Opinion

opinion | Matthew Bernstein

Marcia Deihl, the letter writer

One of many names in the inbox, faithful contributor left an impression

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

A middle-school class toured the Globe a few weeks ago, and one of the visitors asked me whether I ever receive letters to the editor from people I know personally. Yes, I said, and sometimes I even publish them. It all depends on the content of the letter.

Yet, in a sense, I also get letters from countless people I know but have never met. I’m talking about our inveterate contributors, an eclectic collection of enthusiasts whose names show up in the inbox regularly, sometimes even weekly. My connection to these faithful correspondents can feel as personal as it is virtual.

This was made painfully clear last week when I learned about the death of longtime activist and singer Marcia Deihl of Cambridge, who was struck and killed while riding her bike. My immediate thought was: She was one of our letter writers.

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A Globe story portrayed Deihl as a beloved friend and compatriot, with deep ties to the folk, art, social justice, and LGBT communities. I wanted to gain a sense of what she had shared of herself with our readers, so I dug into our archives.

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Between 2000 and 2012, 14 of her letters appeared in various sections. While some letter writers may tend toward the argumentative or righteously indignant, the words Deihl sent aloft were like fluttering carrier pigeons, their messages landing gracefully and on target.

She expressed her progressive views straightforwardly, staking them into the ground without waiting for the slow march of evolving opinion to clear the path. In 2000, more than a decade before popular culture brought transgender themes to the mainstream in “Orange Is the New Black,” she wrote to thank the Globe for an article on transgender lives, yet noted that “it didn’t address the social stigma of such identities.”

In 2003, just days after the invasion of Iraq was launched, she noted her skepticism: “Granted, the ‘embedded’ reporters in Iraq and outlying countries are brave and dedicated, but I think the armed forces get more out of them than the public does. . . . I will continue to consider the source when I read news from the war.”

Even in a wave of nostalgia she could be ahead of her time, as when, in 2001, she cherished her grandmother’s 1916 manual typewriter — a decade before the old machines became retro-hip — and shared her “fantasy about taking it on an airplane someday and typing away in my lap as others are told to turn off their electronic devices.”

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Last week’s story described how “she loved to ride her bicycle, a clunky old three-speed decorated with paper flowers and streamers,” and that “she cut a distinctive figure, one familiar to many Cambridge residents.” I suspect that she spent an incalculable number of hours on two wheels, and it may be only the tiniest comfort to those who knew her that she died doing something that gave her great pleasure.

I wondered why it had been a few years since we had published one of her letters. We get hundreds every week, and most don’t make it onto the page. I checked our e-mail queue and found something from December 2013 with the subject line “Life of a Bike.”

Betsy Sowers
Marcia Deihl was killed while riding her bike last week.

Deihl wrote in response to a whimsical letter by a woman who implored whoever had made off with her bicycle — an old model, the extent of whose value was only emotional — to kindly return it to her. I can’t recall why I chose to pass on Deihl’s response. All I know is, I’m glad we can publish it now:

I was very moved by Mary Gamerman’s letter about the loss of her beloved, well-traveled old bike. It seemed so animated, I couldn’t help wondering if it had a name. I just wanted to send her my condolences.

As soon as I moved to Boston to attend college at Boston University, I bought a black three-speed bicycle, which I named Rosinante (1967-1974). (We were reading “Don Quixote” in class.) Since then, I’ve ridden various three- and one-speeds: Black Beauty (1975-1979), Buttermilk (1980-1985), Big Red (1985-1989), Thoroughgood (1989-1995), Dada (1996-2000), and then Zonker, Grasshopper, and Ol’ Blue, to date. Each bike had a story, and when one was stolen, I felt like I had lost a friend.

I do own a car now, but I use it as little as possible. And although it’s become au courant to ride a bike at my age, and the high school kids no longer sing the theme of the Wicked Witch of the West as I ride by, I will always enjoy the freedom, fresh air, ease of parking, and idea-spurring, efficient, non-snow-shoveling, health-enhancing benefits of my SUV (Simple Utilitarian Vehicle).

It is unfortunately true that I never met Marcia Deihl. But I can say I knew her voice.

Matthew Bernstein is the Globe’s letters editor. He can be reached at matthew.bernstein@globe.com.

Related:

Friends mourn for Cambridge songwriter, activist

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