I was eighteen years old, sitting at my desk at my first receptionist job as the mailman approached, sorting through the mail, and said, “Oh, I’ve got a certified letter you need to sign for.”
I froze, my heart beating so loud that it was pounding in my ears. My face flushed red and I managed to stammer, “Uhh. Um. Um. Hold on, I have to talk to my boss,” before I fled the reception area in terror.
The door to my boss’s office was closed and I could see through the window that he was on the phone. I knocked on his door in the way you knock on the secret clubhouse door, quietly, but furiously. If I could have tunneled under the door with a spoon, I would have. I didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention from the mailman.
After about ten seconds of frightened knocking, my boss called out, “Come in! Jesus, what the hell do you want? I’m on the phone!”
I was so nervous, my palms were now sweating. I rubbed them down the front of my pants and gasped, “I’m sorry, but it’s an emergency!”
He said, “Okay, let me just hang up with this vendor.”
He hung up the phone and said, “What’s going on? What’s the emergency?”
I gulped past the lump in my throat and said in a tone worthy of a death announcement, “The mailman is here. The mailman is here and he wants me to sign for a certified letter.”
The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what a certified letter was—the problem was that I knew exactly what a certified letter was.
All poor kids knew what a certified letter was: proof of delivery. Legal, documented proof of delivery.
Legal, documented delivery of paperwork when you’re poor? Oh man.
If you were poor, the certified letter was never because the sender wanted to document that they gave you awesome news and really, really wanted to make sure you got it. If you were poor and you got a certified letter, the sender wanted to document that you received it because you were in some shit.
The certified letter was from the mortgage company because they wanted to foreclose on the house. The certified letter was from the county tax collector because they were putting a lien on the house. The certified letter was from the county code enforcement because your yard was knee-high and piled up with torn-up trash that two raccoons got into AGAIN, an old sleeper sofa, a broken coffee table, and gold harvest, thoroughly 1970s velvet side chairs with cat pee stains on them.
And maybe a lawnmower buried in the backyard along with a “couple few” car batteries. Cue the dueling banjos.
What the certified letter meant, always, when you were poor, was that your ass was grass.
Growing up poor as latchkey kids, we all knew the rules when it came to certified letters. If the mailman came to the door with one, you simply flat-out refused to open the door. If he caught you when you were out in the front yard, you said no and ran away. You treated the mailman holding a certified letter like he was an old-timey pervert holding a lollipop trying to lure you into a white panel van. Run. Run fast. Run free.
Likewise, when bill collectors called after school, you knew to hang up on them immediately, unless it was the power company, and then you’d put your older sister on the phone to tell them the (alleged) real reason they couldn’t shut off the power to the house.
My sister Julie was an expert at this, and she had our power kept on I don’t know how many times by fake-sobbing into the phone and pleading, “…but our mother is bedridden and on a ventilator and if you cut the power to the house she’ll DIE!!”
None of this was true, of course, but the customer service reps at the power company were always willing to accommodate keeping the power on for a few days past the scheduled shut-off date if they thought life itself hung in the balance. They were good people there at Florida Power & Light in the 80s. Good people who believed filthy little liar children.
I stood there in front of my boss, fidgeting and waiting for an answer on this certified letter business.
My boss looked at me and said, “And?”
I realized he wasn’t getting the severity of the situation as I saw it. I said, “Well it’s certified— and I can’t even see who it’s from!”
He sighed, picked the phone back up, and said, “Soooo, sign for it?” and motioned for me to get out of his office.
I walked back out to the reception area and said, “Sorry about that. My boss said it’s okay for me to sign for it, but can I sign his name on it instead of mine?”
The mailman rolled his eyes and said, “I can’t tell you how much I don’t care. Just sign whatever on it.”
I picked up my pen and begrudgingly signed an unintelligible scrawled name, assuming that the police and/or a furniture rental by-the-week company would be coming to kick in the door the moment after I signed it.
The mailman tore the confirmation card off, handed me the letter and said, “I can’t wait to do this again tomorrow.”
I opened the letter and it was absolutely nothing of consequence; nothing at all. As it turned out, if you’re not poor, then certified letters were typically nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t believe it.
From that moment forward, any time the mailman came into the office with a certified letter, I proudly signed it like it was the Declaration of Independence, with my real name boldly and very legibly right there in ink.
On occasion, I would catch the reflection of my smug face in my boss’s window when the mailman arrived, not a care in the world as my pen flicked across the signature line, wishing that my old friends from the neighborhood could see me and exclaim, “Check out this rich bitch signing for certified letters!”
When did you have to adjust to a new “normal” way of handling a situation? Tell us in the comments.
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