When I’m out on a route in normal, walking-around times, I hardly see a human being. I carry mail in the suburbs, where a kind of deadly silence pervades the atmosphere. The houses are empty or seem so. At the same time, I get the feeling of being watched, surveilled, as if eyes peer from the dark interiors of those houses.
But these aren’t normal times. These days of plague has made the suburbs live, even in places where squalor rivals the worst parts of the city. Before the epidemic, I often heard the dogs inside houses and apartments as my presence brings out the worst in them. But I rarely saw anyone out walking their animals, much less ride bikes, amble aimlessly through the streets, or gather for conversations across fences.
Life has flowed into those yards and houses. Dogs are out wagging tails and propping up for a view of the mailman. Bike riders speed through the once-empty streets and out onto avenues usually busy and crowded with heartless traffic. People gather in driveways and front yards. Oftentimes, children’s toys litter lawns. Evidence of play splay across sidewalks and front porches in the shaky, uneven lines of day-glo chalk where children and adults have scrawled pictures, names, flowers, and games.
Where my mail carrying was once a solitary venture, it’s now crowded with people who want to have a word with the letter carrier. I get it. I have always been a fan of the postal worker and of the mail. There have been times in my life when the post sustained me, particularly in the age before E-mail became the medium of social exchange. But I never imagined just how many people are happy to see the postman or postwoman on their daily rounds.
I tend to view my job in weekly increments. Since I only get one day a week off and always work Sundays and holidays, this day free is a full stop in the daily ass-kickings I get at the Post Office. Carrying mail is hard work, and while I’m used to hard work, this is different. At the end of the day, I don’t get to look back, as I did as an ironworker, and say, hey I did that. There is little sense of accomplishment. The mail never ends. There’s always more. The route never really ends but is a series of loops that go on and on and on.
This last week has shown me just how seriously people are taking this virus and how they are not. When I hand people the mail—and many prefer to take the mail if they are out rather than have me put it in the box or slot—many stay at least two arm lengths from me, my arm and theirs, or about six feet. Some have me put it on the steps or a lawn chair or porch step, where they can retrieve it easily and still have a conversation or word with me.
Some are not so sensitive. Yesterday, I had a certified letter addressed to a house in Prairie Village. We have a protocol now whereby we can pass these letters off without having people touch the scanner where they would normally endorse their receipt of the letter. The woman came to the door, opened it, and stepped out on the porch. As I maneuvered to maintain a discrete socially distant space, she kept moving in closer. It turned out that the woman the certified was addressed to didn’t live at the house and she refused the letter. But this was after a lengthy back-and-forth at close quarters.
In another instance, a gruff customer came to the door as I struggled to find his mail slot. Since I’m often on other carriers’ routes that I don’t know well, finding the mailbox or slot can be a time-wasting chore. The man opened the door as I was looking and growled at me.
“I can’t find your mailbox,” I said.
“It’s right here,” he barked, pointing out a microscopic slot just right of the door that anyone not familiar with that house would have missed. I felt the puffs of his breath on my arm. I thought to myself, well, if he has it, I have it now.
In another instance, I stopped near a house that had a mailbox at the end of the driveway. I readied my mail for a loop down that street and back. This gave a little girl enough time to come up to the box.
“Do you have a letter from my Abuelita?” she asked. I noticed a couple of other girls in the yard and the little girl at the box was breathing heavily from her play.
“I don’t know if I have a letter from your grandmother,” I said. “Let me take a look.”
I paused for a second as I fingered through the letters for that address. “So, you’re out playing with your sisters?”
“No, they are my friends from the neighborhood.”
I thought to myself, what kind of parents let their children play with others in an epidemic?
It turns out a lot. I have seen kids playing in groups with parents watching socially distant from themselves at the end of driveways. Young men are playing basketball, tennis, and pickleball on park courts. Police arrive occasionally to chase them off. As soon as John Law moves on, they go right back to playing these games that demand people be at close quarters. The children again gather to continue what they were doing before authorities interrupted them.
As I watch young women running next to each other on suburban walking paths, men playing basketball, the older men and women out walking with their neighbors, couples and groups out for a conversation on the crumbling parking lots of their Soviet-style apartment blocks, the children gathering in groups, I think of my one of my favorite books, The Plague by French writer and thinker Albert Camus. That book lays out almost exactly the reactions I see on street today. The serious people stay a decent distance from each other and keep their children from getting too close to the mailman. Those who haven’t absorbed the enormity of the epidemic operate as if they were on vacation.
This ain’t vacation.
But as the letter carrier, I see these people not as they see themselves, but as if I were watching from behind a camera they have gotten used to. Those who think this is just free time from work and school don’t cover themselves and their bad behavior. But most don’t hesitate to show how seriously they take the disease.
In the end, I’m both sanguine and optimistic. I think things will get a lot worse before some people understand just the scope of the virus and how easily it spreads. By then, it’s too late. At the same time, I think there are enough people willing to shut down life and economy long enough to get through this thing.
Meanwhile, I ask myself as I drive to work and back, can all these people on the highway and driving down the street be essential workers?
I think not.