Greetings from 2020
A postcard for you, dear reader. Greetings from Chicago, it says in big, bold letters. It shows images of a neighborhood called Ravenswood Gardens: brick two-flats, brick three-flats, brick six-flats. Some of them look like Swiss chalets. The neighborhood changes from decade to decade, but there have always been these canopies of trees. A little patch of country right in the middle of the city, just a few blocks from a CTA train stop. There have always been these dead-end streets on a green river. In the seventies, you couldn’t see to the bottom of it, and in the eighties, there were more forty-ounce bottles in the river than fish. In the nineties, the hipsters came with their kayaks and canoes, and then the bunnies and chipmunks and frogs all seemed to come hopping back.
For a long time, the Curt Teich Factory was the largest postcard manufacturer in the world, and it was just a mile from my family’s three-flat building. I lived on the first floor with my mother and father and sisters. My grandma lived on the second, and my aunties on the third. Curt Teich employed hundreds of Chicagoans, many of them our neighbors, and was best known for his “Greetings From” postcards. He emigrated from Germany in the 1890s and apprenticed for printers who didn’t know nearly as much as he did. Eventually, he opened his own shop. He understood the value of hyper-local picture postcards.
I am trying to serve as the emotional memory of my Chicago neighborhood, where I have lived, on and off, for more than 40 years, because most of my neighbors are from somewhere else. I am always afraid that something will get lost.
We had the same mail carrier for my entire childhood. Charles, an older Black gentleman, looked like the Rev. Al Sharpton, circa the 1990s. My grandmother, an older White lady who looked like the mother in Hairspray, would wait out on the front stoop every day, until Charles came rolling along.
“How’s it going?” she’d ask.
“Oh, it goes,” he’d say. “It goes.”
My grandmother’s name was Charmaine, which means bountiful orchard and song. In Shakespeare, Charmian was attendant to Cleopatra. Charles means full man, or freedom. Charles was also the name of ten French kings.
“How you doin, Char?” our mail carrier would ask with a smirk.
“Okay, Char,” Gram would respond.
They played this little game every day and never seemed to get tired of it. Simple pleasures, I guess. She’d been a poor White child in the Great Depression, and he’d been a Black boy in the Jim Crow South. Some days they talked race, some days she brought him a glass of sun tea or ice water, some days they shared local gossip and news. Charles brought me my first postcards.
My parents sent one from the first and last vacation they ever took without us: San Francisco for a long weekend, and the postcard didn’t arrive until they’d been home for a week. I was able to see the Golden Gate Bridge twenty years before I saw it in real life. My gram flew to Las Vegas once a year to visit her best friend, and she always sent her postcards as soon as she landed, so we’d get them before she returned. Her handwriting was terrible, so she preferred short messages. I miss you, Maggie the Cat. Be home soon. Charles would ring the bell when a postcard came from Grandma.
I guess that’s what started my personal collection. I couldn’t have articulated back then that I loved picture postcards because they allowed me to travel outside of the Midwest. I couldn’t have said that I held deep respect for such a populist form, one that allowed everyday people to own little pieces of art. I had no idea that I aspired to the minimal eloquence of the postcard writers, and the admirable patience of their recipients.
One of the first postcards I bought: palm trees and white sand beaches: The weather is here. I wish you were beautiful. (To a middle schooler, that was comic gold.)
The Curt Teich postcard factory shuttered its doors in 1980, and many people in our neighborhood lost their jobs. The other factories along the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor followed suit over the next twenty years, and that’s how we started to lose our middle class. The employed and unemployed drank together at the last remaining corner bar in the neighborhood, right off the Rockwell Brown Line. It was called Time Outs, but should’ve been called Time Machine. The décor was 1950s North Woods even though the neighborhood I’m referencing is very much Chicago in the eighties and nineties. Charles drank there after work on hot days and the bartender propped the door open. My grandmother took a buyout from the railroad and then spent a lot of time on the front stoop in her muumuu, waiting for the mail.
“I’d like to take Maggie to Europe,” she told Charles one day.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” he said. “A European vacation.”
“I’ve never been,” Gram confessed.
“When the war in Vietnam broke out,” Charles said, “I was actually stationed in Germany. Beautiful country.”
He guarded prisons for a country that didn’t love him while Curt Teich, who had been born and raised German, came to America to make his fortune printing postcards.
Gram offered to take me to Europe the summer after I graduated eighth grade. She was willing to spend her life savings, but made it clear I’d better not complain. “I don’t want to hear about being away from your friends. If that’s how it’s going to be, we’ll just go somewhere closer.” The heartbreak of my life is that I said no thank you, and we went to New York instead. I was boy crazy and stupid and wanted a summer of crowded swimming pools. After that summer, my grandmother got very old.
