The Post-Postcard Era

A eulogy for a dying art

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Secret History

by Jack Neely

I had a kid at camp this summer, and, as always, I sent her postcards. I've always kept a stash of them in my desk. It was getting kind of low, and I stepped out at lunchtime to replenish it.

I went to several places that sell themâ"or, I thought, ought to sell themâ"downtown. It took longer than I expected. One shop that, 10 years ago, displayed a gallery of offbeat postcards, now doesn't carry them at all. A clerk at another shop that sells lots of greeting cards suggested, â“you might try Walgreen's.â” Even at the tourist center, there aren't many choices. Most of the outlets seem to have the same ones. Some are OK; one is a good shot of the Haley statue. One, a still life, might be called â“Convention Center with Sunsphere.â”

The bulk of the Knoxville postcards you can buy this week are aerial shots of UT or downtown. Most appear to be produced out of state, in Georgia or North Carolina. You wonder if they were behind on a deadline, and somebody said, â“Gosh, we forgot to get pictures of Knoxville! It's over in Tennessee!â” So they hired a pilot to fly over that afternoon and get a shot or two of us from a couple thousand feet. He probably didn't want to actually land his plane here.

The margins of all of the aerial cards are blurred out, some embellished with cloudlike designs. It looks something like downtown Knoxville rising to Glory after a Baptist funeral.

My daughter, I feared, would gag. I'm grateful the Disc Exchange still keeps a good supply of rock'n'roll postcards. The best Knoxville postcard I've found yet is a portrait of Johnny Knoxville. He's wearing big Elvis shades to protect his eyes, but he should have worn some sort of chest protection, too, because he seems to be painfully afflicted with a few darts in his flesh. It's labeled, in big letters, KNOXVILLE. I bought it to send my daughter, as a reminder of home.

But why aren't there some choices that show aspects of the city that don't date Lindsay Lohan? The Rachmaninoff statue, say, or the Beloved Woman of Justice? After all the millions we spent on it, why isn't there a postcard of the interior of the Tennessee Theatre? The Old City at night, when dozens of people and sometimes a random bear are roaming the streets, with grand old Sullivan's Saloon looming in the background? Market Square in the daytime, when there are street fiddlers and cellists and a couple hundred patio loungers, and dozens of bikes double-parked on the patio railings? The Vol Navy, on a Florida weekend? The Blue Plate Special, on a day when there are bagpipers or congas, and it's standing-room-only? The Three Rivers Rambler, high above the junction that forms the Tennessee River? The Third Creek Bike Trail, when oversized turtles and herons are shamelessly loitering in the creek?

Or how about some histori cal portraits of picturesque Knoxville figures like Parson Brownlow or Perez Dickinson or Roy Acuff or maybe Stick McGhee? Maybe prints of some of Beauford Delaney's loud portraits? If you want my 50 cents, folks, these are the sorts of postcards I would buy.

Since I can't find Knoxville postcards to send, I send Disc Exchange postcards of Eartha Kitt, and Carmen Miranda, and Andy Warhol in a chef's hat. I think my daughter enjoys them.

But I may be the only one looking. It's even hard to find postcard stamps in machines. The stamp lady at the post office affirms that people don't send postcards like they used to.

I asked my daughter about it. And yes, I'm pretty much the only one who ever sends her postcards. â“Nowadays, people text,â” she explained. â“It's just like a postcard.â” She was trying, helpfully, to give me a frame of reference.

As one who is still waiting for the right opportunity to send my first text message, I have to confess I'm not altogether clear about what the point of it is. I settle for the confidence that if you write the checks that pay for other people to text, that qualifies you as technologically hip. Texting is indeed sort of like a postcard, the chief difference being that texting sometimes costs several hundred dollars a month. Our telecommunications bill is about 20 times greater than it was 10 years ago. Of course, we do have more stuff now, more buttons, and that has to count for something.

Of course, postal rates have gone up, too. Postcard stamps are all the way up to 26 cents. I'm feeling the pinch.

Back in the '80s, I was in Northampton, Mass., for a visit. It's a historic and well-educated place, but my most vivid memory of it was this one bookstore that sold hundreds of crazy postcards, all in display on one wall: portraits of outlaws and poets and revolutionaries, Leon Trotsky and Anais Nin and Billy the Kid and the Everly Brothers and Stephen Crane, and that armless Frenchman painting with his feet. I'd never thought about them all at once. It was thrilling to see them all there, in one place, this kaleidoscope of civilization. Much of what we're losing, without postcards, is this serendipitous imposition of the unexpected.

Texting must have its charms, but it seems to me that postcards are more spontaneous, more likely to trip a synapse you didn't know was there. Sending a postcard with an unexpected picture that somebody can stick in their pocket. Or, as I have with some postcards I've gotten over the years, put it in a frame and hang it on a wall. You can't decorate your dorm room with texts, as I once did with postcards. Postcards were cheap but provocative little posters, some alarming, some familiar, some puzzling, some inspiring.

A year or two ago on the reality show Antiques Roadshow , one of the curios being appraised was a postcard of the building I'm in, the Burwell, as it was being built in 1907. It showed the building being topped off, the famous photo of the mule hauled up to the top by a crane. â“Maud up in the air, ten stories,â” the caption says. â“Ten thousand people view the sight.â”

I don't remember the card's appraised value, just that they thought it worthy of comment for a national audience. That's another one we ought to have at the tourist center. And that's something else you can't do with text messages: sell the interesting ones, a century later.

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