The readers strike back

Kevin Cowherd

June 18, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

The problem with writing a column is that you get a lot of mail, much of it scrawled in crayon, which you are nonetheless expected to answer.

As a matter of personal preference, I like letters such as this:

"Dear Sir,

"You are a very funny writer, and the only reason I buy the local fishwrap. That column you wrote about all TV repairmen being crooks was a hoot! If you're ever in Monroe, N.Y., give me a call and Erma and I will treat you to a fine dinner at the Goose Pond Inn.

"Your No. 1 fan,

Earl T. Longworthy Jr.

"P.S.: My brother-in-law Pete runs the local Jiffy Lube. Maybe we can see about a free 14-point service check for your car, too!"

Obviously, a letter as gracious as this deserves a prompt and pleasant response:

"Dear Earl,

"Thank you for your very nice letter. As it happens, I will be in the Monroe area on . . . well, when is good for you? Your generous offer of dinner is most appreciated -- a quick phone call to the Goose Pond confirmed that Thursday is 'Steak and Lobster' night, so perhaps we should circle that day on our calendars.

"Also, does the free 14-point service check include transmission fluid?

"By all means, let's get together!

"P.S.: Tell your lovely wife Erma I said hello! And Pete, too!

"P.S. #2: By any chance, would Pete have a spare fan belt for an '87 Subaru station wagon?"

Unfortunately, much of the mail also comes from psychos -- a psycho being defined as anyone who disagrees with the columnist:

"Dear Sir,

"In a recent column, you likened accordion music to the sound made by a dying animal in a fur trap, and said it induces in the average listener feelings of nausea and revulsion.

"You also stated that accordion players lead empty, meaningless lives filled with prolonged bouts of self-loathing and drug abuse.

"I respectfully disagree.

"Thomas N.O. Waznewski

"(A former polka band member!)"

This type of sick, threatening letter also demands a swift response:

"Dear Mr. Waznewski,

"Your ranting screed reached my desk this A.M. If you persist in this kind of harassment, I will have no choice but to call the police.

"P.S. -- I urge you, for your own sake and the sake of your family, to seek counseling for the anger eating away at you."

A columnist also gets a good deal of mail from nit-pickers, who delight in pointing out tiny factual errors:

"Dear Sir,

"In your column about mimes, in which you call them 'boring, despicable creatures,' you stated that the great Marcel Marceau 'blew his brains out in a lonely Paris cafe, no doubt guilt-ridden over the suffering he had caused so many.'

"This is to inform you that Marcel Marceau is very much alive.

Marian Anderson"

Here, a short snappy reply is really all that is necessary.

"Dear Ms. Anderson,

"People like you make me sick.

"P.S. -- I urge you to talk to a therapist about your anger."

Much of a columnist's mail consists of letters from PR people trying to get you to do a story on their client or cause:

"Dear Columnist,

"Michael DeVoy was trapped in an elevator for 57 days when his office building was hastily quarantined for Legionnaires Disease and the power shut off -- a move Michael's supervisor neglected to tell him was imminent. Hours after he was finally freed, Michael fell 50 feet into a well, where he remained for another three weeks, living on rain water and the occasional centipede that happened by.

"Now this remarkable man has written a book about his ordeal called: 'Hello? Can Anyone Hear Me?' The author will be in your area soon and will be available for interviews.

"The Collins Agency

"New York City"

Even if the letter does not pique the columnist's interest, it deserves a reply:

"Dear Sirs,

"While Mr. Devoy's story is certainly compelling, I'm afraid I'll have to pass. This is a sunny, upbeat, slice-of-life column. The negative tone of Mr. Devoy's experiences would be too jarring for my readers.

"Thanks anyway,

"P.S. -- I myself am writing a book about a disgruntled, cocaine-addicted accordion enthusiast who harasses and stalks a crusading, idealistic newspaper columnist. Any interest?"

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