Sunday, February 1, 2009

where the streets had no name


I grew up in a house in McDowell County, West Virginia, that was up a hill "a piece," about three-quarters of a mile from the nearest paved road. Topography sometimes had its disadvantages. For instance, we didn't have cable television until 1984 because of our location - well, that and one person's grudge against my mother, but unfortunately he was the head of our local cable company. The only channel we could get over the antenna was WHIS (which is now WVVA; the call letters changed after a 1979 Supreme Court decision about radio and TV station ownership forced the heirs of Bluefield media mogul Hugh Ike Shott to sell the station).

That meant that I was stuck with NBC in the '70s, and it also means that I unfortunately know more about B.J. and the Bear and Supertrain than you likely do. I only saw non-NBC shows while on family vacations or, after she moved out and got married, while visiting my Aunt Ellen.

Our house's location also meant that mail and packages didn't usually come directly to our house. Back home, most places didn't have "street names" or even streets. It was coal mining country, and the vast majority of the towns were unincorporated: a cluster of houses in the bottom, and more homes strewn across the hillsides. The US Census Bureau classifies it as "rural non-farm," and while that still strikes me as odd - people are in very real communities, not one house here and the next 40 acres away - I guess it's right.

OK, my point was that mail and packages wouldn't come to our house. The US Postal Service didn't offer delivery to folks' mailboxes. Instead, you had to rent a post office box if you wanted to receive mail. For example, everyone's mailing address in my hometown was something like PO Box 55, Powhatan, WV, 24877. Again, unless you lived in an incorporated town, you didn't have a street address to use as a backup.

UPS was even worse, absolutely refusing to drive their trucks up the hill to deliver at our house. They would deliver to people who lived along the main arteries (in our neck of the woods, US Route 52), even without a street address, but not to us. Weirdly, of their own accord, our local UPS guys decided that since we had two kinfolks who did live on US 52, they'd just drop off our packages at their houses. They didn't even bother to get the consent of these relatives; they just started doing it! Sometimes the UPS guys would even leave the package at some other random Powhatan household, and we'd only find out about it if the chance recipient decided to play good samaritan and carry it over to the post office for us.

All of this was extremely annoying when trying to deal with the rest of the world. I remember trying to order concert tickets from Ticketron for something in Charleston, WV, or Roanoke, VA (given the timeframe, it was either ZZ Top or David Lee Roth), and I got into this argument with the Ticketron operator because she absolutely refused to believe that there was a place without a street address. And I guess in the five blocks of New Jersey she'd ever seen, that was certainly true to her experience, but she simply could not get her head around the fact that I could not give her a street address. I could have made up a street address - my mom sometimes did! - but who knows where the tickets could have gone then? She did finally give in and I got the tickets a few days later, so that had a happy ending, but over twenty years later, I still remember the mind-numbing uncomprehendingness on her side of that argument.

I got even more peeved a few years ago when UPS began airing a commercial that showed them delivering a package to a guy living on a houseboat in Hong Kong. You mean to tell me that you can deliver a package to a guy on a boat in a crowded harbor half a world away, but you can't get a package to my mom's house here in the good ol' US of A? That guy wouldn't only not have a street address, his whole home could be somewhere completely different on the next ebb tide. Yet he can get UPS to put his Sweatin' to the Oldies tape directly into his hands, and my mom can't? There's something wrong there.

For better or worse, the "streets" do have names now. A few years ago, a 911-related project forced street names - seemingly random ones that had nothing to do with the local inhabitants and their history - upon all the back alleys, dirt paths, and tram roads back home, including the one that goes past my mom's house. So now the house I grew up in has a street address. There's still nothing street-like about the "streets," everyone still has to get their mail at the post office, and UPS still won't deliver to my mom. So plus ├ža change 'n' all that.

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