It's as elusive as a good hairdresser, a pair of pants that fit well or a spouse who's adored by your friends but remains adoring of you.
Someone who answers your letters.
Not just a friend who responds to your thoughtful four-page missives with a few paragraphs hastily mailed four months later--by which time you've forgotten what it was you wrote and even if you remember, you no longer have those concerns or opinions.
A Real Correspondent
No, we're talking about a correspondent--a pen pal, for lack of a better word--someone who relishes the written word and treats the occasion to write a letter as a reward rather than an obligation.
People like that are hard to find. Even though, as Steven Sikora is convinced, there is a rebirth of letter writing in this country.
Sikora, 42, is a teacher-turned-carpenter, who any month now hopes to be able to live off the Letter Exchange, a publication he coordinates and assembles three times yearly from the workshop of his small rented home in Albany, a hilly suburb of Berkeley. Sikora calls the Letter Exchange "a directory of correspondence." More practically, it's a directory of correspondents--people who've placed ads ($4 for 20 words or less) saying (when you get past the sales pitch) "write me."
- Midwesterner longs to hear from some residents of desirable climates. (However, do NOT write if you are a country musician, a hunter, a creationist, a sports fanatic or a Republican.)
- Are we becoming addicted to violence? Are we really going to hell in a hand basket? Literate persons with an uncommon sense of humor are invited to reply. No religious fanatics, please.
- A glutton for all subjects looking for like-minded to share thoughts, ideas and recipes. Interests include baking, horror and fantasy movies, roller coasters, human sexuality, computers and spelunking.
And they do write. Theresa Dolezal, 63, of Dearborn, Mich., received more than 50 responses to her ad in the the Letter Exchange's fall edition. Falling under the category "Daily Life," it read: "My offer: good letters, prompt replies, endless variety of subjects--a pleasant exchange of life's experiences."
Just below her on the page, Janice Uttley's ad: "North Carolina humorist wants to know what tickles your funny bone. If you enjoy satire, puns, faux pas, gaffes and have a dry wit, let's get together and die laughing."
Drew 35 Pen Pals
From this and several similar ads, Uttley, 49, a secretary in a Charlotte, N.C., advertising firm, now has 35 pen pals, 10 of whom she corresponds with weekly.
What's happening here? What about the rap that Americans don't write, that we're functionally illiterate? We've heard it for years and soulfully bowed our heads in acquiescence--blaming television, telephone, the Democrats or just plain bad manners.
Well, obviously the rap's been wrong. America is a nation of writers. They've just been in the closet.
This is where Sikora is at his best. More than a facilitator--not only does he publish the Letter Exchange, he (or rather his 83-year-old mother, Florence) forwards all letters to the appropriate addresses--he is an observer and scholar of the reading and writing phenomenon.
"I think it has to do with the distance between the masses of people and the few specialized people," he said one recent morning, sitting behind an aged Remington Rand typewriter that is the heart of his cluttered workshop. "You have to understand, Jane Austen wrote all her books to be read aloud. And that was typical. Throughout history there's been this kind of sense of writers being rooted in their community. But now there's a frustration of not being able to connect with writers.
"Like the short stories in the New Yorker. I read them, but I'm not there."
At this, Sikora paused. This was a favorite topic, an important one. Was he making himself clear?
Maybe better to express it as a need to participate. And that's why letters, he said. "You can never distance yourself with dialogue."
If this sounds rather academic, that's the way Sikora is. He likes to think, to theorize, to exchange ideas. And as a form of communication, letters can be particularly gratifying. Letters, after all, require the writer to think about what he is saying, to present ideas in an articulate manner.
Letters have other lures. Andrea Firpo, 26, who does analysis and research for an investment banking firm in New York City, talks of how "in a city of 8.5 million people, I don't know any of them as well as I know the people I'm writing to."
Offered a 'Shoulder'
Firpo's ad read: "I want to be the person you open up to when you're: sulking in abject loneliness; feeling wildly creative; when the demon inside you fires passion or anger or yawns with boredom. Or, write me if you want a laugh, an intellectual discourse, an unbiased opinion, a 'shoulder' or care to 'meet' me in the mail." She received more than 50 replies.