My Teenage Obsession With Junk Mail

My Teenage Obsession With Junk Mail

Junk Mail copy

My new job comes with a retirement account, which is blowing my mind for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that I now get legitimate mail from Fidelity Investments about actual money (albeit very little money) that I actually have invested. I used to get a lot of illegitimate—or, at best, semi-legitimate—mail from Fidelity Investments back when I was about 13 years old. I’ll explain.

To set the scene, this was circa 1988. There was no consumer Internet, so direct mail was still a big thing. All you had to do was give a company the slightest hint that you were interested in possibly engaging with their products, and they would very happily put you on their mailing list. It was exactly like corporate spam, except with real mail—and I loved mail.

I think most kids still love mail, on the rare occasions when it arrives. Some adults still do too, but as personal correspondence of all lengths has moved online, a lot of adults are left dreading mail since it typically concerns only the most boring and expensive things in life. As a kid, though, mail is the jam. It’s a rare and exciting thing to receive an envelope or—be still my heart—package with your name on it.

Of course, it’s best when that mail actually concerns a matter of substance that’s meaningfully related to your own life, but I used to get a high from any mail whatsoever. The first things I did with my newly-deepened voice were to (a) make mix tapes that I narrated with my DJ persona, Willy Wilt; and (b) call companies to convince them that I was an adult who might buy their products, so they would send mail. There were a few places that would put you on a mailing list even if they knew you were a kid, but mostly they had to believe you were an adult with the wherewithal to purchase their products, some of which weren’t even legal to buy if you were under 18.

I never, as I recall, actually flat-out lied about my age: the trick was to get them never to ask what my age was. Getting mail from Fidelity Investments was a rare and challenging accomplishment, since they always wanted to talk to you on the phone—unlike most other companies, who would simply accept a postage-paid card indicating interest. That meant that Fidelity had my phone number, and while my parents were largely indifferent to my obsession with junk mail, they didn’t appreciate their 13-year-old son getting phone calls from a Texas-based investment firm that he was knowingly deceiving about his age and financial status.

My conversations with Fidelity would go something like this.

“Hello, I’m calling from Fidelity Investments. Is Jason Gabler there?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Hello, Mr. Gabler. We received a card indicating your interest in investing with us.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Can you tell me more about what you’re hoping to invest?”

“Oh, I’ve just generally been thinking about it. Could you send some information?”

“Of course, but to allow us to send the most relevant information, can you indicate how much money you’re considering investing?”

“I’m not sure yet. Can you send me some options?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“Great. Sorry, I have to go. Thanks!”

A week or two later, I’d receive large glossy booklets outlining various types of investment. Victory!

That was just the tip of the iceberg, though. At my peak, it was typical for me to receive several pieces of mail a day—virtually all of which had been sent under the assumption I was an adult, in some cases even a senior citizen. The more mail I sent for, the more mail I’d receive. If there were ever any “don’t share my name with third parties” boxes, I certainly didn’t check them. Thus, if I called to request information on a tree stump remover, I’d also receive information on lawn mowers and power clippers. Throughout my early teen years, I exploited several avenues of mail solicitation:

  • Travel literature. This was a gold mine. Virtually every city and state would happily send a brochure, often even a booklet or a “visitor’s welcome packet.” There was one company that published a visitor’s book for every state in the union, and I aspired to collect all 50.
  • Religious organizations. These were especially good for full-size books. I once even started a free Bible course by mail, which my dad made me stop, telling me I needed to look for the official imprimatur of the Catholic Church before reading any theological material.
  • Magazines. Most magazines would start mailing issues as soon as they received a postage-paid card indicating interest in starting a subscription; they would also then begin mailing bills that I would open, read guiltily, and ignore. Eventually the issues would stop coming and I had to tick that magazine off my list, but there were a lot of magazines out there. I was careful only to send for the magazines that promised one free sample issue, since that way I felt I had an out if I ever got sued. I realized that Dogfancy and Catfancy didn’t check their subscription records, so I could get sample issues of each about once every four or five months. Then, in the back of each issue, I’d tear out the card requesting more information from selected advertisers and mail it in, indicating interest in as many advertisers as I dared.
  • Newspapers. Yes, even some daily newspapers would let me try sample subscriptions. My biggest success was with Investor’s Business Daily, which came to our house for months without ever receiving a penny. A family friend and investing enthusiast, convinced I was developing a lifelong interest in the markets, lent me books and videotapes about the basics of investing. I kept them for a polite amount of time, then returned them unread and unwatched. I just wanted the mail.
  • Second-order junk mail. It was a real coup when you could lead a company to believe that you were a retailer interested in helping them spam your customers. A countertop box of St. Paul apartment guides had pride of place in my bedroom for several months; I encouraged each of my friends to take one.
  • Post office trash cans. This was the equivalent of street hustling for junk mail: it wasn’t yours, and you weren’t supposed to have it, but you wanted it so badly that sometimes you just had to take it. My mom made clear that it was illegal and risky to steal other people’s mail—even other people’s junk mail—but once or twice she let me get away with leaning over into the tall trash can by the P.O. boxes and gorging myself on unopened envelopes.

Mom might have felt she had only herself to blame, as she and my dad—like many parents in the direct-mail era—had allowed their children’s play office to run on the junk mail they discarded. We called our business “the Duluth Savings and Loan,” since that’s where we were living when we started the business, but though we did keep a few uncles’ and aunts’ 50- or 25-cent deposits in the cage formerly occupied by my neglected-to-death parakeet, the “savings and loan” was really just a front for the recycling of my parents’ junk mail.

In my further defense, kids in the 80s were actively trained to develop into direct-mail consumers. The Free Stuff for Kids books—so popular they were hard to find on the shelf at the library—listed dozens of things that kids could legitimately send away for (self-addressed stamped envelopes were typically required), without even lying about the fact we were kids. I just took that approach to the next level.

Eventually I became bored with junk mail, and my parents also probably told me to knock it off. Soon I started receiving legitimate mail from colleges, and when I went away to college, I began actively cultivating personal correspondence, which I duly cataloged in binders full of sheet protectors. Finally I just turned into an Internet fiend like everyone else.

My mom still lives at the house where I did my most active junk-mail solicitation, and for years I continued to receive mail from companies still hoping to make a sale. Eventually almost all of them gave up, though; the only one that’s still at it is the Church of Scientology, which received one postage-paid card from 13-year-old me 25 years ago and is still pinging me with a postcard or flyer once every year or so.

Of course, now there’s also Fidelity Investments, back in my life like an old flame at a class reunion. I have a fat envelope from Fidelity labeled, “Important Information About Your Workplace Savings Plan.” I haven’t even opened it.

Jay Gabler

Photo by Susanaudrey (Creative Commons)