Surprises and Thrills Await in My Mailbox

Anne Beatts is a writer who lives in Hollywood

Lately one of the most thrilling and indeed dangerous voyages of my day has been the short trip from my front door to the mailbox. (OK, OK, that's how glamorous and exciting the life of a writer in Hollywood can be, but at least I do make gourmet meals for myself. I don't just subsist on dry cereal and take-out like some of those struggling male writers I see at the 24-hour market forlornly trying to pick up women who will cook for them by asking them if they know what cilantro is).

Thrilling because I never know what I will find. Why, just the other day I found not only my mail but also the mail for everyone else in my building. So, good Samaritan that I am, I took time out of my busy day of thinking about writing to redistribute it without opening it, which after all is a federal offense. (OK, I might have held one fellow writer's residual check up to the light to check out the number of zeros, and then phoned my agent to bitch about it. So what? So I'm human.) Anyway, I haven't had so much fun since those games of post office in third grade.

I say dangerous because the multitude of special offers and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities present a serious hazard for someone whose own residual checks spend more time in the mail than in her bank account. Some letters display an empathetic knowledge of my financial situation, for instance the ones that suggest "Transfer existing credit balances to your new VISA account with 5.9% APR, good only for the next 10 minutes. . . ," or "You may have already won 3.62 million dollars. . . ."

In fact, I feel extremely close to the good folks at Publishers Clearing House, who send me cheerily intimate letters, beginning: "Dear Ms. Anne P. Beatts: It's morning. You're at home getting ready to start the day. . . ." Well, right there, they're wrong, they might better have begun "It's noon, you're getting ready to start the day," but why quibble?

True, their next word-picture is a little off-putting: "Through the window, you see an armored car pull up to your door. Two guards get out . . . weapons at the ready." Obviously the Publishers Clearing House people don't have any close friends or relatives who've spent time in Eastern Europe, or even East L.A., or they'd know that some people's first reaction to armed guards at the door is to dive under the sofa. But we'll let that go.

The rest of the letter sketches a rosy future involving the home delivery of $3.5 million in cash, which completely derails my previous train of thought. I find myself slipping into idle reverie, wondering exactly who writes this stuff, and whether he or she was once employed like myself in hoeing the unproductive fields of Hollywood before deciding to chuck it all in and get a steady paying job in Port Washington, N.Y., as a staff writer for Publishers Clearing House.

I spend almost no time at all thinking about what I would do with those dollars if the armed guards actually let me get my hands on them. My other mail contains plenty of requests for them, most abrupt but some surprisingly delicate, like this note from Charles Simpson, "for Mademoiselle," who asks gently, "Dear Subscriber, did you forget to return your statement with your payment?" and suggests that as a result I might be "confused, irritated and worried." Well, he's right there.

*

Then there are those correspondents who appear to be less familiar with me or my bank balance. "Dear Ms. Beatts," begins a recent letter from Ron Westwood, Flexjet regional vice president of sales. "Every day, you exercise control over your world--unless, of course, you happen to be on board a commercial aircraft. Few places render you so helpless."

For starters, this guy has my psychological profile all wrong. Let's set aside the dubious concept of whether I exercise any control at all over my world. This Westwood simply doesn't realize that one of the things I like most about being on board a commercial aircraft is that feeling of helplessness. When the captain announces that all electronic devices must be turned off, I savor one of the few moments in my entire life when I have absolutely no guilt about not writing. Deadline or no deadline, I'm unable to use my laptop--because the captain's word is law, dammit!

But then the next sentence recaptures my interest: "Imagine having your own business jet. While you're at it, imagine your own fleet." Sure, why not? Sky's the limit--or is it? (See, they should hire me to write these things.) "Suddenly, you are more agile," he continues. "It's about enhanced personal productivity, flexibility and freedom." With all the emphasis on flexibility and agility, "Flexjet" sounds more like an exercise program than a means of transportation, but, hey, I'm game.

The pictures in the brochure are very tempting, and, as a modern touch, they even have women in them, briefcase-carrying women in nice Italian suits who are definitely not airborne bimbos. Just think--I could start with a one-eighth share in a Learjet 31A, equivalent to 100 hours annually, for as little as $175,000 a year over five years. Hey, I practically owe it to myself for the sake of my personal freedom!

So as soon as those weapons-toting goons in the armored car stuffed with greenbacks show up outside my kitchen window, enrolling in the Flexjet program is definitely one of the first things I plan on. Ron Westwood might even give me a discount for cash.

*

But while I'm still imagining flying too high in the sky with some guy with a briefcase of mazoola padlocked to his wrist, I open another piece of mail that quickly brings me down to earth.

"Heads-Up Alert!" it warns in red, not even bothering with a friendly personal salutation. "Don't be lulled into a false sense of security." Whoops. What I want to know is, can you be lulled into a real sense of security, or is lulling always bad? Because I have to admit, I want to be lulled. It sounds so enticing.

In this case, the danger appears to be that "the risk of unpleasant surprises increases as international problems spread. . . . How long can the good times last?" You're telling me. I'm always on the lookout for unpleasant surprises, not to mention a nasty rash. The author of this ominous missive, however, proves to be neither Dostoevsky nor Woody Allen, but Alex Major for the Kiplinger Editors, who also offers me the free booklet "Prepare Now for the 21st Century," free with my subscription to the Kiplinger Letter.

I think I'll pass. I'm not prepared to prepare for the 21st century yet. It takes all I can do just to get through my mail in this one.

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