By Steve Criniti
Ed. Note: This is the second installment of an occasional column titled “Only in Wheeling.” The stories featured here will be stories of the quaint, quirky, weirdly alluring things that happen in a unique town like this. The column is intended to be a sort of celebration of the “magic” of Wheeling life and of the people who make it so worth being here.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and my wife, Mary Beth, was home alone. She was upstairs in the master bedroom taping the trim in preparation for a new paint job. It was 2008, and we were preparing to move back to Wheeling after spending eight years living in Southwest Ohio. The house was still totally empty, as our furnishings were back in Ohio awaiting the upcoming move. Mary Beth wasn’t expecting any visitors, so when she heard the unmistakable echo of the door swinging open, she wasn’t sure who could be down there. Rather than call out and draw attention to her location in the house, she instead chose to creep down the stairs quietly.
Looking back, I’m not sure what she hoped to accomplish by creeping downstairs; I suppose her plan was to confront the intruder; although I’m not totally sure she thought that all the way through. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she peered around the corner into the living room entryway. There he was, his back to her, crouched over some items scattered on the floor of the entryway. Mary Beth called out to the intruder. “Hello,” she said to him, her voice trailing upward in a questioning tone, her hand adding a small, disbelieving wave.
We live in an older brick home on a tree-lined street in Wheeling. The home was designed in 1932, and construction was completed in 1935. The street is picturesque, and the house is filled with what real estate agents refer to as “character.” The stone fireplace, the rounded archways, the antique tiles lining the bathroom walls, the inset cubby in the hallway that was designed to hold the family’s lone landline telephone are just some of the features of the house that bear the charm of a bygone era and fill this 80- year-old home with character. But perhaps my favorite character-filled feature of the house is the mail slot. I had never had a mail slot before.
Growing up, I had always lived in houses with regular old run-of-the-mill mailboxes. Mail slots were the stuff of TV and movies—a detail Hollywood set designers used to communicate the quaintness or the charm of a simpler time. When we moved into this house seven and a half years ago, I became the proud owner of my very own mail slot. Now my home, like all those Hollywood sets, could communicate quaintness and charm. At any rate, the mail slot is always a hit. My son loves to check the mail, and his visiting friends and cousins love to play with it as well. There’s only one problem with a mail slot: It leaves no room for error if you’re a mail carrier.
One sunny midsummer afternoon, the mail carrier strode up the hill in front of our house. In an effort to increase efficiency, he had pre-sorted mail for the next few houses on the walk from the previous one. In his right hand was the stack of mail for my family; in his left hand, the stack for my neighbor one house up the hill. The problem came, however, when he mistakenly deposited the left-handed stack intended for my neighbor into my mail slot. Unlike a traditional curbside mailbox, which allows for revisions and corrections, the mail slot had already carried the wrong stack into my living room. Seeing the front door open before him, the mail carrier made a split-second decision to open the storm door, step ever so briefly into the house, and correct his mistake. He was retrieving the erroneous stack when Mary Beth peered around the corner. The two of them exchanged pleasantries and he went on his way.
In a moment of honesty, I’m not sure Mary Beth was really scared at hearing the storm door swing open. It could have been any one of a number of unannounced mid-afternoon visitors (my mother, one of my sisters, etc.). And stunned as she might have been, she wasn’t at all angry that the mail carrier momentarily entered the house to correct his mistake. In the end, puzzlement aside, she thought nothing of it.
The very fact that she thought nothing of it is what got me thinking. The mail slot is one of the things I love about our house. But the comfort level we citizens of Wheeling feel with each other is one of the things I love about this city. Not only is it remarkable that the mail carrier cared so much about doing his job right that he couldn’t allow the error to go uncorrected, but it’s even more remarkable to me that Wheeling-dwellers are able to feel a connection to one another that transcends mere “neighbor” or “fellow citizen.” I’ll stop short of invoking a Sister Sledge refrain here, but the fact remains that storm door could swing open at the hands of an unannounced family member, but on that particular day it was a dedicated mail carrier. And the truth is, our reaction is the same either way. Only in Wheeling could a mail carrier pop into a client’s house to retrieve erroneously delivered mail with neither he nor the homeowner thinking twice about it. And that’s why I live here.