Spread out on Nancy Pantalones’ kitchen table, suffused by light slanting in through the front window, is so much creative clutter that it almost engulfs her steeping morning cup of tea.
She sits, with her little fur-ball dog, Cookie, in her lap, and takes a mental inventory.
• Stacks of greeting cards, of varying sizes and messages.
• Sheets of vintage -- but still valid -- stamps, purchased on the web.
• Sheets of current stamps, purchased from her favorite U.S. Postal Service clerk, Karen, at the downtown office.
• A copse of fountain pens, spanning the color spectrum.
• Thick-stock envelopes, some decorated, others awaiting work.
• Wax and seals.
Pantalones — real surname is Dorffi, but almost no one in Flagstaff knows her by that — sighs. It is a sigh that conveys much, a sigh denoting both pride of accomplishment and seeming to say, What have you got yourself into here, Nancy Pants?
She is 48 years old, and for 549 straight days (and counting), this longtime resident and bartender at the Uptown Pubhouse has hand-written, and sent, at least one letter to friends and acquaintances, some down the block, some as far away as New York City. It began as a lark with a friend, one of those boozy boasts of, hey, how about we each fire off letter a day every day for a year.
But now Nancy finds herself beyond dedicated to the project, bordering on obsessed. She cannot stop. How could she stop? She loves it so much, relishing the visceral pleasure of putting pen to paper, brightening someone’s day, decorating the envelopes with doodles, sealing her thoughts in wax and putting out these missives into the world. The whole thing, which started so randomly, has taken on a life of its own.
That one-year mark? It passed long ago and, still, Nancy writes on. The pandemic? That has only heightened Nancy’s epistolary engagement, fueling her desire to reach out to friends and neighbors and relative strangers. Writer’s cramp be damned, she persists. But it has gotten her thinking of the long-term implications.
“I figure if I didn’t die in my 20s with all the dumb things I did, at this point now I’m doomed to live to be about 130, just genetically speaking,” she says, turning away from the kitchen table clutter. “My whole family tree, we live way too long. So that’s the thing I worry about, right? Because I can’t break a streak. I just can’t.
“I’m at 549 (days). Is this my life now? I’m thinking of the future, ‘Well, it’s been 11,201 days and I’ve written every day.’ I’m old and now I’ve got a hook for a hand trying to hold the pen.”
She laughs at the absurdity, but she also seems to cherish it for that very reason. Tall and statuesque, with a streak of silver hair mixed in with the black that makes her look like a young Susan Sontag, wearing a long, flowing peasant dress and a “Best Life Ever” mask, Nancy is a Flagstaff original. Wry and funny, as befits her Irish-Sicilian ancestry, she also is the type that takes no guff.
Her eclectic nature is expressed in her cozy, two-room home near Thorpe Park. Outside, dolls heads and other tchotchkes are planted in her garden plot. Inside, her aesthetic runs more toward Warholian whimsy. One wall features a print of big-haired icon Dolly Parton, the opposite wall a painting of the Powerpuff Girls done by a friend. Mounted just inside the front door is a faux-stitched needlepoint, a la the smarmy sentimentality of home and hearth, bearing profanity too bawdy to be detailed here. On her fridge: a list titled "A Week of Poor Choices."
Nancy is, in short, someone you’d expect to tackle a task so oddly ambitious and, in a way, selfless. Yes, there’s something in it for her; she gets occasional letters back, but nothing compared to the volume she sends out. Fact is, she’s lived in Flagstaff about 30 years and knows a lot of people, so her old-school cloth-covered address book bulges with people to write.
Most people know her by her self-dubbed name, Pantalones, Spanish for pants. (“I’ve just always called myself a Nancy Pants,” she says by way of explanation.) But some might know her by her roller derby name, Panti-Christ. Hardly anyone knows her as Nancy Dorffi, who moved to Flagstaff from her native New Jersey long ago.
“The fewer people that know my actually name is probably for the better,” she says, slyly.
An art to it
By whatever form of address, you can chat up Nancy three or four nights a week behind the bar at Uptown. She says she could work more hours, but that would cut into her letter-writing time.
She doesn’t just dash off a few half-formed thoughts. No, Nancy, composes. Sometimes, granted, the letters are just polite thank you notes to friends who did some kindness, other times they are holiday-themed -- fair warning, postal service: she’s gearing up for a massive Valentine’s Day barrage -- and still others are long heart-felt sentiments or inspired rants about the injustices of the day.
