In early August, Matt Young rode up to my house on his bike and delivered an intriguing flier introducing "Flying Hams Free Mailing Service."
Young, who lives in Parkridge in East Knoxville, is starting this service in which he will personally bike people's mail across town for free. According to the flier, his working perimeters are "Papermill Road to the west, the intersection of Rutledge Pike and Magnolia Avenue to the east, Fountain City to the north, and the intersection of Martin Mill and Amberjack Way to the south." Young mentions he will consider delivery points outside these perimeters under certain circumstances. He will deliver letters and packages up to 25 pounds.
The service is based on trust. Young promises "under oath of mutual aid and respect" to never open letters and packages. In return he trusts senders to not send fragile packages unless the sender "can agree that it is not my fault if the package breaks or gets damaged." He also trusts people not to send drugs on delivery. ("I am not your drug mule!")
Since it is based on mutual trust, this is not quite a public service. Young sent the flier around to a group of friends and neighbors he felt reasonably sure he could trust, and asked me not to publish his phone number or address. If his service proves popular, he hopes to enlist other bicyclists to help deliver mail, and expand the service.
"I write a lot of letters to my friends, and I don't like paying for services provided by the state," says Young.
Young says he's been thinking about the idea of a free mail delivery service for several years, and now, with only a part-time job, he has time to implement it. In the past, Young has been a part of progressive social justice organizations Groundswell Collective, Food Not Bombs, United Mountain Defense, and the Parkridge Community Garden. Flying Hams seems to be driven by the same idealistic spirit. It's an experimental community project.
"People really don't write each other locally," says Young, and he thinks that's a shame since "there's nothing really as good as getting a letter in the mail."
The practice of writing letters locally has probably been replaced with text messaging and phone calls, but Young is interested in ditching his cell phone. He says he doesn't want to support the monopolies of phone companies like Verizon and AT&T. Young says he is especially unhappy with the way phone companies make money off the prison system, by collecting dollars on inmates and friends and family of inmates calling in and out of prisons. Young became aware of phone companies' involvement in prisons when he lived in Houston, and struggled to get in touch with friends in the prison system.
In the flier, Young mentions that his delivery service provides "more privacy" in one's communications, which is maybe a reference to recent revelations about government phone tapping.
"Your mail is secret and sacred as long as it is with me," Young writes.
Intrigued, I wrapped up a book, a gift for a friend, called the number provided on the flier, and left a message requesting a package pick-up and delivery.
On Tuesday, Aug. 20, the first day of the service, Young awoke miserably sick with a fever and with seven letters and one package to deliver. The furthest address on his route was off Sutherland Avenue, most were near Broadway Street. Despite his misery, Young gamely dropped by my house later that afternoon, and picked up my package to deliver to an address on Fifth Avenue.
He says the name "Flying Hams" is kind of a joke.
"People refer to their buttocks as ‘hams,' and when you're on a bicycle it's like they're flying."
The name is also a reminder that Young is literally working his butt off to deliver your mail to your friend across town. It's a lot more work that punching a text message into your phone, and a lot less convenient. If the concept becomes popular, the folks biking around town delivering their handwritten letters may have a lot of appreciative friends, and also be in pretty nice shape.