The Magic Darkness of the Mailbox

Paul Auster’s The Locked Room brilliantly evokes a writer’s relationship with his mailbox:

“Eleven-thirty rolled around – the hour of the mail – and I made my ritual excursion down the elevator to see if there was anything in my box. This was always a crucial moment of the day for me, and I found it impossible to approach it calmly. There was always the hope that good news would be sitting there – an unexpected check, an offer of work, a letter that would somehow change my life – and by now the habit of anticipation was so much a part of me that I could scarcely look at my mailbox without getting a rush. This was my hiding place, the one spot in the world that was purely my own. And yet it linked me to the rest of the world, and in its magic darkness there was the power to make things happen.”

Auster wrote that before e-mail, the medium by which unexpected communications now characteristically arrive: now the magic darkness lurks 24/7.

Yet I still experience the rush Auster describes with respect to my own mailbox. When you wield a tiny key, to open a space to which nobody else theoretically has access, how could your heart not beat faster? It’s like being able to consult a tiny oracle in the lobby: there’s something random and inscrutable in there, that’s meant just for you. And living in a tenement that has an elevator makes the process of going to consult this oracle somehow even more mysterious.

Like most oracles, the mailbox produces mostly junk and bills. And yet on days when no snail mail at all is delivered I feel obscurely cheated.

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