Working 60-hour weeks stuns a guy into a kind of trance. Since no time exists for self-reflection, everything becomes about work. Even dreams.
I find myself in the night dreaming with the rhythm of dropping mail into boxes and into slots. I drop the parcels on their front porches and hear the beeps of the scanner. I see the customers in their doorways.
“Thanks for doing what you do. Thanks for delivering the mail,” they say.
“It’s a great day to carry mail,” I reply.
Or sometimes I give them the old postal worker’s line: “At least it’s above freezing and it ain’t raining.”
Then, I come to my senses and say to myself, “I’m sleeping. I’m not delivering mail.
This usually happens when I go to bed absolutely wiped out from a day’s work. It’s not like at the beginning, when I was physically pooped out from not being in shape. But now 50 pounds lighter and with a resting heartrate under 50, I’m tired from having walked 15 or 16 miles in day, like any other human being would.
And I think about that. When I walked to Montana, I regularly walked twenty to thirty miles in a day. Granted, I was 25 years younger. But even today, I think walking a stretch of 16 miles without a rest would be much easier than having to stop and start, literally, 500 times in that journey.
I am just beginning. I have been at it less than six months. I work with men and women who have carried the same routes for thirty years. They are as old as I am, some older. I’m sure their routes have to tear them up as much as my work does me. Yet, somehow, they keep a good attitude. They care about their customers. They are driven to do a good job.
But they are also looking at retiring soon. Some of them are hardly 60 years old. They face another 20 years of life without work and with good pensions.
On the other hand, I think that if I can keep this up for another five or six years—after I become a career employee (right now I’m an assistant, the lowest rung on the Postal Service ladder)—I might be able to have a small pension to supplement Social Security and meager retirement savings.
We have all faced it. A new job or career with all the possibilities and fears that come with that position in life and work. It’s interesting now for me to see myself starting at the beginning for about fifth or sixth time in life. I can’t look forward to a comfortable pension—time just isn’t on my side. But someday, I might be able to have two days off a week (always Sundays) and holidays. The only holidays I don’t work now are Thanksgiving and Christmas. I work every Sunday.
Starting at the bottom at the age of 57 has its advantages. I love a new beginning. The new experiences prove invaluable. I get to discover whole fields of endeavor I wouldn’t have had I not taken this job.
Plus, no one but the supervisor screws around with the old man. Some of my coworkers certainly see me as an object of pity. What’s a man nearing 60 doing as an assistant carrier at the Post Office? What did he go wrong that he wound up here? No one has expressed this to me. But it would be a wonder if no one thought this.
Most of my coworkers find me an interesting animal.
“What did you do before you came to the Post Office?” my coworker Tom asked me yesterday.
“I’m a college professor,” I say. “I still teach American History and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College.”
“No kidding. How did you wind up in this job?”
“I had to keep the lights on. Hundreds of applications, cover letters, and resumes didn’t get me a job. It turns out that being 57 and having a Ph.D. are significant obstacles to gainful employment. had to do something.”
“That’s fascinating,” Tom said. “I’ve been at the Post Office for almost 30 years, 22 of it on the same route. It must be great to have done other things in life.”
“Sure,” I said. “But I still wound up here. It’s not a bad place to be, working with people like you.”
“Thanks. I hope you get that career carrier’s position. And soon.”
There are others, like career carriers Moises and Das, who want to see me succeed. They see me doing aspects of the job new to me, like casing mail or numbering my packages for the route. They give me the thumbs up.
“Good for you, Patrick,” Moises said to me the other day. He’s a man of few words, so anything from him is a reward of itself. “You will do well today. Trust me. You will do well.”
I need that kind of reinforcement. In my estimation, I’m not a great carrier. Not yet. I’m slow and have a lot to learn. I worry about the coming “season” when mail and parcel volume increases. For four months from October to January, we will be doing the work of bringing greetings and good tides to people from around the world. It’s a trying time for all letter carriers as the mail volume is overwhelming even for the most experienced carriers. The days are certain to be long and the nights dark.
I’m trying to sharpen my skills for that time. I try to sort the mail as I go from house to house as quickly as I can. My packages are all lined up in my satchel in the sequence I will deliver them in. I just have to remember them. I’m getting better at it and having to backtrack less. But I still find myself at the end of a loop (delivery from the truck, up the block, and back to the truck) with a stray parcel in my satchel. I curse a little and put my pride aside, and drive to the house to deliver that tiny package.
After all, who knows what the receiver of that little plastic envelope is looking forward to? Maybe it’s a washer for a faucet that’s been leaking for months. Or it’s a handmade mask coming from a loved one to be used against the corona. What I have in my satchel may save a life or a marriage or a relationship. Or, maybe, it just lifts someone’s mood.
That’s what sustains me. I like being a public servant. I’m proud to be a union member. I like fulfilling an important function in the political, social, and economic life of the country. The things I bring to people in envelopes and packages allows them to keep the lights burning, the relationships going, the family functioning. Maybe, it’s not all that consequential.
I ache for the time to write. Sooner or later, that need will come out. I will find myself penning another page after an eleven- or twelve-hour day. I’m gathering material, as I do with all the jobs and careers I’ve had. I waiting for that thread to appear on which I’ll hang my next book.
When I think of these things—having an important job and knowing it will give me something to write about—I worry less about being a subpar carrier and think more about the big picture. It’s about the mail. It’s about what happens in my dreams. But it’s also what happens between people. And, that, in the end, is the purpose of life.