Saturday, May 23, 2015
A hand-written letter signed by Benjamin Blue. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD
Britny Doane noticed something odd as she waited for her tea at The Tea Smith.
She wandered up to a table filled with handmade mugs and bowls, where she found a burnt blue envelope bearing the word "Open."
Inside was a handwritten letter on parchment. It was stained with tea, scorched and roughed up. The words spoke to a stranger. They were vague but encouraging.
At the bottom was a dark azure-colored wax seal and a signature in blue ink. "Benjamin Blue."
When Doane found the letter in November, she had never heard of Benjamin Blue. But the mystery mailman has been delivering anonymous friendship letters around town since July. He hides letters in coffee shops, nails them to trees, leaves them in gift card aisles or tucks them in between novels in the mystery section.
Benjamin Blue stands for a portrait at Elmwood Park. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD
HOW TO REACH BENJAMIN BLUE
Facebook: search “Benjamin Blue”
Address: P.O. Box 31345, Omaha, Nebraska, 68131
In his real life, Benjamin Blue is a middle-age blue-collar worker with a receding hairline, glasses and a beard. But when he dons a blue vest, blue tie and blue jeans, he transforms into his alter ego. From a blue messenger bag, he pulls out blue or cream envelopes and leaves them around for blue people to find. To date, he has hand-delivered more than 30 letters in the Omaha area.
His family doesn’t know. Nor do his co-workers. Only a few locals have ever seen his face. Even fewer know his real name.
At the time he invented the Benjamin Blue persona, he felt blue, and the alliterative name Benjamin seemed to fit. He would talk about his letters only if he remained anonymous. He’s afraid that if people know who he really is, they might reject him.
When he travels around town in his Benjamin Blue outfit, he does so delicately. He keeps a heavy black-hooded jacket with him at all times, in case he needs quick cover.
"All the stuff that Peter Parker goes through to keep (Spider-Man) a secret is true," Blue said.
WHERE I FOUND MY LETTER
Britta Brodersen, 24
Caught Benjamin Blue in the act
Where: Elmwood Park
When: July 2014
“We told him we would keep his secret, but I have always kept an eye out for some (letters). It’s kind of like a big Easter egg hunt now that I know they’re there.”
* * *
Christopher McLucas, 27
Found at: Legends Comics & Coffee, 52nd and Leavenworth Streets
Where: Left specifically for him at the counter
When: November 2014
“You don’t get all of him. You only get this fragment of him. It’s this lingering kind of joy that you can’t reach him completely. It’s like meeting a real ghost.”
Long before Benjamin Blue created his alter ego, he was an acne-chinned boy in Council Bluffs who loved superheroes.
He hated English classes. Instead, he was drawn to history and art, and studied the latter in college.
In his 40s, life had gotten tougher. Before he started delivering letters, he felt like nothing more than a cog in the system. His personal life wore on him, his finances dwindled and he felt alone.
Then, last spring, he made a friend he calls "the beautiful stranger." She made him happier than he had felt in years.
After about two months, she ended the friendship.
"I was not ready for it," Blue said. "I spent a lot of mornings in coffee shops, watching the world come and go."
He began to wonder: "Before the advent of cellphones, text messaging and the Internet, what did lonely people do to find one another?"
He read, searching for answers, for some sense of purpose.
In Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance," he kept returning to a line in an essay titled "Inspiration."
"In writing a letter to a friend, we may find that we rise to thought and to a cordial power of expression that costs no effort."
So he started writing.
The letters began as words he typed on a computer. They had meaning, but the uniform font on the page felt impersonal.
So he tinkered. He taught himself the Palmer Method of penmanship, a rhythmic style of cursive writing popular during the first half of the 20th century.
He writes four words, maybe five, on a sheet of parchment between dips in an ink pot with a blue and silver quill. If he misspells a word, smudges a line or leaks an errant droplet of ink on the page, he starts over.
"Most people, I'm never going to meet," he said. "This is the only representation of me they're ever going to see. I don't want them to take a look and say, 'Aw, this is crap.'"
After writing the letter, he roughs up the parchment in his central Omaha home and stains the paper with tea. He bakes it, burns it and adorns it with stamps and hand-drawn borders to make the letter look old and tattered, just like the craft of letter writing itself.
Each letter takes almost three hours to make.
"I have no idea who you are, where you come from or what you're dealing with right now," one letter said, "but you are strong and you can overcome whatever you're facing,"
When his letter is finished, he leaves it somewhere for a stranger to discover. When he writes, he thinks of the first person who knew about Benjamin Blue. He thinks about the beautiful stranger.
"Every time I write a letter, I make believe I'm writing to her for the first time."
WHERE BLUE LEFT THE LETTERS
Teré Baxley, 51
Delivered letters written by Benjamin Blue
Where: Surfside Beach, South Carolina
When: November 2014
“His letters are uplifting. They give you a sense of not being alone. A lot of us now, even with social media, you feel like you’re connecting with people, but there’s something special now that used to be commonplace ... something you can hold in your hand.”
