The Ghosts of Apartments Past

In Improbable Mutterings on December 1, 2010 at 11:04 pm

We’ve all been there: you move into a new house, or apartment, and you get your first batch of mail. And it isn’t for you. It’s for the previous occupant.

Sure, it’s a bit of a let-down at first. And after a while, it can even get annoying. “Why don’t they get a forwarding address at the post office,” you ask. But even when they do, sometimes letters and bills and subscriptions slip through the cracks.

It’s illegal to open other peoples’ mail. You already knew that of course. But, after a long period of receiving someone else’s mail, and giving them more than enough time in order to get their act together and arrange for a forwarding address, aren’t you the least bit curious? Those mundane white rectangles, which would otherwise cause you to yawn and auto-recycle, all of a sudden take on a palpable aura of mystery. What secrets lurk within?

I’ve lived in my current apartment for seven years. That’s a long time by downtown Toronto standards. The thing is, I’m still receiving mail for tenants long gone. I’ve determined there are two “groups” who continue to fill my mailbox with their flotsam. Let’s call them The Couple (“Archie and Betty”) and The Loner (“Veronica”).

Trying to do the right thing has gotten me nowhere. I’ve taken huge parcels of their mail to Canada Post, slammed it down on their glass-topped counters (festooned with the newest stamps that only over-50s and graduate students mailing grant applications will ever buy), and requested that they please deal with this waste of time and paper. The results of my efforts pop up on a monthly basis: Archie and Betty, and lonely Veronica are going without potentially interesting and valuable documents, cheques, credit cards, photos, and who knows what else.

Piecing together your apartment-predecessor’s lives from their misdirected mail is a dirty secret of modern urban transient living. At some point, whether in frustration or curiosity, we’ve all felt the margins of an enveloppe or shaken a particularly curious-looking letter.

It’s not all riddles and guesswork though. Most of it is crap, and easy to throw out. It doesn’t weigh heavily on the conscience to toss out fliers and other advertisements. It’s the more specific, non-standard articles that pique my interest.

The Couple receive the bulk of the mail, mostly because of Betty. Betty likes beauty products and magazines. I suspect she signed up for every free promotion at cosmetics counters at the mall. The beneficiary of this bounty of beauty has been Alice, who has (much to my horror!) opened up more than one copy of Betty’s free-subscription Shopper’s Drug Mart beauty magazine. By all superficial accounts, Betty appears to enjoy shopping at the Bay, Sears, and Home Depot. I’m not sure I’d call Betty’s mail interesting, but it does speak to a certain thoroughness and consistency.

Archie gets the least mail of the lot, and it’s pretty dull stuff: here and there a Canadian Tire brochure, a couple of sporting magazines, an LL Bean catalogue. Once and a while an unsolicited credit card application. I like to fill in the blanks with Archie: secretly pining for a life in the outdoors, he departed Toronto with the woods in his eyes, never to return. Why subscribe to these trappings of the modern world when you’re scurrying about the great outdoors, building leaf shelters and, I dunno, stalking deadly prey?

Veronica’s mail strikes me as a little sad. Lots of credit card applications and fitness centre follow-ups go unread by Veronica. She was also a pet lover: I’ve seen more than one Toronto Human Society letter. The real heart-breaker was the religious material: I currently live in a house that subscribed to The Watchtower. (For the record, my next-door neighbour, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, is one of “those people” you see on the streets handing out copies of this “magazine.”) I wonder what kind of life she had when living here: surrounded by cats, deep in debt, overweight, and craving liberation from Jesus.

It’s probably wrong for me to feel sad about Veronica’s mail. After all, maybe she didn’t send along her new address to The Watchtower because she wanted nothing to do with that colourful organization. I’m sure we’ve all been passive aggressive when dealing with mail from yawn-inducing groups we don’t care much for. A simple toss in the blue bin is easier than a 1-800 phone call or writing an unsubscribe email, isn’t it?

Part of me is glad to have this secret peek into other peoples’ lives. You’re probably wondering, for example, why I classified Archie and Betty as “The Couple.” Well, that’s because about 3 years ago, they got married! Believe me, I got a little excited. “Look at this,” I said, waving the unopened letter at a stupefied Alice, “Archie and Betty got hitched!” From that day, most of their mail has been addressed with the same last name.

Whatever narratives I’d had about Archie and Betty spiralled out of control from that point. They were living in an idyllic woodland glade, far from smoggy urban overhangs. Archie would spend his days hunting and skinning and looking comfortable in his flannel (always with an axe draped casually over his shoulder, as the LL Bean catalogue would have me believe), and Betty would advise the local woods-maidens on how best to turn bear-fat into an anti-wrinkling, age-be-gone cream.

With so much turnaround in living space, there must be thousands and thousands of important pieces of personal information stuffed into the wrong mailboxes on a daily basis. If everyone remembers to tell 9 out of 10 corresponding agencies that they’re changing address, that means one piece of mail per month (at minimum) is being received by a bemused or annoyed tenant who is in all likelihood just going to toss the damn thing in the trash. Maybe as a treat for your apartment successors, you should subscribe to something really crazy, like a Scientology newsletter, and let their imaginations go wild.

  1. You’ve woven a terrific story about people who once inhabited the Portuguese Palace. After 9 years of living at my current residence, I still receive the odd piece of mail for a couple of former inhabitants, but I must confess – I just toss them right in the garbage.

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