Photo Credit: Unsplash
When I was small, I became aware of the spaces between people. A fence separated the building where I lived and the girls who played jump rope next door, a physical barrier that was no match for a religious one. They wore skirts that grazed their ankles and blouses that cinched at the wrists, and I wondered if they could feel the heat. One summer I wore a mint-green short-set until it was threadbare and when I asked the girls next door if they wanted to play, they ignored me. We occupied the same space — why were they unfazed by the hot sun bearing down? Why wouldn’t they play with me? Days later, a small boy would tell me that they weren’t allowed to speak to “people like me”, much less share a rope.
It was summer and I was friendless with only a stack of library books and squirrels scavenging through the trees to keep me company. Everyone seemed to have a crew, a pack of friends with whom they played double-dutch or swam in the 4-ft pool at Sunset Park. I don’t remember how I discovered Friendship Books (FBs) or how I found my first pen-pal, but that summer I finally befriended dozens of girls my age and was awed by the places in which they lived. Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Canada (!!!) — I considered these faraway lands exotic countries because the farthest I’d ever traveled was to downtown Manhattan. No longer did I spend my days alone! That summer, I spent hours buying Lisa Frank and Ms. Grossman stickers, colored markers, and construction paper with the small amount of money I’d saved — all in an effort to make me desirable, because who could resist an eleven-year-old from Brooklyn who hoarded iridescent unicorn stickers?
Soon I mastered the acronyms:
AA — Answer All
AM — Answer Most
AS — Answer Some
AVF — Answer Very Few
SNNP — Sorry No New Pals
NNP — No New Pals
SNNS—Sorry No New Swappers
NPW — New Pals Welcome
NSW— New Swappers Welcome
LLP— Long Letter Pal
Within a year, I migrated from “AA” to “NNP”, a status that would fluctuate until I stopped “palling” when I was seventeen. Trading sheets of stickers, stationery, and glitter pens would evolve into trading clips from popular teen magazines: Bop, Big Bopper, Teen Machine, and Sassy. Even though foreign penpals meant more stamps to lick and calculations to navigate, glossy spreads of my favorite teen stars (Corey Haim, Robert Downey Jr., Kirk Cameron, Andrew McCarthy, NKOTB) from magazines published in languages foreign to me were worth the trips to the post office. And I had friends! Some pals were purely trading partners while others became close friends. We traded long letters about our parents, all the ways we didn’t fit in at school, and the movies we watched and books we read because we were lonely kids and teenagers and we desperately wanted to feel less alone. Mail was something to look forward to, and I’d stare out my window breathlessly awaiting the men dressed in blue to make their way to my building, and when they left I raced down the stairs and cradled my bounty back to my room. Sometimes I’d open the fat envelopes midway up the stairs, giddy. Other times I’d spend long afternoons writing letters in neat cursive and decorating my small piece of real estate in the FB I’d received.
When I was 16 and 17 I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington state and California to meet my best pals in person, and we snapped photos with our 110 cameras and ordered late-night pizzas. It never occurred to me that I had to travel thousands of miles to do the kind of things ordinary girls did with friends who lived within a 5-mile radius.
We write online — tweets, DMs, emails — and we write to each other offline, too. Sometimes I picture our correspondences criss-crossing the globe, like those maps of trade routes: old copies of the New Yorker and pictures of cats, postcards, platonic love letters, stickers with lions, little lovely things that might make our disparate lives a little better, a little closer, the world (in the very best sense) a little smaller.
Her words put me to thinking of space. There was a time when if you wanted to contact someone you had to phone them, write them, or show up at that doorstep screaming their name from the street. There was a time when they only way you could escape the world you lived in was to write your way to a new one through the art of pen palling. FBs were the original social profiles and calling cards, ways in which we could showcase our plumage and find friends who closed the spaces between people. My new pals might have lived thousands of miles away but they felt closer to me than the girls playing rope next door or the cheerleaders in high school who routinely ignored or made fun of me.
And while I miss the tactile ways in which I used to make new friends, I’ve found dozens of wonderful people through my blog and Twitter with whom I’ve formed similar bonds. We may not be trading shiny strips of stickers or pictures of cute boys in magazines, but we’re sharing words, kindness, knowledge, perspective, empathy, and, more importantly, we’re making ourselves feel less alone.
Second image credit: Geek Girl Pen Pals