'Return To Sender' Contest Pushes USPS Limits Wired Magazine's nine-year "Return to Sender" contest challenged readers to send any "mailable" item through the postal system without packaging. Wired senior editor Joanna Pearlstein shares the results. What is the weirdest thing you've ever sent through the mail?

'Return To Sender' Contest Pushes USPS Limits

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation, I am Neal Conan in Washington and here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The federal government and the mortgage industry announced a sweeping new plan to help troubled homeowners. The plan would allow lenders to modify hundreds of thousands of delinquent loans and the Wall Street has been battered by bad news today including a weak forecast of the future of the nation's auto industry and quarterly losses by Starbucks and Home Builder Toll Brothers. At one point, the Dow was down more than 200 points. Details on all those stories and of course much more later today on All Things Considered. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, the election still isn't over in some places, Governor Sarah Palin makes the media rounds as Republican governors gather in Miami to debate the future of the Party. Ken Rudin, our political junkie and all that and who will President-elect Obama bring with him to Washington? That's all tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night stay these messengers of the Post Office from the swift completion of their appointed rounds bearing letters, packages, boxes, plastic flamingos, cow bells, surf boards, bicycles, wired magazines, nine year long return to sender contest challenge readers to send any mail able item through the post without packaging and today we want to get you involved, what is the strangest thing you've ever sent or received in the mail that was not in an envelope or a box?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. We got this email from Megan in Egg Harbor City in New Jersey. My now husband emailed me a pancake once when I was at Boston College. Mailing breakfast items was a skilled he learned during his years in the US Coast Guard Academy. Simply take a cooked pancake coated with a couple of layers of glue over a couple of days and apply proper postage. Remember to add extra stamps. A pancake is non-machinable. Well, Joanna Pearlstein joins us from her office in San Francisco where she's senior editor at Wired Magazine, and Joanna, nice to have you on the program today. And I assume pancakes are pretty run-of-the-mill.

Ms. JOANNA PEARLSTEIN (Senior Editor, Wired Magazine): They are actually run-of-the-mill, Neal. We've gotten a lot of food in the mail actually. One of my favorites was a naval orange that just came with the post stamp which sounds pretty disgusting but it actually aged quite nicely.

CONAN: Here's another food item. We got this from Stewart in Minnesota. I was once sent a piece of toast albeit stabilized by having it dipped in some sort of polymer or a poxy(ph). But still, alas it has been rendered inevitable - inedible. So, food items, a naval orange, things like that but how do you convince people to try to mail these things without putting them in a box?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: We learned them with the very exciting prize of a Wired t-shirt.

CONAN: Well, for that.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: For usually, we would publish an image of the winning object each month in our rant section which is Wired's letter section and people mail us all kinds of stuff - many of the things that you mentioned. Just for the glory of their image in the magazine and their name in the magazine and a very exciting t-shirt.

CONAN: That's a form of immortality I suppose?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Indeed.

CONAN: At least until you wear out the t-shirt.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Right. But the print will last forever want it.

CONAN: And whose idea was this?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I don't know. I think that this contest originated about nine years ago when we got a letter in the mail addressed to - on a post, on an envelope, it just said rants@wiredmag.com which is of course an email address. But it just came in the mail with the sort of labeled return to sender and I think the editors back then were it had kind of a counter culture history to it - I think they thought, hey, this is kind of cool. Let's do a reader contest and at the same time, maybe mess with the postal service a little bit.

CONAN: And then, it acquired another nickname or at least the objects of your affection and that was poop.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Poop, yes. That came from a reader named Barry Wood who's based in Florida and he has been sending what he calls permissible objects of postability or poop through the mail to his friends for years and heard about Wired's return to sender contest. And started filling our mail box with all sorts of kind of bizarre items like pink flamingos and he sent us a coconut. He sent us an actual mail box, the kind that you would have outside your house, came in the mail.

CONAN: I assume he's got a couple of t-shirts in his collection.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: He certainly does. Yes. He is kind of the star of the return to sender contest.

CONAN: Oh, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. This is Billy. Billy with us from Stand Bolt(ph) in Iowa.

BILLY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Billy.

BILLY: Hi. I had a friend who sent pumpkins out one Halloween.

CONAN: Real pumpkins?

BILLY: Real. Yeah. Just the whole pumpkin and wrote smash on the side and put the postage on and they went through.

CONAN: They arrived. Do you get pumpkins every Halloween, Joanna?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: No. We've never gotten a pumpkin to my knowledge.

CONAN: There you go.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I'm a little alarmed about - to think about how they would end up in the mail but you never know.

