R2-D2 Mailboxes

December 10, 2007 — I totally found the droid I was looking for. In a place where I wasn’t looking during a time I’d given up all hope of ever finding it. That’s right. This article is about honest-to-goodness U.S.-government-and-George-Lucas-sanctioned R2-D2 mailboxes. Get ready for about six zillion forced Star Wars references. Between you and me, I have a very bad feeling about this.

In March of 2007, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled one of the most clever Star Wars marketing ploys to date. As part of a Star Wars stamp promotion, about 400 droid-decorated mailboxes were deployed in about 200 cities across the country...because you can’t go along the country without being sea-worthy. Stay on target. It was a noble attempt at relevancy on the part of the droid-sounding USPS, which is finding itself more and more an irrelevant entity due to the advent of electronic communication, private delivery companies, and staticky blue hologram messages.

Re-casting the bullet-shaped collection boxes as bullet-shaped fictional astromech robots is an excellent idea in a world where marketing ideas include cartoon bears hocking toilet paper and Lite Brites shutting down entire cities. This one’s close to perfect, in fact. Shape-wise, the official public mailboxes and Kenny-Baker-in-a-can are twins. Also, the first time we ever see R2-D2 (besides improbably rolling unscathed through a ship corridor liquid with blaster shots), a message was being inserted into him for delivery. I guess that would be the second time we saw him, then.

Beauty of the marketing idea aside, though, I don’t remember too much of a press blitz over these overweight globs of grease. I mean, I definitely saw the quick compulsory news clips of row upon row of R2-D2s being loaded into trucks like they were ready to be dropped into X-wing cockpits instead of stationed on street corners. And the Internet mentioned it a few times, but most sites merely regurgitated the same press release blurb. Nobody seemed to understand what this meant to the world. I mean, the perfect marketing campaign for what at one time was the most marketable property in the world. And we were all only kind of interested. It was a new era.

In spite of what I said in the first paragraph and right along with what I said in the fourth, I didn’t really expend tons of energy trying to track down where the nearest R2-D2 mailbox was when I heard about them. I Internet-searched for about 20 minutes and then got distracted by an ad with an alien dancing on top of a series of interest rates.

It did make me kind of sad, though. Once upon a time I would have scoured an entire asteroid field full of hand-puppet space slugs for items of Star Wars interest. For the past few years, though, Star Wars stunts have been about as common as calendar dates. Plus, like many others, the filter of the latest trilogy kind of ruined the magic of the whole phenomenon for me. Most relevantly, though, I was under the impression that the mailboxes were only up for an extremely limited time and I was just accepting in advance that I’d miss the womp-rat-sized window. Sometimes O.T.I.S. articles are just catalogs of my wrongness.

Not the Providence mailbox. Just wait 'til you see where this article goes...
So there I was, flying casually around the city of Providence, Rhode Island (a city far, far away from my own), for no reason that needs to be shared, eight months after the near-sighted scrap-pile’s debut and seven months after I thought the mailboxes were supposed to be removed, when suddenly, there it was. That’s right. Not a moon. A battle station. Hunkering right at the edge of a residential neighborhood near Swan Point Cemetery was good old Artoo-de-Toah, frozen like he’d been ambushed by Jawa fire. Personally, I can’t abide those Jawas. Disgusting creatures.

The mailbox looked R2 enough that I had to fight the impulse to run up for an autograph. R2 played it cool, though. Just kept babbling on about his mission. Said he was the property of an Obi-Wan Kenobi. I don’t know. I’ve never seen such devotion in a droid before. I took a picture with it, marveled at the universe for a bit, and got away just in time for a little old woman to mail her Publisher’s Clearinghouse envelope. Actually, I hid in some nearby bushes and made beeping noises at her...because I rock way more than my old cockatiel. Oh, wait. I haven’t gotten to that part of the article yet.

There’s really not much to say about this oddity of culture per se. I’d actually originally planned on filling up most of this article with personal Star Wars anecdotes. I have a million. Like that one year I dressed up in a home-made Chewbacca costume for Halloween. Or the time I forced my pet cockatiel to listen to Star Wars clips repeatedly, trying to get it to mimic some of R2’s vocalizations (all it ended up impersonating was my alarm clock, though, which forced me to move its cage out of my bedroom...through the window). Or the fact that every time a fight breaks out at a bar I’m patronizing I scream, “No blasters, no blasters!” My one and a half friends hate me for that.

