Missent to Jamaica

Most of the stories are the stuff of urban legends. A cache of undelivered letters found in a postman’s home. Bundles of mail burned under a bridge. Birthday cards that never arrived.

Of course, in Chicago, this stuff is not only believable, it is often true. Beyond the annoyances of finding last week’s Time Out in the mailbox or wading through mountains of discarded rubber bands the mail carrier couldn’t be bothered to discard (or reuse?), there are times when it seems like the USPS in Chicago just doesn’t care.

Like it is one giant Dead Letter Office.

Among the myriad logistical details to cover before we left Chicago was what to do about our mail delivery this year. While we canceled every magazine and catalog we could think of, and made sure we could pay all critical bills online, we knew that there would still be important letters coming through. Or, at least that should be coming through.

Though jaded by years of mail fails, we nevertheless made a special trip to the main postal facility, Cardiss Collins, to inquire about international forwarding.

“Hi. We are moving to South Africa for one year. Can we have our mail forwarded there?”


“South Africa.”

“Uh huh.”

“How do we do that?”

Blank stare.

Expectant stare.

“Uh, ya gotta fill out the form.”

“Just one, or one for each of us?”

“Yeah, both.”

We found the forms in a dingy cubby and began to fill them out. They were like mini standardized tests on postcards, with dozens of loose coupons for moving companies, car rental services and storage facilities. We entered our names and the forwarding start/stop dates into the tiny squares. All black. ALL CAPS.

But, wait. There’s no place to enter information about the address in the foreign country. We are not moving to South Carolina or South Dakota, we are moving to South Africa.

We took the forms back to the counter. “There’s nothing here about forwarding to a foreign country,” we said. “And our forwarding address is a bit complicated. How should we do this?”

“Just put the whole address on there. It will be fine,” they said.

So we did.

“OK, it’s all here,” we declared, handing over the completed forms. “Will there be confirmation?”

“Yeah, should be.”

And that, naively, is where we left it.

But you’re smart…you know our transaction sounds too good to be true. And you’re right. Not one piece of mail has been forwarded thus far. Or, at least nothing has arrived.

Now, mail sent from the US directly to Jenny’s university address does trickle through. Among the cards and letters from family, and a bill from our storage company (that we pay electronically anyway), was a notice from Jenny’s doctor in Chicago. Although clearly addressed to Jenny at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, you can see that the piece was initially…



What? How?


Yeah, your guess is as good as ours.

What we know is that the letter left Chicago on or around July 26 and arrived in Pretoria around October 10.

What we don’t know:

  • Whether the letter heard Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” upon arrival in Jamaica.
  • Whether the letter felt (or smelt) a “Jamaican breeze.”
  • Whether the letter got its groove back.

The letter probably didn’t shoot the sheriff, but it did shoot another hole in the foot of the already ailing US Postal Service. If this letter is any indication of how mail gets routed, it’s no wonder the system is just a cancelled Elvis stamp away from being returned to sender.

If you’re reading this, General Donahoe, please know I wish you nothing but the best of luck. I also wish you would send us our mail.

Happy Birthday, Madiba!

Today is a big day in South Africa: It is Nelson Mandela’s birthday! Madiba is 93 beautiful years old.

As part of the celebration, South Africans are encouraged to take part in Nelson Mandela Day activities and to volunteer at least 67 minutes of time supporting a charity or working in local communities. That’s one minute for each of the 67 years of his life Mandela gave fighting for the rights of the oppressed in South Africa and around the world.

For our part, Jenny and I will be volunteering with others from the University of Pretoria this Saturday in Mamelodi. Mamelodi is a township outside of Pretoria that was established under apartheid. In the 1960’s, black South Africans were forcefully removed their homes and relocated to Mamelodi and other townships. While we have visited a township called Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town as tourists, I’m sure this experience as volunteers — and adopted South Africans — will be different and hopefully deeper.

I have to say, the feeling of being a part of anything remotely related to Nelson Mandela is electric. He is one of a select few figures that emit such energy and possess such gravity, whether you are near him or thousands of miles from him. I mean, he is in a category with the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama. He is an inspiration to all.

Back in 2006, a year after Jenny and I visited Robben Island (where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison), I had the opportunity to work on a project to promote the Robben Island Singers during their visit to Chicago. These three men — Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole — were also political prisoners on Robben Island. Now, they sing the songs and tell the stories of the struggle for freedom, sharing a message of forgiveness, tolerance and peace. It was a tremendous honor to meet these men and be a small part of their ongoing efforts.

While today is a happy day and this week will be filled with acts of kindness and spikes in volunteerism, it also reminds me that Mandela’s release did not put an end to the struggles here or elsewhere. There remains an institutional bias in favor of the white minority that will take some time to balance out, just like our systems continue to need balance in the United States.

It also reminds me that the practice of imprisoning political enemies or those who speak out against government abuses continues around the world, even in America. Human Rights Watch in Chicago recently screened a film called In the Land of the Free that chronicles the situation of the Angola 3, three men targeted by prison officials for being members of the Black Panther Party and kept in solitary confinement for decades. Two of the men remain in prison.

So, wherever you are and whatever you do, let’s all wish Madiba a happy 93rd birthday and try to spend at least 67 minutes improving our little corners of the world.