When I was thirteen, and my dear friend Laura went on a teen hiking tour of the British Isles, I wrote her religiously. Letters, yes, but cards, too. I was stationary in New York, but I had found a lot of vintage postcards somewhere ,and sent a pair of fictional spinsters around the country on an imaginary road trip; each card chronicled their increasingly lurid and ridiculous adventures. One of the sisters proved man-crazy, the other developed a gambling addiction in Reno. When Laura transferred to a boarding school in Wales, their adventures continued.
Nowadays, that doesn’t seem like that big a deal. People are always sending Flat Stanleys and toys and gnomes around the world; you can download a template right from the Internet. Nothing new under the sun, I guess, but I loved having that imaginative connection to a friend across the world.
Now, as a grownup on vacation, I’m sitting here with a pile of postcards in front of me, wondering what to do about it. What, after all, is a postcard? In the age of e-mail and Instagram and Twitter, it’s a self-conscious anachronism. When you read an old postcard, their messages—in that spindly, legible, Palmer-script hand—are often strikingly banal. People really do say “wish you were here,” without embarrassment, and talk about the weather. With traditional postcards, the thought is what counts; these were, by and large, generic images bearing the most impersonal of greetings.
The modern postcard, paradoxically, takes some work. One must find stamps and mailboxes. And addresses are a problem: they are specific and important and not usually very close-at-hand. And there are few things more anticlimactic than having to secure someone’s address before surprising them with a mailing.
We still like to be thought of; of course we do. But now, an earnest view and a few inanities wouldn’t cut it. There has to be some element of self-conscious irony; the deliberate cheesiness of a classic vista, the weirdness of a subject, the cheery “wish you were here” sent from a site of carnage or tragedy.
I owe that dear friend a letter. I owe her much more than that. A dozen times I have started an e-mail, but I have never had the nerve to write. But being up here in Maine, where we first met—we both had A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on the shelves over our bunks at camp—I think of her all the time.
Perhaps that is the point, after all. Maybe I can re-animate those adventures. Maybe, sometimes, “Wish You Were Here” is actually enough.