CONAN: And you'd think overnight delivery would be important.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Yes. You know it's funny how much money people will spend on post - on postage, you know? Somebody spent $11 to send us a surf board, I think from Hawaii. And then Barry Wood who I mentioned earlier spent close to $30 sending us a giant inflatable palm tree.

CONAN: Did it arrive inflated?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: It did. It's unbelievable. It arrived inflated. You have to give a lot of credit to the Post Office.

CONAN: Well, then part of an US government so accustomed to hot air presumably.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I believe.

CONAN: Billy, thanks very much for the phone call.

BILLY: You're welcome.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Larry. The strangest things I have received in the mail was five pounds of live honeybees. Apparently, the postal workers were a little put off because I got a call from the Central Post Office and they said, come and get your bees. When I got there, they were isolated on the loading dock. I guess the hive was what - what had the postage on it.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Wow! That's pretty unbelievable.

CONAN: That is unbelievable.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: We have not received any bees, but I have to say that I really did not appreciate the toilet seat that we received in the mail.

CONAN: The toilet seat?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: The toilet seat. And it said on it that, don't worry, it had been disinfected. But yeah, let's just say that we touched that with a layer of protective clothing.

CONAN: You're the one who started the poop contest.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I'm the one who started, yeah exactly. Maybe he got the hint from Barry Wood.

CONAN: Could have been. Let's talk with Linda. And Linda is with us from Nellysford in Virginia.

LINDA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

LINDA: I sent my younger sister a toilet plunger.

CONAN: A plunger?

LINDA: Yes. The postal clerk said it was fine as long as I include in my return address on it. So I slapped it on the handle. She had had a really embarrassing incident with her hunk of a landlord that involved her toilet overflowing. So, she needed one.

CONAN: She need - and I assume this was a new one.

LINDA: Yes. Oh, yes. Certainly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm glad to here that.

LINDA: She needed one that worked effectively.

CONAN: Let's hope so. Linda, thanks very much. What did she say when she got it, by the way?

LINDA: She called me, cracking up and she said the people in the post office were laughing just as loudly when she picked it up.

CONAN: I bet they were and I wonder, Joanna Pearlstein, is that the reaction you've gotten from the post office? I assume that they have weighed in on some of the strange things that have come through your door.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I think they probably arrived with some kind of bemusement. Yeah. You know, they are there willing to deliver, so that speaks quite well of them.

CONAN: Linda, thanks very much.

LINDA: You're welcome. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Sophia in California. The strangest thing I received in the mail, a very heavy, rusty ball and chain. At first, I thought it was bomb. Then I thought it was from a friend of my husband, making some sort of comment on our recent marriage. It turned out this was a tradition among a group of English Morris dancers that my husband belongs to, to send the ball and chain to the chief organizer of the year's event, and that was my husband's role this year for the first time. So, a ball and chain. I'm not sure what the symbolism is for Morris dancers. But yeah, I can get that. I wonder. You've been running this contest for nine years. Are you going to keep it going?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: No. Actually, we just ended it. Although I wonder if, you know, discussing it on the radio is going to give it some renewed interest. Yeah, we're done with it. It sort of played itself out. It was interesting to see over the years, you know, you could sort of see what was going in the world based on what we received in the mail. Around the time the Iraq war started, we started getting MREs in the mail. For years - you know, we're a technology magazine so we would get broken hard drives and PalmPilots for a while in the mail. And then more recently, we started getting dead cell phones and dead BlackBerrys.

CONAN: I suppose what about eight years ago, you started getting up Dead.com companies.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Yeah. Actually, if you could mail at Dead.com company in the mail, I'm sure it would have shown up.

CONAN: Mandy in Oregon - Ogden, Utah. Excuse me. Emails to write - I received an actual message in a bottle in the mail complete with sand, seashells and a corked top. Let's hope it was a plastic bottle. I'm not sure glass kind would have survived. Edward in Beaufort, South Carolina. I hear crowing from behind the mail counter at the post office in Morgantown, North Carolina. I asked, what is that? And I was told it was a rooster presumably from south of the border for fighting. I was told it happens all the time. I didn't know that livestock could get mailed.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I would think that would be illegal in some way, but.

CONAN: I would think so, too. Simply the fighting part, but there's also some hygienic issues, don't you think?

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Exactly, exactly.

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Well, I was surprised that the orange came through the mail. You know, here in California, with have a lot agriculture restrictions. But it showed up in fine form.

