Talk of the Town - Lick your face August 25 2004

And pay the gas bill

The last bastion of geekdom is under siege. Stamp collecting, that nerdiest of pastimes, is being enlivened by modern technology.

The Postal Service has permitted an outside company to produce customized postage stamps. Place an order, provide a photo, and your mug — or that of your pet iguana — can decorate the next mortgage payment. Before you warm up the digital camera, know the caveats. For one, these stamps are double the cost of the 37-cent variety — plus shipping. For another, this breakthrough in philately is hemmed in by a variety of restrictions.

Specifically, you cannot use material deemed “obscene, offensive, blasphemous, pornographic, unlawful, deceptive, threatening, menacing, abusive, harmful, an invasion of privacy or publicity rights, supportive of unlawful action, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, illegal or otherwise objectionable.”

In other words, no nudity. Or anything like the movie you’ll rent tonight.

But one can appreciate the need for caution. Because without restrictions in this new postal world, there’d be a stamp commemorating someone’s butt faster than you can say “sesquicentennial.”

Do you know what a sesquicentennial is? It’s the 150th anniversary of something, and American postage has faithfully celebrated obscure anniversaries for, well, do the math. The sesquicentennial of U.S. stamps occurred in 1997. And you didn’t even send a lousy 23-cent postcard.

How obscure are the anniversaries thus honored? A 1957 stamp marked 150 years of the Coast and Geodetic Survey — talk about federal overtime. A 1951 issue honored the 250th anniversary of explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s landing at Detroit, presumably in a birchbark Coupe de Ville.

My personal favorite is the 1948 commemorative celebrating the centennial of the American poultry industry. It bears the portrait of a heroic rooster, its comb pointed toward the sunrise — and perhaps the henhouse.

By now you may have deduced that I am — or was — a philatelist. The admission is reluctant. Stamp collecting is considered passe, trivial and — worst of all — a lifetime passport to the Peoples Republic of Dweebia.

What happened? Philately used to be the pastime of world leaders: Franklin D. Roosevelt puttered with stamp albums to relax after a day spent fighting the Great Depression or the Axis.

Major cities boasted department stores with philatelic counters, and any decent-sized town had a stamp shop. As a kid I spent entire Saturdays in those creaky emporiums, poring over shoeboxes stuffed with envelopes from all over the planet. Stamp stock books were crammed with squares and triangles depicting kings, dictators and sesquicentennials aplenty.

The store proprietor was inevitably a cantankerous septuagenarian from Central Europe. The customers were stogie-chomping regulars who came in to shoot the breeze, complain that a stamp priced at 30 cents was only worth a quarter, and to spend three bucks in as many hours.

Women did not figure in this scenario. I know there are female philatelists out there, but they are rarer than the inverted biplane 24-cent airmail error of 1918. In the main, philately is passed along the male line, like pattern baldness. Stamp collecting may be the last vestige of the hunter-gatherer trait inherited from our male cave forebears.

My interest in philately was inherited from Uncle Bernie, the scent of whose black cherry pipe tobacco has forever scented the hobby in my mind’s nose; and Uncle Fred, who used his duplicates to cover cigar boxes. Fred’s piece de resistance philatelique was a three-panel screen wallpapered with thousands of stamps, European old masters on one side, entire sheets of 5-cent American commemoratives on the other.

All this was fine for me as a boy, but as a teenager, I realized that stamp collecting would be detrimental to my social life. Girls in high school were uniformly uninterested in seeing my well-centered, mint condition 1-cent deep blue from the Columbian Exposition series of 1893.

Such misgivings were echoed in society at large. Those dusty stamp shops were obliterated by high-rent mega-malls and kids raised on GameBoys. There are now purple neon-lit smoothie boutiques where men from Mittteleuropa once reigned with a pair of iron stamp tongs.

Stamps changed, too — until about 1950 they were monochromatic — with your choice of dull green, dull purple or dull yellow. By God, they were supposed to be boring, in color and content. That’s how we kept the riff-raff out.

Stamps are now issued in plastic, gold foil and fruit-flavored holograms. You need a pair of Ray-Bans to even look at them. And now this deal where you can put Aunt Edna on a stamp, just to butter up the old gal and earn a place in her will.

It makes one yearn for the dweeby days of yore, a simpler time when the entire nation could and did pay its gas bill by licking the back of poultry.

Tastefully dressed, of course.

Glen Slattery is being canceled in Alpharetta.