Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Relics: Mail chute

A couple of years ago in "Please Mr. Postman," I marked the prolonged passing of the blue mailbox, no longer needed in the age of text messaging, mobile phones, and social media. Before USPS started carting the Chicago boxes off to rust at the central office (where I saw what seemed to be thousands lined up, with nothing to do and nowhere to go), another type of mail collection method had fallen into disuse—the mail chute.

The first mail chute I saw and used was at 200 South Riverside Plaza in Chicago, at my first job. The chute ran down the wall across the hall from the word processing room on the 37th floor. People still used it then, in 1983. Walking past it, I would be startled by the sudden whoosh of an envelope falling down the chute, presumably on its way to a collection box. Sometimes, however, someone would ambitiously stuff, say, a 9" x 12" envelope into the chute, which had the same effect as some boxes do in trash chutes—it would "gum up the works," as my dad might have said.

I don't recall if the mail chute was still in use when the company relocated to 203 North LaSalle Street in 1986. A contemporary blend of glass, steel, and atrium. this building probably didn't have anything as quaint as a mail chute.

The Flamingo, which opened in the late 1920s, has a mail chute, although it's closed off on the floors. I have no idea where it may have ended, as it's west of the elevators, while the mail collection box in the lobby is on the north wall across from the elevators.
Cutler~Mail~Chute~Co.
Rochester, NY.
Cutler~Mailing~System
Authorized by P.O. Dept.
Installed under the Cutler Patents

Note that it's not just a mail chute and mail collection box, but a <em>mailing system</em>. Product pretentiousness isn't a contemporary invention.

Find out more about the history of the Cutler Mail Chute Co. and the mail chute system at the National Postal Museum site and, of course, Wikipedia.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Relics: Superman's changing room

Once upon a time, all Clark Kent had to do to summon his inner Superman was to pop into the nearest telephone booth, tear off his glasses (not in the careful two-handed way recommended by opticians), and rip open his shirt. (His tailor must have made a mint replacing buttons while wondering who were these women so eager to get to the nerdy reporter's chest.)

Telephone booth? Back up. What's a telephone booth?

Like many things associated with the traditional telephone, the phone booth is almost only a memory. Aside from Clark Kent/Superman, who needs a phone in the relative privacy of a booth when, with our smart phones, we can chat openly about our hemorrhoid surgery or latest squabble with a friend right on the bus or at our restaurant table? Access to the world is in our pockets.

The last time I used a a phone booth or pay phone was in 1999, when I called a cab after my high school reunion. It was in a decaying shopping center across the road from where I used to live, and quite possibly was the only one for miles around. The last pay phone I recall seeing in Chicago was here where I live. It lasted for a few years after I moved in, but has been removed; it wouldn't have been worth it to the phone company. I have seen a pay phone recently; it was at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana, attached to one of the buildings the attendant told us had been built during the Great Depression. I'm sorry now that I didn't take a photo or check out the cost of a call, but it did seem to be in good shape. I wonder how much action it gets from the hunters and the visitors to the sandhill cranes, or if it's even functional.

Mobile communications alone didn't kill the phone booth or pay phone, although they're clearly the primary cause of near extinction. In cities like Chicago, they were already on the endangered list, placed there by the activities of neighborhood drug dealers and other criminal types who used them to conduct business. Community members petitioned the city to have these gang and criminal magnets removed.

For fans of the classic films and TV shows, phone booths and pay phones have long been associated with crime. Calls made from phone booths and pay phones could be threats, demands (often for ransom), warnings, information dumps, or pleas for help. The dangling public phone handset became a poignant, then cliched theme. Now, having said that, I can't think of any examples. I do remember that in Strangers on a Train the Farley Granger character has a fatal conversation with his pregnant, cheating wife on a pay phone.

Other movie characters also flocked to booths and pay phones, including reporters—which could explain Clark Kent's predilection for them. In a film or radio program, when a big story broke frenzied herds of frantic, aggressive reporters would race to the nearest booth or pay phone to call the story in. Having gotten the scoop, the lucky ones who arrived first could gloat over their unlucky brethren, whose continued employment often depended on being able to get through to the newsroom first.

As I remember them, phone booths and pay phones came in a variety of styles, including indoor and outdoor, full sized or half, fully or partially enclosed, or open (for example, a pay phone stuck on a wall, as at Jasper Pulaski). When I was a child, a local pay phone call was a dime; later it went up to a quarter, then 30 cents, then 50 cents or more. For a toll (long-distance) call, you'd put in so much change for so many minutes. Each time you were running out of time, an operator or, later, an automated voice would tell you to deposit more or hang up. If you didn't have more change, you'd find yourself cut off abruptly soon after the warning. Those who use their mobile phones for personal chats could learn some of the succinctness imposed by the pay phone.

A pay phone played an important role in my life. My college dormitory had two pay phones off the lounge. Before I got a phone installed in my room, I spent a lot of time in those booths calling my mother collect and pretending not to be homesick. I imagine phone booths and pay phones have absorbed a lot of very interesting and very mundane conversations and history, just like mobile phones today.

