In the wonderful 1950 movie “Harvey,” Elwood P. Dowd—played to perfection by the inimitable Jimmy Stewart—tells about meeting his six-foot-tall, invisible rabbit friend for the first time: “I heard this voice saying ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd’…and I said ‘You have the advantage over me. You know my name but I don’t know yours.’ ”
That’s exactly how I feel whenever I get a piece of anonymous mail.
It used to be that way with phone calls, too. When I was a member of the Putnam County School Board back in the 1990s, I received calls pretty much every day from folks unhappy about something or other. (The most common complaint? Bus routes. Coming in at a close second was teachers who gave too much homework. Third? The baseball coach was playing the wrong kid at shortstop or some such silliness.) Before we got more than thirty seconds into any conversation, I would ask the caller’s name. If he or she was unwilling to provide it, I politely terminated the call.
In this day and age, Caller ID has made it harder to place anonymous phone calls. But it’s still extraordinarily easy to find someone’s address and drop an unsigned “fan letter” in the mail. It doesn’t happen to me all that often, thank goodness. But when it does, I feel a little uncomfortable.
The anonymous letters are never complimentary. (People who like what I write aren’t shy about signing their name). Sometimes the mail is cryptic. Not long ago, I received an envelope filled with half a dozen magazine and newspaper clippings about “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson. No note, just the clippings. Other times, the letters make me laugh. A while back, I got a rambling unsigned note accusing me of hating Elvis Presley. Imagine. More than once, letter-writers have threatened to cancel their Herald-Citizen subscription because of something I wrote. To which I would reply, if the envelope had included a return address, there’s no need to quit the paper. Just quit reading my column.
Anonymous letters are unsettling not because the sender finds fault with something I wrote. Heck, I’ve received mail criticizing me for everything from not understanding Scarlett O’Hara to using a substandard recipe for pineapple-upside-down cake to not knowing a hemlock tree from a spruce. I’ve been the subject of some downright scathing letters-to-the-editor on the pages of this newspaper. Those letters don’t bother me in the least. In fact, I get a kick out of them. Partly because I hold with the notion that if folks aren’t disagreeing with you, they aren’t reading you. And partly because the letter-writer had the courage to sign his or her name.
What disturbs me is the people who don’t.
I wish I could just shrug it off and accept that it goes with the territory. I can only imagine the volume of anonymous mail that entertainers and athletes and politicians and other people in the public eye must get. But it just doesn’t seem right when it happens to a local newspaper columnist in a little town like ours.
So here’s my simple request. Feel free to write me. Send an e-mail. Call on the phone. But if you do, I hope you’ll heed Elwood P. Dowd’s gentle admonition: You have the advantage over me. You know my name. What’s yours?
(March 30, 2014)