Over the years, I continued to collect postcards. I saw Scottish castles, markets in Hong Kong, and Christmas in Hawaii, and then started to dream of those places, like my grandmother once had. Once, a boyfriend and I spent a day viewing the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Art Institute, and afterward, he slipped a postcard into my purse. It was a black and white print of a man and a woman whispering to each other on an elevated train. I don’t know what I love more: that the postcard was a way for me to own a tiny Hopper, or that it was the most romantic way a man has ever told me he wanted to make love to me.
The Newberry Library downtown owns the Curt Teich collection now—more than 2.5 million postcards. You can call a librarian and make an appointment to sift through the milk crates and suitcases. Some of the messages are so lovely. Some of them are so sad.
Oh well, Emma. I am just going to have to try and make you believe.
She is not mine. I don’t think she could ever be anyone’s. That’s what I love most about her.
Dear Audrey…And you are a dear, Audrey…
He was like this hybrid. This mix of a man who couldn’t contain himself. I always got the sense that he felt torn between being a good person and missing out on all the opportunities life could afford a man as magnificent as him.
The categories of the Newberry’s postcard collection: Travel and tourism/Fairs and expositions/Chicago and the Midwest/The growth of cities/Local and family history/Art nouveau and Alphonse Mucha.
Alphonse Mucha was the Czech artist who painted art nouveau women for theater posters and postcards. I discovered him as a stage actress in my early twenties. Perhaps it was his women who lured me to Eastern Europe, at the age of twenty-seven, but I met them there without my grandmother. She was too old to come along by the time I went. Not that I invited her. She was willing to spend her life savings to take me away, and then I got on a plane without thinking of her once.
I wonder what she said to Charles while I was gone.
I heard her say once that it wasn’t right the way those Black school teachers lost their jobs when segregation ended. “If I were a Black woman, I’d be angry as hell,” she said to him, sometime in the 1980s, and I remember the way he laughed, as he always did with her. I think I recognize it now as delight, but how can I be sure? They didn’t read books to help them talk about race; they just stood there and did it, and who knows if that was better or worse?
I think about Charles bringing her these postcards and accepting a glass of tea. I think of her squinting to see Prague Castle and the Book of Kells.
“How’s it goin, Char?”
“Oh, it goes… It goes…”
The neighborhood got a little fancier, and I guess I did, too. Now the postcard factory building is divided up into high-end loft apartments and condominiums with exposed brick walls and high ceilings. Everything pretty in Chicago has turned to condos.
The new people on our block never knew our mail carrier’s name was Charles. They never gave him Christmas presents. And then one day, around the time I got married, he was gone. Just gone. Why had we never asked for his telephone number?
My husband and I sent postcards instead of thank-you cards after our wedding. Thank you for working hard so we could have a fifty-dollar wine glass. Last Valentine’s Day, I gifted him a vintage postcard. I also uploaded my favorite pictures of us to Instagram, but the postcard felt more romantic. “My love for you is growing stronger every day, Valentine dear.” I chose it carefully at a flea market and left it on his bedside dresser. The font looked like white frosting. The print had been made sometime in the 1940s.
They closed the old time machine bar, so I don’t know where Charles drinks now, or if he even drinks anymore. The president is trying to privatize the post office, so I don’t know if or where Charles works. In my state, the USPS employs about 30,000 people, and most of them are Black. They have continued to deliver the mail, even in the midst of a pandemic. Several carriers and clerks have lost their lives to the virus.
In rural communities, the post office serves as a community hub and delivers to all the places that FedEx won’t. The president recently called the postal service “a joke” because it doesn’t charge as much as FedEx and Amazon, but I can’t help but wonder: When did affordability and universal service become funny? Some people get their prescriptions from USPS, and those can’t be downloaded by email.
My grandma died last year, at the age of ninety, and left just a small chest of her favorite things: a few special coins and yellowed children’s drawings, her wedding album and several postcards from me. There is no pain or pride quite like being one of the few things in the box of someone’s life.
Gram, you would love Prague so much. I found out what our family name means in Czech. Get this: Little Thumb!
I’m in Dublin now, for the weekend. James Joyce was blind, just like you. I’m sending a postcard with a pint of Guinness on the front because I know that’s the only beer you like. It tastes better here. I’ll bring some home for you.
The Czech Republic feels so inexplicably like home, Gram, that I don’t even feel homesick. But I do miss you. Does that make sense?
I am firing off postcards now to the future:
The United States Post Office was here.
We were all here.
The free man
The full man
Greetings from Chicago. It’s a Curt Teich design with big letters and bold colors. Pictures of a green river, a family building made of red brick, a man in postman blue bringing picture postcards.
He knew all about us: our overdue bills, our working-class choice of newspaper, our Sears catalogs and our heaviest packages. He knew our lives in postcards. I’m not sure we ever knew enough about him.
Here I am, mourning the lost art of the postcard and Chicago’s disappearing middle class, but for all I know, Charles would be happy to see it burn. After all, home ownership was historically denied to his family, and our lakes and rivers have been known to swallow up Black boys.
Dear America: The weather is here. I wish you were beautiful.