Return to Sender

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: A.S. Tiefholz

I have a passing fascination with the biographical structure of people’s lives as evidenced by their junk mail and circulars. I wouldn’t say it keeps me up at night, but it certainly provides an element of curious conjecture.

I suppose in this day and age the vast majority of “personalised” junk mail is of the electronic variety, largely unsolicited. I don’t know about you, but I think there just aren’t enough dodgy degrees, Russian mailorder brides, managing director posts, terminally ill Nigerian aristocrats and the perennial favourite, penile enlargement devices. If I get two or three more emails, I might actually have to cave in.

I’m a bit twentieth century in some ways, and I have a nostalgic fondness for the old-fashioned mail circulars. The sort of catalogues that you actually had to request, and which someone stuffed into an envelope. I’m well aware of the environmental unsoundness of this, but at least it showed that some corporation really cared about you, enough to pay some 15 year old to shove a glossy bit of tat into an envelope for you.

I think plenty can be gleaned about the personality of a stranger from these circulars. I used to live in a share house in Carlton, previously occupied by the elusive landlord, one John McCarter. Mr McCarter was a man of eclectic tastes. The envelopes for him bore the crests of The Victorian Cat Fanciers, a plethora of antique appreciation societies, Goldfingers Gentleman’s Club, Identity Direct, The Farriers’ Gild, OutVideo, the Christian Science Monitor, Weight Watchers, and the Southern Lepidopterology Network (they’re butterfly nuts – I looked it up in an idle moment). I’m guessing from this that he was somewhere north of fifty, with a bit of a paunch, who shod his own horses with monogrammed horseshoes. What one can surmise of his sexuality is contradictory, but he possibly straddled a few integers on the Kinsey scale. I think there might have been a bit of denial or a cover-up when accompanying some pals on a long-ago bucks’ turn. At any rate, John’s opt-in junkmail made for colourful speculation late at night when friends gathered round the kitchen table in the spirit of cleanskin red wine and discounted cake from Safeway. We were students at the time, after all. I regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting John McCarter in the corpulent flesh. When cleaning out the house prior to vacating it, I was only mildly surprised to unearth a glass case of impaled butterflies in the cupboard under the stairs. I’m only grateful he didn’t have a companion interest in DIY taxidermy.

I have lived at my current address for more than three years. There has always been a steady stream of letters addressed to the dodgy ex-husband of the previous owner. I haven’t actually opened them, given that they clearly looked personal, but have scrawled “RTS” on each and faithfully popped it in the Aus Post box around the corner. Apparently no-one has gotten the message that the guy is no longer anywhere round here. Each subsequent envelope is scored in an increasingly large splash of red, and the words “Final notice before referral to the Sheriff’s Department” have become bolder, underlined and italicised. I wasn’t actually aware that there was such a thing as a Sheriff’s Department in this day and age in Victoria. It all seems very Wild West. I’m just waiting for the day that some of these creditors come knocking on my door at high noon, wearing holsters and spurs, and spitting tobacco juice on my geraniums.

Given how long I’ve been here, I have been surprised that brand new phantom occupants have only recently come to the attention of my letterbox. One Miss Rboerat Mrashal, for instance, whose subscription to Men’s Health makes for illuminating reading. I can make a tasty low-fat protein shake with four bananas in it, I now recognise that girlfriends and wives like a bit of communication before having red lacy knickers purchased on their behalf, and my risk of prostate cancer has halved since increasing my daily intake of leafy green vegetables. Because I had such a clear insight into the workings of Robert Marshall’s psyche (even enough to take liberties with his name), I figured that he wouldn’t have too many objections to my opening his quarterly circulars from Hotel Shoppingtown in cosmopolitan Doncaster, Your Local for Live Entertainment. Is it what! Among the forthcoming gigs are the Trembling Wilburys, Babba, and Pseudo Echo with (drumroll) Wa Wa Nee. Show only $25. That’s right, you heard it here. Tickets selling like day old scones, so get in when you get around to it. If you’re not busy. And there’s nothing good on telly. Is it just me, or is it a little bit sad when erstwhile mighty rock gods are barely squeezing into leathers to pump out a few old faves at a shopping centre in the eastern suburbs? Incidentally, if you’re interested, Johnny Young occasionally plays the Olympic Hotel in Bell Street, Preston. For those not familiar with the area, it’s diagonally opposite Breakers Entertainment Complex and Pool Hall, where signs for Jimmy Barnes’ 2002 appearance are still up in the window.

