Around 5 PM on an early summer’s day in the mid-1960s, Dad finished up his workday in his small suite in the Pan Am Building, towering above 42nd Street in mid-town Manhattan. I stared at him. It was the end of the day, and Lenny, Dad’s Pall Mall chain-smoking secretary, was long out the door.
I was hungry and ready for my supper. But, typically, Dad had just one more thing to do before Miller time (for him, not me). It was always a letter that had to be mailed, a thick fat one. Stuffed full of papers, the envelope sat on Lenny’s desk, already addressed to a foreign patent office. The zip code was an indecipherable jumble of numbers and letters. Festooned with large denomination stamps, the likes of which I had never seen before, this package of computer print-outs and a foreign currency bank draft was destined for the post office. And then some foreign patent office out in the big, wide world beyond!
A few years previous, during my school term in Florida, I had seen fit to create my own postal envoy. A friend of my Mom’s, Betty, who had always fussed over me, moved away from our home in Orlando to Cocoa Beach. I missed Betty terribly. So, one day, I hatched an evil plot to send her a post card. In my best cursive childlike writing, I wrote her a short note to tell her that I missed her and hoped she was happy in her new home. I addressed it simply to her as “Betty Ferndale, Cocoa Beach, Florida.” I didn’t know the zip code for Cocoa Beach as a 6 year old.
But the post office can surprise you. One day many years later, my friend Dee Dee sent a postcard from Alaska addressed to me simply as “James Olcott, On the Water Front, Weehawken, NJ.” And the postal sleuths duly delivered it to me at Olcott International!
My card composed, there was one last detail. Stamps! Just like in Dad’s office! Resourcefully, I found some Winn-Dixie Supermarket TopValue stamps in a kitchen drawer and plastered the right side of the card with them. Unsure of the postage necessary to get to Cocoa Beach, I made sure to stick on a few extra. Then I dropped it in the mailbox in the lobby of my Lucerne Towers apartment home. And off it flew!
Winn-Dixie TopValue stamps? Were these good for sea (or overland) mail service? In a word, no.
In case you’re not familiar with these, supermarkets in the South, like Winn-Dixie and Publix (I’m not sure about the Piggly Wiggly) commonly gave them out during check-out at the register. The purpose was to collect and stick them in booklets that looked vaguely like the ones in which you wrote your college final exam. Once filled up, they could be taken to redemption centers and exchanged for the proverbial cheesy toaster (complete with thin wires suitable for electrocution). I never saw any supermarket in the North engage in exactly the same kind of rebate program with stamps, booklets, and redemption centers.
Although I have had reports that Kroger’s and Giant Eagle dabbled in this kind of philately. My pal Ned got hisself a catcher’s mitt this way in Pittsburgh.
In the far North, the Canadian Tire chain issued its own currency in a variety of interesting denominations with Uncle Brigadoon’s face on them. CT did not send you off to a redemption center; you could actually take the 5¢ bill (Canadian dollars) and spend it back at the store for face value. Of course, that didn’t stop some wags from arguing that the whole store was a kind of redemption center. Anyway, it looks to me that Uncle Brigsy spent a wee bit too much time out in the moors last night.
Stamps they were, yes. But certainly not valid for any kind of delivery services.
Bitcoin these were not!
But, several months later, to my surprise, the card came back! Betty had seen fit to send it back to my Mom with a “look how cute” kind of letter. Mom showed it to me glowingly. The US post office, just like the one in Soviet Lithuania, or Weehawken for that matter, had actually tracked Betty down in Cocoa Beach. In the great circle of life, the card completed a circuit by flittering back to my hands.
Meanwhile, back in New York, my Dad and I hot-footed his real stamp-laden envelope down 33 floors via high speed elevator, out the lobby to 45th Street, right to Lexington Avenue, and then into the main hall of the post office known as Grand Central Station. Back in the day, this was an old-world hall of letters in the grand classic style, sort of a miniature of the General Post Office next to Pennsylvania Station (since renamed the James A. Farley Post Office).
Today, it is an ordinary rump postal annex with just a wall of letter boxes, an ersatz Automat of messages. The old building, built in 1909, was sold to a private developer in 1992 who built an idiot tower on top, much like that which was proposed for Grand Central itself in the 1960s (until Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis got involved).
There was always a line to drop off completed forms for registered mail, return receipt. As my stomach growled, we duly queued up, made all entries at the counter, and our work was complete when the receipt was in Dad’s hand.
That letter was not going to flitter around the globe unaccounted for.
After all paperwork was complete with the ink dry, then and only then, was it time for dinner. Which meant the real Automat. The dining kind.
Next week: The Automat