* * *
Jessica Dorner, 30
Found at: Imaginarium Super Store, 16th and Leavenworth Streets
Where: In the mailbox
When: Winter 2014-15
“A handwritten letter itself is super unique. Nobody does that. It’s like a lost art anymore. ... At first, (my husband) was like ‘Wait, a guy wrote you a letter?’ I’m like ‘Settle down and read the letter.’ It’s a neat thing.”
* * *
Britny Doane, 21
Found at: The Tea Smith, 78th and Dodge Streets
Where: On a display table
When: November 2014
“I have a lot of friends who are writers and they thought it was really cool. They thought it reminded them of the ‘pass around a book’ deal, except it’s more personal and unique.”
He hid his first few letters in flower shops, bookstores and in greeting card aisles. It felt good. But he still felt alone.
So he set up Facebook and Instagram accounts, opened a post office box and started including contact information with some letters.
The first two replies came via Instagram in July.
Soon, people were asking him to write letters for their loved ones.
He wrote one for a pregnant woman who had previously suffered miscarriages. Blue said the woman told him that one day, after a doctor visit, she showed her mother two items: a photograph of her ultrasound and the letter Benjamin Blue wrote her.
Another letter went to a woman before an MRI that would search for a brain tumor. Her friend, who requested and delivered the letter, sent Blue a picture of the woman’s arm sticking out of the MRI machine, holding the letter.
"That really shook me up," Blue said. "That was one of the first times I realized I’m actually reaching people. That is one thing that has kept me going.
"This is why I keep it a secret. I don’t want it to stop, and I’m afraid it will."
It took only a few weeks before he was caught in the act.
Four people were walking through the woods of Elmwood Park.
Among painted trees in a small clearing by a brook, they spotted a brown-haired man with a blue Superman backpack tying a large letter to one of the trees.
Blue noticed 24-year-old Britta Brodersen and her buddies approaching him, and he fled past them. As he walked, they asked about the letter.
"He just told us to go look at it and find out for ourselves," Brodersen said.
Blue wanted to run. But before he could leave, Brodersen persuaded him to come back down the hill to the clearing. He sat down as they strung up hammocks.
Brodersen and a friend held his letter in their hands. They glanced it over once more, then looked up into Benjamin’s blue eyes.
"Why did you write this?"
Blue recalls saying, simply: "Because there’s lonely people out there."
"When I said that, it was like I cast a spell over these people," Blue said.
And for the first time, he told his story out loud.
"They sat there and they listened to me and they listened to why I’m doing this and they listened to the whole story. When I got done, they told me I was a beautiful person for doing that. And that’s how I felt that day."
Doane was amazed when she found her letter at the Tea Smith.
The 21-year-old Omaha poet was fascinated with the concept and the craftsmanship. She still has her letter but might not hang on to it for long.
"In the letter it says I can either leave it someplace or give it to someone who needs it," she said. "I plan on giving it to someone."
But not every recipient takes kindly to the letters.
Months after meeting Benjamin Blue in the woods, Brodersen asked him to write to her mother.
Her mother had lost her husband and both of her parents in a short amount of time and was still having trouble coping. Blue wrote her an uplifting letter, encouraging her to open up and talk about her heartache with her children.
"She didn’t really take it the way I was hoping she would," Brodersen said. She felt it was an invasion of her privacy.
"But I thought it was a really kind gesture."
Benjamin Blue holds a letter he wrote at Elmwood Park in Omaha. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD
Benjamin Blue only rarely hears from people who find his letters. He thinks he’s doing some good. But it’s hard to know for sure.
Timothy B. Smith, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, thinks Blue is on to something.
He said people often perform random acts of kindness here and there to bring themselves happiness. But these "drive-by methods" aren’t very effective long-term.
By writing and delivering letters on a regular basis, Smith said, Blue is building a deep bond with his craft and the joy it brings him, even if he doesn’t meet most of the readers.
Performing routine good deeds can help soothe a lonely soul.
"Anything that helps us uplift others improves our own sense of well-being," Smith said. "If everyone did something like this to reach out to others, our society would be radically happier. Not just a little better, exponentially better."
Teré Baxley, a photographer, hid and photographed Blue's letters at the Surfside Beach Pier in Surfside Beach, South Carolina on November 15. (Right Move Photography)
Blue is still tinkering with his method, adopting more old-fashioned techniques. At the moment, he is teaching himself how to cut his own quills. Soon, he’ll include them with his letters.
He is trying to learn from other writers. He has reached out to a few local authors, including Doane. She is known as "The Old Market Poet" and published a collection of poems in a book called "Wingmakers."
Someday Blue wants to write a book of his own. He’ll call it "The Blue Quill Letters."
He wants to share the stories of the people who find his letters — and how those people have helped change him.
"I’m a bit more compassionate, a lot more patient," he said. "I like myself a lot more than I used to."
Contact the writer:
Benjamin Blue (JIM LAMB/BLACKSHEEP PHOTOGRAPHY)