I was also thinking about writing a paragraph or two about how, despite the depressing amount of Star Wars commentary in the world, nobody’s seemed to point out the fact that almost all of the flaws of the second trilogy are present in the first trilogy, but I think I’ll hold onto that one for my PhD thesis.

Well, that was how this article was supposed to go. But then while I was showing somebody pictures from my Rhode Island trip, I proudly proffered the R2 one like I’d just Indiana Jones’d some fabled artifact. They looked at me and said, “You know there’s one two minutes from your house, right?”

No. No, I didn’t.

Don’t get cocky, kid, indeed. Call it saving face, call it a damned fool idealistic crusade, but I suddenly wanted my picture taken with two different R2-D2 mailboxes. I was sure that would separate me from the rest of the rabble in this world. After procrastinating for a bit, I immediately reconnoitered the area in question, and...look, sir, droid. Right at the front door of my local post office. I’d driven within a mile of that place a million times since the debut of R2 in postal form without a single disturbance in the force. Hokey religion.

Actually, the mailbox was uncomfortably close to the front door of my post office. Jabba’s tongue and Princess Leia’s face close. Pieces of 3PO and Chewbacca’s hairy back close. Luke inside a tauntaun close. And it’s a big enough post office to be quite busy. So, rather than endure the humiliation of posing with a mailbox in front of a crowd of people actually using the mail system in ways that don’t go against nature, I decided to wait a couple of days for Sunday when the post office was closed and I could do my shameful things with a bit more privacy.

Now, I’d since found out that as of a month previous, the USPS had begun the process of removing all R2 units, sending them to the spice mines of Kessel or smashing them into who-knows-what. What were the odds that they’d remove that particular mailbox within the week, I thought. Wait, never tell me the odds. Sunday came, and I was ready and, honestly, more excited than I should have been. For a few brief days, I was actually caring about Star Wars again. I’d even Alec Guinness’d up my face for the occasion. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the post office, it was immediately clear that I’d missed my opportunity. Forever. Captured by stormtroopers, enslaved as a cocktail waiter on some desert barge, swallowed by a swamp monster, it didn’t matter. R2 was gone, and there just weren’t no sunshine. That’s what I get for skipping church, I guess.

So there I was, bearded, camera’d, and cursing the maker. And wondering what I was going to do with a half-finished article on the topic of character-themed mailboxes. This was a special kind of disappointment. Way beyond tantrum, way beyond sulking, way beyond punched holes in plaster walls. I even subsequently visited other spots where other R2s had stoically advertised their products (you see, once they were all gone and I cared, I found out that there were about 10 to 15 of the mailboxes within attack range of my house). But all the R2s were gone. It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

No...there was another.

My new hope came in the surprising form of the National Postal Museum. I had discovered somewhere along the line that one R2-D2 collection box, autographed by both the postmaster general and Star Wars creator George Lucas, was currently on display at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Many Bothans died to bring us this information. D.C.’s the town around which my forest moon orbits, so I went down forthwith.

The museum, located right across the street from Union Station on Massachusetts Avenue, in case you’re not willing to look it up yourself, was absolutely empty. I’m not sure if that was because of the season (winter), the day (Sunday), or the weather (wet and overcast). Who am I kidding. It was because it was the National Postal Museum. It’s a small museum, so it was no problem to find R2-D2 shoved randomly into an unthemed postal milieu in the center of the museum. I actually contacted the museum before going down to make sure the rumor of its display was true, and they let me know that they’re still trying to figure out exactly what to do with it. They’re not used to having that kind of memorabilia, I guess. But that’s okay. It gave me the second Artoo mailbox experience that was suddenly the only thing I wanted out of life.

Unfortunately, my triumph wasn’t as shiny as you’d think. What I haven’t told you so far in this story is that at some point I realized for the third time in this misadventure and the 1.5 billionth time in my life, I was an idiot.  Here I was a Metro-ride deep into the nation’s capital chasing mailboxes with nifty decal jobs, when I could just go a few museums down and get my picture taken with an actual R2-D2. The Air and Space Museum has been playing host to some exhibits from the temporarily-closed-for-renovations National Museum of American History. One of those exhibits was (natch) a genuine Return of the Jedi R2-D2, complete with his golden counterpart. Mailboxes. Bah. That’s what I love about the holidays. They give you such a sense of perspective.

So, 53 Star Wars quotes in this one. All original trilogy. All mangled. Sorry about the mess. And the lack of a Spaceballs reference.