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What’s a Misanthrope to Do in Junk Mail America? (Read This NOW!)

<i> Florence King is author of "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" (St. Martin's and Bantam)</i>

Junk mail used to look so obviously junky that we tossed it unopened into the trash or marked it “Return to Sender” and dropped it back in the box. But this cost the senders money--or “dollars,” in junk mailese--so they devised ways to trick us into opening and reading it. Taking as their motto, “The only thing we have to use is fear itself,” they started decorating the front of their envelopes with messages calculated to scare us to death.

“URGENT! IMMEDIATE REPLY REQUESTED!” is on just about everything.

“OPEN THIS BEFORE YOU PULL OUT OF YOUR DRIVEWAY!” is from a firm selling car insurance.

“WILL THIS BE OUR FINAL EPIDEMIC?” in rash-red letters next to the addressee’s name is the inspiration of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who presumably decided to use the AIDS panic to get us to open their letters about nuclear war prevention.

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“SUPPOSE SOLDIERS CAME AND TOOK YOUR SISTER AWAY IN A TRUCK? " asks Amnesty International. Not mother, not wife, not daughter, but that star boarder of the male id, the first virgin in his life, his sister --as in, “Would you want your sister to marry one?”

Junk mailers have also invented peek-a-boo greed. This is the window envelope containing a letter folded in such a way that an incomplete but intriguing sentence is visible above the recipient’s name. Meant to look as if the letter was folded wrong by accident, the partial sentence reads: “Consideration and Compensation for Your Expense of Time and . . .”

No, it’s not a check. The unfolded letter says that if we stay at one of the company’s resorts, we will get discounts on items for sale there.

Then there is the official-looking envelope. This one is from “the Department of Verification” and has a Washington return address and a seal of office. Have we inherited Montana or are we being billed for it? Neither. It’s a letter verifying the recipient as an official buyer of discount items.

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The smarmiest piece of junque mail comes in a starkly plain pearl-gray envelope in whose lower left-hand corner sits a small but tasteful instruction:

OFFICIAL INVITATION

POSTMASTER: Please deliver

as soon as possible.

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It’s from America’s venerable secular abbey, the Smithsonian Institution. I ripped it open.

FLORENCE KING

You are one of a small group of

PURKINS CORNER RESIDENTS

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invited to become National Associates

of the Smithsonian Institution.

Don’t they know that the only status symbol in Purkins Corner is buying whiskey by the fifth instead of by the pint?

The accompanying letter said that membership included generous discounts on “reproductions"--doubtless that ubiquitous pre-Columbian graven image of the Incan caught in an eternal squat--and on something never before offered in junk mail: a dulcimer.

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The Renaissance comes to K mart. Ben Jonson hits Interstate 95. Just leave a kiss within the Slurpee glass and I’ll not ask for a peel-away sweepstakes coaster.

Loneliness is good for business, so junk mailers have devised ways to trick us into thinking that a solicitation is really a personal letter.

Their favorite ploy is the envelope addressed by hand. The staffer chosen for this sadistic ruse has a loopy, immature penmanship designed to trigger memories of long-lost daughters or old friends from P.S. 31.

MS. magazine uses a combination of loneliness and celebrity-worship. One of their subscription pitches leaves off the name of the magazine in the return address, substituting a stamp of Gloria Steinem’s signature like a congressional frank gone awry, to make recipients think they have received a personal communique from one of America’s leading egalitarian Junkers.

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The manager of Shell Oil’s merchandising department writes whole letters by hand, using a simulacrum of lined notebook paper and ragged margins to indicate an intimacy so mellowed by time that standing on the slightest ceremony would be an insult. “Just a quick note to tell you that I discovered some really super items for you in my recent travels around the country,” he begins, and gushes on for two Xeroxed pages.

The American Spectator simply lies to the lonely, typing the word “Personal” on the envelope and highlighting it with a yellow Magic Marker.

Inside was one of the most incredible pitch letters ever penned, a four-page threnody about mounting costs from editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., who turned into a Jewish mother in the opening paragraph:

“It is 9:15 p.m. and I am alone here in an almost totally dark office.”

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The neo-conservative champion of rugged individualism and macho capitalism wanted a $100 contribution from each subscriber to help him bail out his ailing organ.

Left-wingers do it, too. American Civil Liberties Union Director Ira Glasser begins his pitch: “It is late at night. I’m tired and my burning eyes are telling me it is time to quit.”

Anyone who wishes to read the best of junk mailese need only neglect to renew a subscription to a national magazine.

Some six weeks before your subscription is due to expire, you receive an “Expiration Notice,” a businesslike and unemotional statement of fact that gives no hint of the psychodrama to come.

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Ignore the expiration notice and a few weeks later you will get an envelope marked “THERE’S STILL TIME.”

Next comes the fake mailgram with the first hint of desperation manfully concealed under a fake compliment:

“KNOWING HOW BUSY YOU ARE WE HAVE MADE ARRANGEMENTS TO EXTEND YOUR SUBSCRIPTION RENEWAL PERIOD FOR TWO MORE YEARS BECAUSE WE ARE CONFIDENT YOU STILL WISH TO RECEIVE OUR PUBLICATION.”

Next comes the fake telegram--thin, crinkly, Western Union yellow. The message inside says “WE’RE WAITING FOR YOU!”

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Once you ignore the fake telegram the fun really starts. The magazine sends you pathetic gifts: an envelope containing a free stamp and a peculiar ridge that turns out to be a tiny pencil for marking the Yes block. You might even receive what junk mailese calls a “free gift,” if only you will renew your subscription.

What’s a misanthrope to do in Junk Mail America? There I sat under a 25-watt bulb in my green eyeshade, with all my junk mail spread out before me. All those coupons and RSVPs and check-a-blocks waiting to be mailed . . . to somebody or other. What to do?

Like Richard III, I am not shaped for sportive tricks, so I have determined to prove a villain and confuse the busy mailers of these days. Plots have I laid, signatures dangerous; by drunken mismailings, screw-ups and snafus to order a dulcimer from U.S. News & World Report. And if the American Spectator be as true and just as I am subtle, false and treacherous, they will insure my car before I pull out of the driveway and send my Incan statue to Ira Glasser, with instructions on what to do with it. And when the Smithsonian Institution receives . . . .

Dive, thoughts, down to my soul. Here comes MS.

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