Sitting in the lobby making time with the customers is great. For a while. Then, the day drags, which makes for a very long week. One thing I can say about carrying the mails is that the days goes quickly. I always feel a little angst before clocking in. But then I swipe my card and, bing, the day starts and is almost over.
Once out to the truck, it’s a race to vacate the parking lot. No one is counting. But it’s important to me to be one of the first trucks on the street. I need the time. Not the fastest or best carrier, I have to start the day well or I’ll be behind (in my mind). I make my first delivery to an urgent-care hospital and then move on through my businesses. If I can get through them and my one walking relay in that mix in an hour, the rest of the day’s a cinch. Before I know it, I’m pulling back into the parking lot and dreaming of putting my aching dogs up and goofing off for the rest of the day.
The on-the-job injury I wrote about a few weeks ago seriously impeded my flow. For the first week or so, it was tough with pain and getting around. But I had days off that let me heal. Then, I had a week of vacation. After that, they had come in and case my route and then go sit in the lobby.
People who use the Post Office on a regular basis know that the customer service can be fantastic or not. Whatever the case, the week I sat on a stool in the corner like a scolded schoolchild, people were surprised and pleased to have someone with a friendly face greet them as they came in the door.
At this time of year, the business at the retail desk was steady. The people were mostly good humored and amiable. I helped those who didn’t want to wait in line use the automated, electronic kiosk. I fielded an amazing amount of questions about packaging and stamps.
But sitting there on my stool the first day, I found myself with time between waves of customers to stare out the window, fiddle with my phone, and hum some tunes to myself. I’m a slow sort and it didn’t dawn on my until well into the second day that I could use the slack to read.
And, then, I started reading with a vengeance. I read the one piece of Cormac McCarty’s oeuvre that I missed last year when I knocked down all McCarthy’s other novels. The Road is not what you might call light reading. Surviving the post-apocalyptic landscape, one which might very well come to pass, preoccupied the two protagonists. From one bleak adventure to the next, our two characters overcame inhuman and inhumane circumstances to wend their way to the southern coast.
My mind felt like a dry sponge soaking up water in the bucket. I shifted easily from reading on the phone to conversing with customers as they came in and when the line extended past the retail section and into where the post-office boxes stand. Flipping back and forth quickly became second nature. I saw from the corner of my eye the approach of a customer and raced to the end of the sentence before they came through the door.
“Hello, how are you today?” I’d say.
“Doing fine,” they’d say sometimes. “How are you?”
Then the discussions would begin.
“Good thing you’re not out in this heat today.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“What are you being punished for?”
“Since when does the Post Office have a greeter?”
“Do I have to go in there or can I drop this package here?
“How many stamps do you think this letter needs?”
“Can you buy stamps on that thing?” they’d ask about the automated kiosk.
Sometimes I’d help people in with packages, unloading them from their cars and bringing them in. I’d open the door for oldsters and people with arm loads of parcels. Some would share their problems with me. Others would talk about the great things happening in their lives.
The whole thing reinforced my love for democracy. You have to wait you’re turn, no matter how much your business uses the mail or what your personal wealth is. The Post Office shares this attribute with the polling place. In both, you can’t buy your way to the front of the line. There are first-class stamps but no first-class seats.
When I’d finished The Road, I picked up Dick Gregory’s Nigger: An Autobiography. This happens to be one of my favorite books. I connect on a visceral level with Gregory’s struggle up from welfare and charity to doing what he loved for his living.
This reading held a special interest for me. After I read his book the first time many years ago, it changed my life, the way I look at the world. Later, I was lucky enough to meet Dick Gregory and tell him so to his face. I spend most of day with him and later dropped him off at the airport. I’ll never forget talking to him about Nigger, the first time I ever uttered that word to face of a Black American. The look in his eye, the understanding, the flood of pure love that flowed from him was something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Here I was, a white man talking a Black man about life struggles and him finding common ground between himself and me changed my life once again. I understood that I was on the right path and that only I could hold myself back. I loved that man.
So, with this reading, I often thought of his soft look and acceptance. It made the book even more important.
Then, I shifted gears on my last day in the lobby and picked up Charles Bukowski’s Post Office. Henry Chinaski’s adventures in life, love, drinking, and carrying the mail connected with what I’m going through now. Reading further, I understood the culture of the Post Office hasn’t changed much, even if Chinaski’s later clerk job is fully automated now. While we no longer sort mail by hand, we still have schedules. Minutes and seconds count—and some supervisor somewhere knows if we’ve been sloughing off.
Finding humanity at the Post Office was difficult for Chinaski, and I understood that. But I found in the customers coming through the door that everyone has need for attention. Now, I head back out onto the street knowing that, like Chinaski, I’m answerable to a higher cause.