I have a Pavlovian response to the mailbox. Every day I look in there on the outside chance that someone has sent me some personal correspondence. It doesn’t happen much these days. In fact, years go by when I don’t get a letter or postcard in the mail. But one comes every now and then, and it’s enough to keep me coming back.
I first came to depend on the mail in a personal and important way when I lived in Germany in the 1980s. On my first foray into the Vaterland, I had a room at the top of the agricultural extension station and school for winery and vineyard apprentices in Trier on Egbertstrasse. It was an elaborate building, four stories tall that wrapped around a bucolic courtyard. The roof had dormers behind which were more offices.
In one wing, my room was in a little hallway with two other rooms the same size. Each room had a bed, writing table, and standing wardrobe. A sink and water heater sat in one corner. A window opened to the roof and gave me a grand view of the Petrisberg, a large, heavily wooded hill that climbed from Hermesstrasse, the next street over, to about 300 above. I could see the Trierer Löwenbrauerei from my room and up around the hill into the Olewiger Tal, a quarter of Trier that was very old and hemmed in a small creek.
Every day, I would come home from the vineyard or the winery of the Bischöflichen Weingüter (Episcopal Wineries) and stop in at the little doghouse that held an administrative and secretarial office at the head of the courtyard. There, I’d inquire about the mail. Every now and then, a letter would be waiting for me.
I’d always hold onto that letter until I climbed the five stories to my room. Putting my bag aside, I’d lay the letter on my writing table and take off my shoes. Ablutions came next, as I filled the water heater and wait enough time for the water to warm so I could wash my face and hands. Then, I’d fill the heater again so I could make my evening cup of coffee.
Coffee made, I’d turn on the light and sit down to the table and open my letter. Not knowing anyone, just writing a letter gave me the feeling of having a companion, someone to talk to. When letters came back, I’d sit with my coffee and read what they had to tell me about life back home and about just how much I needed to be far from home making a life for myself.
Ever since my experience in Germany, I have depended on the Post Office to maintain contact between me and friends. I still sometimes write letters to people rather than call them. They are usually so surprised at receiving a stamped, personal piece of mail, they do me the favor of a letter in return.
I find it ironic now that the Post Office comes to my rescue. As it saved me from lonely nights so long ago, it now opens its doors to me in my time of need.
Just about six weeks ago, I really needed a job. I had been looking for a position for months very seriously. I made out hundreds of applications, sent tens of resumes and cover letters. I was certain some company would need a writer/editor/educator with a Ph.D. and broad life experience. I’d be a boon to whoever hired me and they would make tons of money from my faithful service.
I applied for everything you might think I could do well. Learning and development. Editing. Copywriting. Training. Web content development. An endless list of positions. Every job I put in for I could accomplish, often with ease. I looked forward to challenges of meeting and getting to know good people, learning new skills, facing challenges. I was ready to take on whatever was thrown at me.
As it was, I received only two interviews.
I was at it for so long that I learned a few things. The first was that being 57 and having a Ph.D. are significant obstacles to gainful employment. I interview well. I have a good personality—friendly, gregarious, and comfortable. I’m a good listener and always have good questions. I’m a writer and a writer’s life is rejection. The disappointment lie in the fact that somehow age and education kept me out of the office.
Somewhere in there, I put my name in the hat for a city carrier assistant letter carrier with the Postal Service. I can’t remember when but I do know that when things looked bleakest, when we were on the edge of collapse, the USPS sent me a note congratulating me on getting a job with them.
The weeks rolled by and one thing after another came in the E-mail for me to do. I had to take a personality test, consent to criminal-background and credit checks, and take a drug test. I knocked these off as they came in. Then, on November 13, I went into the main Kansas City Office at Union Station and gave fingerprints and ID. I met with a woman who had me sign the postal pledge—rain, sleet, heat, gloom of night—and some final paperwork.
I was a postal employee. They worked with me on a start date that would allow me to take care of the last of my classroom responsibilities at the college. I started December 7 with orientation.
In some ways, I can’t believe I’m here. The letter carrier’s job is made for me. I work well alone. I love being outside. I have a thing for weather. I admire the Postal Service and what it does. I mean, what a miracle to put 55 cents on a piece of paper, drop it in a box, and have it delivered to a destination anywhere in the country just a few days later.
It’s not going to be easy. I’m an assistant and not yet a career letter carrier, a sub and not your friendly neighborhood letter carrier. I have a year or two of six-day, 50- to 60-hour weeks ahead of me. I’ll work every holiday and every Sunday. Every day will present me with a different route. I’ll work 12-hour days for long stretches during the peak season, starting with my tour this next week. The pay is crummy but overtime pays the bills.
The brass ring is that career, full-time position with five-day weeks, minimal overtime, better pay, pension benefits, and accrued sick leave. As an assistant, I have none of that, just the health insurance our family so desperately needs.
And I may not make it. The mail is a vocation and not just a job. It’s all about getting the mail delivered on time. Everything else is secondary to that. Everything. The United States Postal Service is a big, flawed animal that eats people alive. You have to accept that, put your head down, and deliver the mail.
Today was driving school. As I drove from one station to another—backing into a narrow space, parallel parking, delivering to mailboxes, and so on—I thought of myself in my little room in Trier. In a thoughtful moment, I reflected on now being the guy who delivers that piece of mail to a kid in a room somewhere far from home. That makes a difference.