At Bates College, student mailboxes are shutting for good
LEWISTON, Maine — It was as much a part of daily life at Bates College as eating lunch, a ritual as predictable as the trek to class — but more anticipated.
On the way to the cafeteria and perhaps again on the way out, students descended on the campus post office, spun their mailbox dial left, right, left, and then right again, and peered to see if there was a letter, or better yet, a yellow package slip.
In the decades before cellphones or even dormitory room land lines, letters linked students to the outside world, and the daily trip to the post office linked them to one another.
Today, the mailboxes sit largely untouched, and the post office is little more than a hushed hallway. That is why at the end of the summer, the boxes will click shut for the last time, a sign of how the Internet is changing college campuses.
Online shopping has flooded Bates and other colleges with packages filled with textbooks, medicine, dorm furniture, underwear, granola bars, formal gowns, and candy. But the mailman today delivers few letters.
“It’s the end of an era,” Laurie Henderson, the school’s director of office services, said as she surveyed the lonely mailboxes recently.
Many colleges said they experience the phenomenon, but Bates will be one of the first to eliminate mailboxes entirely. The school is nearing completion of a new dormitory with a bigger package center. In the future, mailboxes will be virtual.
The impending change has unearthed forgotten memories of many Bates alumni. They trace important strands of college life to hours lingered around the post office.
“You were never disappointed even to find an empty box, because there was always a cohort of people there,” said Nora Demleitner, who graduated in 1989 and teaches law at Washington and Lee University.
Graduates marvel that something so central has become obsolete. For them, the boxes — which were shared with another student — were a constant during four years when so much changed.
The mailbox of Steven Girvin, now a physics professor at Yale University, sat empty freshman year, until he said yes to a blind date in 1969 with a girl from Lewiston. After that date (and a few more), the box began to fill with love letters from the woman who became his wife.
In 1993, Mark Erelli’s would-be biology career evaporated when he tore open the package on a country music CD he had mail-ordered. He is now a full-time musician in Massachusetts thanks to that CD with the bucking bronco on the cover.
“I think technology is great, I just hope we can find ways to celebrate community,” Erelli said. “Those common spaces helped to remind you that it was a community.
Poet Pamela Alexander is still haunted by the first piece of mail she received, in 1966: a note from the school that said the girl with whom she was to share her box had died.
Much has changed since those days. The number of letters has steadily declined since the late 1990s, when the college received between 2,500 and 5,000 daily. Now, it gets fewer than 1,000 for its 2,000 students.
Instead, it is the school’s makeshift package center that hums with eager expectation, as students queue — sometimes 40 at once — to retrieve care packages from home, Amazon deliveries, and other boxes.
On a recent day, Los Angeles freshman Julian Sears arrived to pick up what he knew awaited — a giant box of sour Skittles, ordered by his mother. Electronic package tracking has sapped much of the mystery from the care packages of 2016, but the anticipation is still real.
Junior Celine Pichette recently collected her third box of the day, Easter chocolates from her mother. She described how students rush out of the library when their phones buzz with an e-mail alert about a box, then rush back.
“Everyone is like, ‘What’d you get?’ ” said Pichette, from Montreal.
Bates students receive 37,000 packages a year, a number that has grown between 5 and 14 percent annually since the early 2000s. They’ve seen everything here — from a russet potato with stamps on it to a living room rug that spanned shelves M to S.
In its glory days, Joline Froton animated the old post office. Hers was the face on the other side of the half door, who handed out the packages, sold stamps, and caught the giant mailbags that slid down a silver chute. She memorized everyone’s name and box number.
Today, after 27 years at Bates, Froton has moved on to a job at the Androscoggin Historical Society in Auburn, Maine. The back room of the post office is dusty, and a collection of broken dial locks sits in a mail tray with a can of WD-40.
“I think it’s sad, but I think it’s the way of the world. What are you going to do? People don’t write letters anymore,” said Froton, 73.
Former students remember talking to Froton through their boxes, on days when the news was good and when it was bad, like Sarah Pearson’s arduous first-semester breakup with her high school boyfriend, which unfolded through the mail.
Pearson, who now works at Bates, recently dug out her old letters and found a St. Patrick’s Day card from her father, its envelope bearing an 8-cent stamp and a picture of President Eisenhower. She keeps the card to remember her father’s handwriting.
“Sarah, me darlin!” he wrote on March 17, 1973. “God Bless You Sweetie — !! Working Hard?”
Alexander, still haunted by that eerie notice of her box mate’s death, also remembers a day when happy news came through the slot. Two of the young poet’s verses would be published in The Atlantic magazine. The title of one: “Making It.”
“That was a big thrill,” she said.