All of her missives are festooned with bright, airy designs (“mere doodles,” she calls them) and calligraphy, topped off by one of her collection of vintage stamps, ranging from FDR in profile to an old-timey railroad engineer to a trout twisted in mid-leap.
“I’ll get a card, decide what stamp to use, then take that color scheme and just decorate the whole envelope around it,” she explains. “I’m no artist, but I did always get O’s in penmanship at school. I’ll drop $50 in stamps every time I go to the post office. I spend money on dumber things, like whiskey. At least this way, I’m spending money on something that’s useful and making someone smile for at least a half-second when they open their mailbox and it’s something other than junk mail and bills.
“I wonder what (her mail deliverer) must think of me. Every day, I’ve got outgoing mail -- five out there today. I only work three or four days a week, so I do have a lot of time on my hands.”
Nancy is quick to deflect credit — blame? — for the letter-a-day idea.
“It’s Fern,” she says, “Fern’s the reason I go bananas and have the decoration and the wax seals. It’s her fault, because she started sending me envelopes with stickers on it and stuff. And then I, of course, took it too far. If I’m going to do it, I do it full-tilt boogie. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Fern Aldahyde is her friend’s roller derby name. Her real name is Clara Alison, a former Flagstaff resident now living in Dana Point, California.
“At least once a week since the pandemic started, we have Facetime dates once a week,” Nancy says. “I set up the iPad on the table and we just chit-chat and write letters together to other people. It’s too fun.”
Yes, Nancy partakes in modern technology. She goes on social media, writes emails, doomscrolls like the rest of us. No Luddite, she. But part of her is old-school. Part of her embraces the analog.
“I’m a pen-and-paper kind of a person,” she says. “I still have a datebook and address book that I write in pencil. I don’t like e-books; I like actual books. I like the feel of paper, the smell of paper, holding the pen, the different ways that different pens write.”
Plus, this free spirit is adamant about one thing: she was brought up to write thank you notes for every occasion, and still believes that’s the polite thing to do.
“I’ve always written letters,” she says. “And in the past couple years, I had a couple good friends move away, and we decided to start writing letters to each other, like pen pals. Some people I only know through writing letters, which is really cool. There’s a woman who lives in New York, works for the Museum of Modern Art. We write. Sometimes I just get a little drunk and ramble to my friends about things that are irritating me. I also have a bunch of kids I write to, so that’s a whole different thing.”
Recipients of Nancy’s missives say they feel special that someone’s thinking of them.
“It’s pure joy in the mailbox,” says Jen Saunders, a Flagstaff friend for 20 years. “I do write Nancy back, occasionally, but I feel very inferior because of her letter-writing and decorating abilities. Nancy is one of the sweetest, kindest, smartest people I know. She gives without expecting anything back.”
Nancy says she didn’t set out to try to spread the lost art of letter writing to the younger generation, but it’s worked out that way. Early in the pandemic, a friend of Nancy’s since elementary school, a teacher now, asked Nancy to write to her 10-year-old daughter, an only child feeling lonely.
“I only met Lily (the daughter) once, when she was 4, but I wrote her,” Nancy says. “She wrote me back a letter in code. She created this whole system of hieroglyphs on her own and sent me the key. I had to decode her letter. Oh my god, it was the longest letter I’ve ever wrote back. It took a good 20 minutes to decipher her letter, and then I had to write a letter myself, then re-encode it. Ever since, quite frankly, I’ve been dreading her writing me back. It’ll be another week-long project.”
Less taxing has been Nancy’s pen-pal relationship with Wilson and Henry Jay, ages 10 and 8, respectively, sons of her boss at Uptown, Aly. Even though the family lives only blocks away, they carry on a spirited correspondence.
“I really like getting letters from Nancy,” Wilson says. “She gives me an update on things, and she’ll respond to my questions. I ask about Cookie.”
Doesn’t he consider hand writing a chore? Wouldn’t it be easier for Wilson to simply text an emoji and be done?
“No, it’s fun,” he says.
Wilson’s mom, Aly, adds that her boys “just get so excited to get mail. We ended up getting wax seals and everything. They started to write their grandparents and aunts and uncles. You can see how much time and intent that Nancy puts into it. It shows my boys what a thoughtful thing it is to do for someone else.”