I’ve also been at the other end of the mailout chain. When I was 17, in the summer between finishing school and starting university, I took a job in the Hobart warehouse of Garmer TV Shopping. I was exceptionally delighted about this. For one thing, it paid the princely sum of $10 per hour, cash in brown envelope. This was a king’s ransom compared to the pittance I’d been sweating for at Banjo’s Bakery (Elizabeth Street outlet) for the two years preceding. At Garmer, I worked with a fun bunch of people – mostly uni students – and our matriarchal supervisor, Del. Del was an enormous woman with grey hair, floral print tops, and a no bullshit attitude. She reported to Mr Garmer, an absentee managing director whom I never met. I imagine him as being similar to Stanley Walker, an obese businessman who made regular trips to Sydney, Hong Kong and Shanghai. I could be completely wrong about this. Maybe he was a skinny bloke in stonewash jeans and moccasins, chainsmoking in a semi-detached house in Moonah.

Anyway, my job involved answering phones, returning calls, packing purchases and sending out catalogues to current and previous customers. It was a pretty low-rent company with fingers in the print and electronic media pies. Basically, this means we had ads in New Idea and TV guides, as well as late-night and mid-morning ads on regional telly. We were very popular in certain postcodes of eastern Queensland and western New South Wales, let me tell you. Garmer was one of those operations that traffics in crapola Chinese imports: No-Snore pillows, weight loss devices, cubic zirconium earrings, handheld knitting machines, electric nose hair trimmers and astrological hologram watches with matching pendants. But wait, there’s more, and we’re standing by to take your call. Steak knives, anyone?

Given the top-notch calibre of our merchandise, we had to do quality control quite frequently. We had standards, after all. I had a carton full of talking wristwatches to test. These plastic gems had an optional setting to make the alarm sound like a rooster. I know an electronic faux cockerel would make me feel better about getting up at 5.30 to go to work. I pulled a random watch from its cardboard box, installed batteries from our recycled battery dish, and fired it up. It told me the time in Spanish. I thought perhaps it was multilingual, which would have been kind of clever in a stupid way, so I got out the manual to work out how to change the settings to English. The instructions were in Mandarin.

“Hey, Del!” I yelled. “This watch speaks Spanish.”

“Check another one,” she called back.

I did. Same again. The time announced in Spanish. Then it made the e-cockadoodledoo noise. I haven’t been to Spain, but I’m fairly certain that the roosters there would sound much the same as Australian ones. If the alarm clock was anything to go by, I’d advise against ordering any kind of poultry dish in Barcelona.

I turned over the carton to inspect the shipping label. It seems there had been a mix-up. This cargo had been bound for Mexico City. I can see how a trade company in Beijing would confuse Mexico City, Mexico, with Hobart, Tasmania. It occurred to me that with Australia’s diverse ethnic populations, we probably could have shifted talking watches that spoke Greek, Mandarin, Arabic or Vietnamese. But the Spanish-speaking population was just a tad too small to be a viable market. Certainly they would be slow movers around Rockhampton.

We stocked an eclectic range, some of which approximately performed stated function. I took a lot of phone orders from people with lukewarm IQs but with credit cards burning holes in their polyester pockets. It was Christmas time. They were feeling generous towards their families.

“I want one of the zodiac necklaces,” said a woman in Toowoomba. “Do you have the Southern Cross?”

“I’m sorry, but the Southern Cross isn’t part of the horoscope,” I replied. When’s your birthday?”

“Third of June, darl.”

“That would make you a Gemini,” I advised, helpfully. “Would you like to order the Gemini watch and pendant set?”

“It’s not for me. It’s for me mum, for Christmas.”

“When’s her birthday?”

“I dunno. April, I think. But she thinks star signs and that are a load of crap,” Mrs Toowoomba informed me.

