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Advertisers never fail to supply my daily adult requirement of malaise. : Unfulfilled Expectations at the Mailbox

August 18, 1986|DANIEL AKST | Al Martinez is ill. Guest columnist Daniel Akst is a Times staff writer.

When I get home from a hard day in the salt mines of business journalism, I always make a point of checking the mail. It's the thing I like best after shucking my green eyeshade and sleeve garters, laying aside the bifocals and bond charts and driving my Dodge Dart home at a safe speed in the right-hand lane of the Ventura Freeway.

For a dullard like me, the mail should offer possibility, serendipity, excitement, even. And hope continues to triumph over experience: I still approach the mailbox with great expectations. Maybe tonight there'll be a perfumed letter, some news of a financial windfall or a contract, perhaps, from a publisher who's heard of my secret scribblings and will pay fantastically for them, sight unseen.

But what I usually get are a collection of sleazy-looking post cards offering various goods and services that are about as useful as air conditioning in Alaska. The advertisers who take part in this insidious postal terrorism want to fix my teeth, cover my sofa with a form of petrified Saran Wrap or paint my house for less than the price of a gallon of latex.

Mostly though, day in and day out, they vie for the privilege of cleaning my drapes and carpets. For weeks now, I have been scanning the neighborhood with binoculars, trying to find the spy whose report of my hoary curtains and dusty rugs may have prompted this barrage.

My truculence about all this is not simply that the mailbox is always filled with junk mail and never junk bonds. No, it goes deeper than that.

First of all, like any good business writer, I take a laissez-faire approach to my tacky drapes and carpets, which belong to the person who owns the motel-design apartment complex where I live. When I want them cleaned, O shag scrubbers of the mails, I'll let you know. You'll have carpet balls the size of tumbleweeds to take care of.

For you direct-mail dentists, stop wasting your time. I wouldn't let you near me with a toothbrush. No one in his right mind would choose a dentist that way, and I like to cling to all the outward signs of sanity that I can.

Anyone who wants to paint my house can go ahead. Since I don't own one, they can have the place as payment. And covering my sofa with plastic is obviously ridiculous, since it is comfortable and ugly, and a plastic cover would eliminate its advantages to preserve its hideous fabric for all time. Being interested in business, though, I suppose I could start some kind of home depilatory service by having people lie on the thing naked and then get up real fast. A plastic-covered sofa on a hot day is enough to take a layer off anybody.

But never mind the advertisers' products. What really raises my hackles is the relentlessness of these guys, their remorseless war on hope, the way they never fail to supply my daily adult requirement of malaise.

What are we victims supposed to do with these things? Leave them in the box, and they accumulate. Take them out, and you have to carry them into the apartment, right there with the stucco ceilings and old newspapers and everything.

The only redeeming element in all this "direct mail" is the photos of missing children on the back of the ads, but even these seem problematic. I take a back seat to no one in my opposition to the disappearance of children, but it nevertheless irks me the way these intrusive little cards have imputed to themselves the moral ardor of desperate parents through the cherubic faces of their missing children.

If it helps find these kids, great, but truthfully, these things are wasted on me; I don't see three children a year, missing or otherwise. There aren't any where I live (I always assumed that none were allowed), and I wouldn't know where to find a child if my life depended on it. In some sense, they're all missing.

I wish I could say the same for my mail. Lately, besides the couch cleaners and dental hopefuls, I've been getting a lot of stuff masquerading as Federal Express or Mailgram envelopes. Lawyers at FedEx and Western Union, take note. Maybe some good will come of the litigation explosion after all.

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