CONAN: You're right. As you cross the border, you always brace about whether you bring any alien fruits or vegetables in across the border.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Right. We haven't gotten any alcohol. Hint hint.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This is from Maggie in Decorah, Iowa. In 2004, before my husband and I were married, we had a long distance courtship while I was in college. As we frequently exchanged letters and post cards, I wanted to send him something different in the mail. With colored magic markers, I wrote poems and drew pictures on a three-foot rubber ball, one of the inexpensive ones found at the big stores. I made sure to include a conspicuous space for his address and postage. Somewhat surprisingly, the post office accepted it. It was within size limits and it bounced to his front door a couple of days later. That's interesting. Let see if we get - this is Jim and Jim is with us from St. Paul in Minnesota.

JIM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Jim.

JIM: Yeah. I'm a postal worker out here. And one time while I was sorting mail in the downtown Minneapolis Post Office, the leaky envelope came through and we took it to our supervisor. Because it was leaking, they opened it up and they found a bluegill.

CONAN: A fish.

JIM: Yes.

CONAN: A small fish.

JIM: Yap. Big enough to fit in the size 10 envelope. But it was gooey and stinky.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: And I presume the recipient would not have been pleased to get this in the mail.

JIM: Well, I don't remember - I'm sure they wouldn't because it didn't - we didn't appreciate having to sort it. I'm sure this.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I'm sure you didn't.

JIM: Wasn't appreciated having to open it.

CONAN: I'm sure the bluegill didn't appreciate it either.

JIM: Well, I think he'd been out of the water for quite a while.

CONAN: Nevertheless, you know, gasping for air in a number 10 envelope can't be much fun.

JIM: Great.

CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call. CONAN: Bye-bye now. Let's see if we can go now to Marcy. Marcy with us from Creston in Iowa.

MARCY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MARCY: Well, I used to live in Pittsburgh. And 40 years ago, they had the sort of modern telephones that were - it was sort of like the earpiece and a round thing, you know, that has the dial on the bottom.

CONAN: Right.

MARCY: And when you picked it up, you answer it. Well, I had a boyfriend - former. And I would not answer his calls, so he sent me a phone.

CONAN: Just a phone. Not in a box or anything.

MARCY: Nope. Just sent me the phone and said, plug it in.

CONAN: Did you plug it in?

MARCY: No.

CONAN: So it didn't work.

MARCY: No, but I kept the phone. It was cool.

CONAN: So eventually, you plugged it in.

MARCY: Eventually. In fact, I think I sold it at a yard sale for like $30 about three or four years ago.

CONAN: A collector's item, no less.

MARCY: It still works.

CONAN: Marcy, thanks very much.

MARCY: It just didn't work for him.

CONAN: No, it didn't work him. Sorry for that. Let's see if we can go now to - let's go to Charlie. Charlie, with us from San Francisco.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Charlie.

CHARLIE: The funniest thing we've ever received was a Christmas goose, not in a package, that my uncle that's on the eastern shore mailed to us in Virginia. It arrived on Christmas day, special delivery.

CONAN: So this was his present to you as Ebenezer Scrooge, no doubt.

CHARLIE: Well actually, it was - it was actually a very nice present. It was the delicious goose since I recall in 1971.

CONAN: It was just a goose. It was - there's no packaging.

CHARLIE: Just a tag around its neck and the required federal tag on the foot.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Was it frozen? How does it.

CHARLIE: The postman showed up holding it around the neck and said this is for you.

CONAN: Was it frozen? Joanna Pearlstein was asking.

CHARLIE: No, no. Not frozen at all. It was - it had been shot on Christmas Eve and arrived on Christmas day and it was pretty cold as I recall.

CONAN: Well, you have more courage than I do to cook it and eat it.

CHARLIE: A lot of people age their goose, anyway, so it seemed appropriate at that time.

CONAN: All right.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: OK.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, Charlie.

CHARLIE: Bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Suzanne. I received a large leaf from a sea grape tree. The center spine was like the center of the postcard. On the left was a message, hello from a tree in Florida. On the right was the address and a stamp. It turns out that the early explorers in Florida used the sea grape leaves to leave message. I did not know that.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Cool.

CONAN: And this one from Neil in Italy. My English father-in-law in London received a live lobster in the mail from his cousins in Northern England, just an address tag with stamps tied on to the claw. And apparently - probably, you know, a voucher for a Woody Allen movie where he.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I am sure Peter would not be pleased to hear this.

CONAN: Chase him around. Well, it's still alive. It was still alive.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: I think it's true.

CONAN: Could have send him a dead goose.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: That's true, or fish.

CONAN: Joanna Pearlstein, thank you very much for all of the pleasure that the contest has given us over the past nine years. It's been fun.

Ms. PEARLSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Joan Pearlstein - Joanna Pearlstein is senior editor at Wired magazine and joined us today from their offices in San Francisco, telling us about nine years of their 'Return to Sender' contest. You're listening to Talk Of The Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Return to Sender")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Return to sender, address unknown. No such number, no such zone.

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