In October 2001, only a month after the Al Qaeda attacks in the United States, envelopes full of anthrax began appearing in the mailboxes of a select few. Media offices, the Senate Majority Leader, and the White House were targeted. Several seemingly random people also contracted the disease from contaminated mail, apparently indirectly. The FBI launched an investigation. The United States Postal Service shut down post offices and routing centers and began testing them for contamination.

People-- not everyone, mind you, but especially people working in mail rooms-- began wearing latex gloves when opening their mail. The news networks ran specials on the history of biological warfare, anthrax as a disease and a weapon (and a band), and our shocking unpreparedness for the doomsday that was surely upon us (well, maybe next week). Formerly innocent irregularities in mail-- handwritten addresses, bad packaging, missing return address-- were now deemed potentially sinister. New cases of infection were reported weekly, including several deaths. The FBI indicated it was taking a hard look at scientists known to work with anthrax, raided an apartment or two, dropped a few suspect names, and failed to turn up anything substantial. I'll leave it to some other goodly noder to provide us with a detailed timeline.

The whole situation was very surreal. It felt like a continuation of the events of September-- as though we'd entered a new era of sociopathy, a sick and tiresome cartoon world, and we were going to have to endure this sort of mad, random violence for a while. There was a certain degree of fear, mitigated by my damaged-but-resilient youthful feeling of invincibility (and statistical insignificance). For the most part, though, I remember feeling exasperated by the anthrax mailings, like some annoying wannabe was jumping on the KICK ME bandwagon.

"Sure, kick us while we're down. Jackass."

Sometime in the first week of November, I opened my mailbox-- with no gloves-- and the surreality of the times went up a degree or two. There, with my new Netflix delivery, was a card from the United States Postal Service, addressed to POSTAL CUSTOMER and providing guidance for dealing with (potentially) anthrax-infected mail. I've kept that card as a memento of the bizarre and uncertain world in which I lived when I was 22. If I have children, I hope their world makes it unbelievable and fascinating to them.

I've done my best to reproduce the card below.


|                          |  |   | UNITED STATES                | POSTAGE ||
|  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~       |  |___| POSTAL SERVICE               |         ||
| {          USA|34 }      |        (( address ))                +---------+|
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {  ( flag )       }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |             POSTAL CUSTOMER                    |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| { UNITED WE STAND }      |                                                |
|  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~       |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
| ... MESSAGE FROM ...     |                                                |
| .... POSTMASTER ....     |                                                |
| ..... GENERAL ......     |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|     ( blue )             |  ( white )                                     |



The U.S. Postal Service places the highest priority
on the safety of our customers and employees and
on the security of the mail.

Please see the other side of this card for
information about safety and mail handling. We
want you to know we are doing everything possible
to make sure the mail is safe, and we need your
help. Your security and peace of mind are
paramount to us

John E. Potter


What should make me suspect a piece of mail?
  • It's unexpected or from someone you don't know.
  • It's addressed to someone no longer at your address.
  • It's handwritten and has no return address or bears one
    that you can't confirm is legitimate.
  • It's lopsided or lumpy in appearance.
  • It's sealed with excessive amounts of tape.
  • It's marked with restrictive endorsements such as
    "Personal" or "Confidential"
  • It has excessive postage
What should I do with a suspicious piece of mail?
  • Don't handle a letter or package that you suspect is
  • Don't shake it, bump it, or sniff it.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Notify local law enforcement authorities.