BY JEFF BROWN
I was a mailman long enough to see certain models age out of youth catalogs and into middle-aged catalogs. I started on Bainbridge in 1988. I retired in August.
My favorite part of the job was getting outside. On the route I found fresh air, animals, and no bosses. I liked playing with dogs. It was cute and sad when a dog was so desperate to play it would bring me a stick or toy. A Bernese Mountain dog met me a few times with a toy in its mouth. The toy was a miniature of itself, a Bernese Mountain dog stuffed animal.
Once, late on a cold dark winter afternoon, a deer paused in a driveway 50 feet ahead of me. It moved off. When I got closer to where it had been my headlights illuminated the warm cloud of its exhaled breath.
Every several years I’d see a small bird motionless on the street, stunned from a passing car. I’d put the bird on a fence or my finger (the involuntary muscles in its feet anxious to grasp a perch). I examined its beauty up close. Usually after a few minutes it flew off. A bird’s recovery from a mild concussion may be explained by neuroscience, but to me it’s magical.
Customers have been kind and helpful, offering pieces of cake, cookies, cough drops, or glasses of water. Once I forgot to get gas and was nearly empty. A worker at the Battle Point Park maintenance garage gave me two gallons of gas from the supply of cans, allowing me to finish the route. Three times customers pulled me out of a ditch or from a steep driveway. One winter on the route it began snowing. We had a new kind of tire chain, and as I was fiddling with them a customer helped me.
The workers at a business on my route fed me occasionally. Grilled herring, or Mexican food for their Cinco de Mayo celebration. Once they fed me sushi. The two guys slicing the raw tuna were originally from Japan, so I assumed they learned about sushi there. One of them told me he learned how to do it from Youtube.
When I had a letter that needed to be signed for, I always brought the letter, a form, a pen, and a little clipboard. When I came to the door of Ms. G with such a letter she turned and walked away. Looking for a pen, I thought. I told her I had everything she needed. Over her shoulder she said, “You don’t have my glasses.”
One day I pulled up to Mr. V’s locking mailbox. His keys were hanging from the lock. I drove to his house. When he, a vigorous man in his 80s, answered the door I held up his keys and told him where I found them. He patted the outside of his empty pocket and said, “I am getting a bit forgetful.”
Mrs. E, a prim woman in her late 70s, had a little dog named Nell Gwyn. Nell Gwyn was a mistress of the English King Charles II in the mid 1600s. One day I delivered Mrs. E’s mail, drove to the end of the street and came back around. Mrs. E ran out of her house with an outgoing letter. She ran as you might expect a person to run who is pushing 80 and named her dog after a King’s mistress. She got to my vehicle, handed me the letter, hung on to the mirror bracket for support and said breathlessly, “My God, I can still run.”
I pulled up to a mailbox where a 9-year-old girl had just gotten off the school bus. She was standing next to her 20-year-old nanny. As I handed the girl the mail she said, “You may think this is my mom but it’s not.”
I always carried stamps with me, in case customers needed some. The stamps came in handy in other ways. Some students were washing cars at a gas station to raise money. I didn’t have small bills but they washed the postal vehicle for a book of stamps.
There was a metal working shop on my route. I needed spot welding done on a small project. The guy wouldn’t take money, but he took a book of stamps. Twice I used stamps to buy lemonade from kids’ roadside stands.
Doing the same thing every day allows for rustic science experiments. We sort mail into a case with shelves and addressed slots. Occasionally I’d try to put a letter in a slot, but my body would turn away from that area. When I looked closely at the address, I saw that it went elsewhere in the case. I was trying to sort it to the wrong slot, and my subconscious mind overrode my conscious brain to sort it correctly.
About eight years ago the post office rearranged our cases. Some of us had our cases turned 180 degrees, and moved across an aisle. For about a month several of us noticed that we sometimes tried to sort mail to the wrong side of our cases, confusing our lefts and rights. Our brains were oriented not just to the case but to the building itself, the rows of lights and windows. We subconsciously sorted the mail to the larger orientation.
The best boss I ever had was C, who trusted us to act like adults. In his first week we delivered a mailing for the hardware store. We delivered it too early and we knew it. The store’s sale items had not all arrived and customers left disappointed. The hardware store called the post office. C said he expected more of us. That was it. He had treated us with respect and firmness. What more can you ask?
S was the worst boss I ever had. He upheld all the rules — and all possible interpretations — that his bosses threw at him. S was a spineless petty tyrant. Postal rules were his exoskeleton.
Often rules from Seattle were not made for efficiency or better customer service, but to make someone in upper management look good. Foolish rules are a slow-acting poison, damaging worker morale. Fighting them is a job skill. When bosses come and go workers can fine tune their defenses. One coping method is to follow rules until the current boss leaves. Then we return to working efficiently. Often a new boss is ignorant of certain rules, or too overwhelmed to bother. The best boss, C, told me he ignored half of what his boss in Seattle directed him to do. Like any good boss, C carved out enough space and power for himself to do his job well.
For several years I dressed up on the day before Christmas. I wore a dress shirt, and a plaid vest my wife made for me. On one such day I got mad at my substitute for leaving mail from the previous day. Long story, but it wasn’t her fault. The boss at that time, W, calmly said, “Look at you. All nice in your vest but you made her cry.” I apologized to my substitute.
If I was early to work I’d play catch with myself, throwing a ball against the brick wall. Once I missed the catch and the golf ball I was using put a small dent in a coworker’s car. K saw what happened to his car. We made a deal. I’d buy him a maple bar once or twice a month until the debt was paid. That was eight years ago. Once I mailed him a maple bar from a Montana vacation. K said from the size of the box and my printing he knew what it was before he opened it. He ate it. Said it was good, too. My last Monday at work I bought him a maple bar, and he said, “The debt is paid.”
I was asked what part of the job I’ll miss most. I said my coworkers. The faces changed but the flow of human nature remained. With rare exceptions, my coworkers were friendly, hardworking (often overworked) and conscientious. I never got tired of most of them.
When I got this job I was thrilled. My wife just had our second child and I needed stable work with good pay and benefits. The post office is like a factory job of old — you don’t need a college education (although several coworkers had degrees), and it has union protections. I planned to be a mailman for only five years but obligations called. Sometimes I forgot how critical this job was to my stable life and resented the time spent working. Silly, I know. As I got older my gratitude for the job increased, but so did postal mismanagement. It was hard to keep up. Still, I’m thankful for the job.
P.S. If your mailbox is full, please empty it.