July 25, 1997

Other People's Mail

When you read other people's mail, you can't help but try to fill in between the lines. You try to decipher the stories of the people who wrote the letters. We hear four stories of people who read other people's mail, and what happens to them once they get caught up in these other lives.


Pete found a bag of maybe a hundred letters in a dumpster and found himself completely wrapped up in the lives of the two people in the letters. (5 minutes)
Act One

Dead Letters

Richard Lyons, from the band Negativland, tells the story of a Xeroxed book he put together for a few friends. It's photos of smashed-up cars in a junkyard. Next to each crumpled car is reprinted the text of a note or letter or list found in the car. The effect is poignant. Lyons describes the photos and reads from the notes and letters found in the cars. (10 minutes)

Act Two


There can be consequences for reading other people's mail. Fiction writer Mona Simpson reads an excerpt from her short story Lawn. (12 minutes)
Act Three


If you work for the post office and read other people's mail, you can lose your job or go to prison. Unless you work at a Mail Recovery Center. There are three. The postal workers there open mail that's otherwise undeliverable, for a good cause: to see if they can find any clues on where to deliver it. Paul Tough visits the Mail Recovery Center in St Paul. Find out about auctions of unclaimed mail at the Mail Recovery Centers at the U.S. Postal Service website. (15 minutes)


“The Letter” by Mekons
Act Four

Golden Rule

Sarah Vowell puts her foot down. She says that contrary to all the wide-eyed voyeurs we've heard up until this point in the program, reading other people's mail is wrong, simply wrong. To test her theory, she visits a world class collector of other people's mail and other stuff, who not only collects other people's mail, he also saves grocery lists he picks up off the ground, gum that's been chewed by minor celebrities, and those little pads of squiggles where you try out the pens in the art supply store. (9 minutes)