to make the “last mile” delivery.

Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Gloom of Night…

Postal carriers are the only American entity which visit 157,000,000 addresses every day.  They delivered, all in, 149 billion items in 2017.  They lifted 24 billion pounds, or 12 million tons, of physical product: mail, checks, magazines, parcels and yes, live bees and plants. The USPS has over 500,000 career employees and another 140,000 part-timers.  While this may seem like a wildly aggressive employer, I put it to you that the postal employee actually delivers, a claim many can’t make for other government institutions.

So hats off to the USPS.  It continues to fight the currents, and with astonishingly little help from its political friends, it far surpasses its governmental cousins.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to take a look at the USPS 10-K for 2017, click here!

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