“So why do you want to get her a horoscope pendant?” I asked.

“She’s real patriotic. And she’s in the union.”

“I think that’s the Eureka flag you’re after,” I suggested. “I’m afraid we don’t stock that particular item.”

“Well, could you order it in?”

Then there were the crank calls. Bored adolescents at home with telephones. A winning combination. One week, we were running tandem weight loss specials in the TV ad range and the print marketing line. On TV, the hook was the Vibromassage 3-in-1 belt (order reference VM238) that magically melted off the kilos while you sat on your arse, watching Midday with Ray Martin. In the catalogue line, there was a similar device, the New You TummyTite massage kit (order reference NY262). These promotions started just after Boxing Day, so you can imagine how appealing the idea of a no-effort weight loss regime was. Whenever an ad had just been aired, the phones would start ringing hot. The Vibromassage ad had been due to run about noon one Tuesday, and sure enough, the phone rang at 12:01.

“Hello, Garmer TV Shopping. May I take your order, please?” I sing-songed.

“Yeah, I want to buy a vibrator,” said a twelve year old boy, trying to sound like a grownup.

“Would that be the Vibromassage 3-in-1 or the TummyTite?” I asked.

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, did you see the item advertised on TV or in our catalogue?” I replied.

“Neither.”

Circuitous conversations were pretty standard in this job.

“Well, did you want the belt or the boxed kit?” I enquired.

“I want the one that you shove up yaself. Hahahahahaha. Looooooooser!” Click of phone being hung up in Dubbo.

Sophisticated humour could hardly be expected from devotees of daytime TV. I’m fairly certain George Bernard Shaw never amused himself by crank calling the home shopping network.

Nevertheless, people were desperate to buy the useless shit we sold, and even more enthusiastic in their abusive phone calls and letters when returning items.

“I used your No-Snore pillow and my head fell off. It’s dredfull [sic]. I want my money reffunded [sic] back.” I really wanted to write back and say we had a strict policy regarding refunds for decapitees, but thought the joke would go over his head. (Please excuse the pun. It had to happen. And I’m not making this up.)

“I bort [sic] this nose hair trimer [sic] for my husband, and it doesn’t work.” This lady had helpfully posted the offending item in a bubblewrap postpak. There were no fewer than a dozen stumpy black hairs, complete with follicles, glued to the head of the device with snot [sick]. I can only deduce that the poor woman was married to a bloke with a schnozz like a toilet brush. It must have distracted both of them to the point of being completely unable to clean the bloody trimmer before sending it in. Possibly it was a deliberate ploy to punish the hapless warehouse staff. In which case, I’m glad she didn’t decide to coat it in anthrax as well.

An especial source of chagrin was the fact that we didn’t refund postage costs, despite having clearly spelled this out in the terms and conditions of the purchase. A number of our irate customers lived in Hobart and its surrounds, and when they realised that the return address was a box at the Hobart GPO, they were initially quite surprised. I imagine they assumed that since everything else of national importance happened in Melbourne and Sydney, it would stand to reason that their WonderWok would have to be shipped in from the Mainland too. Having gotten past that moment of cosmopolitan pride (well, that’s put Tassie on the map then, eh?), they quite logically asked why they couldn’t bring their items in personally and save themselves a few stamps, we had to trot out the rehearsed answer that we are not equipped to manage retail business at this time. Translated, we were operating out of a warehouse out back of a furniture store in Bathurst Street, and the compliance with OH&S and fire safety requirements was tenuous at best. The last thing the mysterious Mr Garmer wanted was a lawsuit because someone had tripped over the worn lino, and his public liability insurance was probably next to buggerall. Any irate customer who found out our location (it was Hobart, not the Pentagon) and tried to march in the service entrance was staunchly blocked by the formidable Del. The woman could cast a shadow a mile wide against the swirling dust particles that wended their asbestotic way through the sunbeams. No-one, to my knowledge, ever got in. Or if they did, I doubt they ever made it out again.

I saw out my summer there, then moved to Melbourne. My early job history in the big smoke was considerably more soul-destroying. But that’s another story.

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