For a look at phone booths and pay phones, and some of the holdovers, check out the Payphone Project, featuring the sometimes creepy photography that abandoned human creations can inspire. The Payphone Projects quotes a recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story:
The American Public Communications Council, a trade group representing about 800 independent pay phone operators, said about 425,000 pay phones remain in the United States today, down from 2.2 million in 2000.
According to Wikipedia, as of June 2011, there were 327,577,529 mobile phones in use in the U.S. alone—more than there were people.

I suppose Clark Kent has long since found an alternative changing room.

Update: Chris Burdick on Facebook:
I thought I was the last non-cell phone person, but a woman just used the pay phone near where I'm sitting. The woman dialed a number, the phone gave off a loud fax machine shriek, and the woman backed away in terror.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Me on Black Friday

During the annual Black Friday shopping event, Americans spend money they don't have on things they don't need and that don't make them happy or at least happier, just poorer and more unsatisfied. Then, like Charlie Brown, they wonder what happened to the spirit of Christmas.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Washington Irving on Poets Corner (Westminster Abbey)

I passed some time in Poets Corner, which occupies an end of one of the transepts or cross aisles of the abbey. The monuments are generally simple; for the lives of literary men afford no striking themes for the sculptor. Shakespeare and Addison have statues erected to their memories; but the greater part have busts, medallions, and sometimes mere inscriptions. Notwithstanding the simplicity of these memorials, I have always observed that the visitors to the abbey remained longest about them. A kinder and fonder feeling takes place of that cold curiosity or vague admiration with which they gaze on the splendid monuments of the great and the heroic. They linger about these as about the tombs of friends and companions; for indeed there is something of companionship between the author and the reader. Other men are known to posterity only through the medium of history, which is continually growing faint and obscure: but the intercourse between the author and his fellow-men is ever new, active, and immediate. He has lived for them more than for himself; he has sacrificed surrounding enjoyments, and shut himself up from the delights of social life, that he might the more intimately commune with distant minds and distant ages. Well may the world cherish his renown; for it has been purchased, not by deeds of violence and blood, but by the diligent dispensation of pleasure. Well may posterity be grateful to his memory; for he has left it an inheritance, not of empty names and sounding actions, but whole treasures of wisdom, bright gems of thought, and golden veins of language.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A gathering of cranes

On Sunday, November 13, I met J. at the Starbucks near the Homewood train station, where we began our trip to Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana. Here each November and December thousands of sandhill cranes congregate on their way south to Georgia and Florida.

As with some of our visits to other state areas, most of the journey was pretty straightforward until the very end, at which point we couldn’t figure out where or how to get in. We ended up on gravel roads, with no sign of an observation tower or, more urgently, a loo. Finally we parked in a small lot and walked back toward the road, where J. flagged down a passing car whose driver happened to know exactly where to send us. What a relief—in every sense. I have to admit that every step of this quarter-mile walk was excruciatingly painful for me thanks to the worst sciatic flareup I’ve had. (By Monday night I wouldn’t be able to walk and would have to take a cab home from work.)

At last we found the cranes in a nondescript field, the primary feature of which seems to be the lack of human habitation and farming activity. I haven’t read much about the habitat here, but it must offer a comfortable food supply, for the herd of cranes had been joined by another herd—one consisting of several dozen impressively sized deer. It was hard to tell which herd the observers, which ranged in age from under 8 to about 80, found more interesting. Don’t suburbanites see enough deer in their backyards? There’s something special about seeing them in the “wild,” as it were.

In my state, I’d forgotten to bring my binoculars from the car, so I didn’t get a good look at the flock; they kept their distance. I’m not sure how J.’s photos will turn out.

Then, about an hour before sunset, more cranes started to fly in, in groups of about six to eighteen. They kept coming and coming and coming, tapering off only as the twilight deepened, many flying overhead, delicately silhouetted against the sky and croaking in that eerie way sandhill cranes have. When I’d first walked up, I had heard them before I’d seen them.

Not for the first time I thought about how the country must have been 200 or 300 years ago, when some bird congregations could number in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Now the only limitless species seem to be the European house sparrow and the European starling. Even so, the little groups coming in for the night were a wondrous sight.

I had been surprised by the number of people spending their Sunday with the cranes (although several seemed to be keeping up with various football contests) and by how many, like J., stayed until it was too dark to take photos or to see the cranes.

On the way back we stopped at a restaurant where we seemed to be the only patrons, a place that still offers a smoking area (still used, judging from the pervasive odor that I’d hoped to forget someday).

Like much of Illinois, Indiana is flat and featureless. I’ve always been glad to book trips on Amtrak trains that pass through Indiana primarily during the darkest night hours, when all that can be seen are the circles of light at countless stations, warehouses, depots, parking lots, and small businesses and industries. That’s true elsewhere in the east, but at least a place like Pennsylvania can boast forested mountains and burbling (if polluted) creeks. Earlier, while passing the trailers (singles and doubles) and the decaying farm houses and deteriorating barns, I thought of all the beautifully maintained, neat farmhouses and barns nestled on bucolic lanes we’d passed in Wisconsin and I could think only one thing:

Cows must pay better than corn and industrial farming.