Of all the phrases dreaded by a community journalist, “would like to speak to you” is close to the top. It’s not that we dislike speaking with people—which is after all the essence of this job. It’s just that the kind of people who say they “would like to speak to you” aren’t usually the sort bearing good news.
Increasing my anxiety was the fact I’ve never known Yaede to do this. In 10 years of reporting on her, she’s complained to me maybe once. What could I have done? I racked my brain, and came up empty.
There was only one thing left to do: suck it up and find out what she wanted. So, I called the mayor’s office back, and left a message for Yaede. After a few rounds of phone tag with her secretary, I received a voicemail from Yaede herself: “Rob, you’re not going to believe this. This is so weird. I think I have something that belongs to you.”
This was an intriguing development, and I couldn’t help but think Yaede ought to consider a side gig as a writer, with a cliffhanger like that.
The suspense lingered a full day longer, as we missed each other twice more—we must have seriously incompatible schedules. But finally, on the afternoon of Dec. 7, we connected. And Yaede’s story wound up being weirder than I could have expected.
Yaede: Rob, do you live on [X Street]?
Me: No, but my parents do.
Yaede: Is your middle initial [X]?
Me: No, but my dad’s is.
Yaede: OK, I have his mail.
Yaede explained that she received two pieces of similar looking mail at home, and opened both without looking too closely. It was only upon removing the mail from the envelope that she saw on one the name “Robert Anthes,” and thought, “That Rob Anthes?”
Yes, Mayor, I am everywhere.
Not really, but it certainly is quite a coincidence, in a town of 39 square miles and nearly 90,000 people, that the mayor would receive “my” mail. There’s no reason she should have ever had that letter delivered to her. Aside from “Hamilton, NJ,” Yaede and my parents do not have any common address information. Different neighborhoods, different ZIP codes, different carrier routes. The odds of this happening had to have been minuscule.
I set out to discover how rare it was. A very reliable source of information—an anonymous online message board about the postal service—estimated about 1 percent of mail is misdelivered. That sounds like pretty good performance. But U.S. Postal Service spokesman Raymond Daiutolo, Sr. told me USPS expected to deliver 15 billion pieces of mail (not including packages) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in 2017. At a misdelivery rate of 1 percent, that’d be 150 million pieces. In 2016, there were nearly 126 million households in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With those numbers, in 39 days, every household would have received at least one piece of mail meant for someone else.
So, there’s a shot that at one point in time the mayor of some other Hamilton received a piece of mail meant for the family of one of the few journalists left covering the town full-time. But I doubt it. This is my mark on history.
My parents, for their part, were extremely grateful—to the mayor for her honesty in alerting us quickly to the mishap, to me for schlepping to town hall to ensure nothing had been taken out of the envelope to help the township’s coffer. (This envelope contained a check.)
I joke, but the truth is, Yaede did a nice thing, and she didn’t want any attention for it. I even had to convince her to let me write this column. If this was a publicity stunt, it’s a pretty elaborate one.
I prefer to consider this whole saga a reminder that underneath our professions and political opinions and sports allegiances, we’re all just humans. Journalists and government officials are, by design, rarely on the same side, and we live in a time where more than ever those in power have framed reporters as foes and villains for that. But reporting facts and taking a critical look at government and those in it isn’t personal—it’s just a journalist’s job.
I have to give Yaede kudos for recognizing the truth—that we’re really just neighbors trying to live life the best we can. And sometimes that life includes getting each others’ mail.
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