Am I back in New York? I thought as I entered the post office in my parents’ town.
I’ve been in post offices all over the country, from tiny storefronts in dusty western towns to massive stone edifices in big city centers. But the prize for the longest lines and most sluggish service goes to the upper Manhattan neighborhood where I lived last winter.
You’d do better sending a letter by pigeon than mailing it from that post office. And God help you if you had to actually go to a window to send a package. Employees were either surly or cowed. I’ve seen them beating on equipment that didn’t work, searching among packages piled on dusty shelves for stuff that should have been delivered days earlier, and generally making life difficult for the poor slobs with the bad luck of having a package to mail.
One large employee-dude would stand in the lobby like a bouncer, ostensibly to answer questions and direct traffic when confused customers tried to figure out which endless line to stand in because the line for money orders and mail pickup were different from the lines for mailing stuff, and they all changed with the whims of the postmaster.
Once, I even witnessed a mutiny.
“This is unacceptable,” a guy said loudly after waiting in an unmoving line for 20 minutes. “I want to see the manager.
The bouncer-dude moved in.
“You can’t see the manager.”
“Why not? Is he hiding in there? He should open another window. Why don’t you go work at a window?” The guy was clearly enjoying the role of agitator, but all the rest of us peasants looked at the floor, avoiding eye contact.
Finally, the agitator shrugged. “Your manager should be ashamed of this.”
But I wasn’t in New York. This was a clean, efficient post office in Michigan—and yet the line was snaking toward the door. I felt the old nervous tension creep up to my throat.
A woman ahead of me slapped some long, fabric-wrapped metal rods on the table and announced to the postal worker, “I can’t find a box for this.”
The frazzled guy shouldered the challenge and began searching the back room for a box. He finally found one and worked through the complex folding instructions. Everything fit. The woman produced her mailing labels—and they were for regular mail, not the priority-mail box he’d found, and she only had bar codes for regular mail, but not an address. So the whole time-consuming process of finding a box that wasn’t priority mail began again.
One window off-line.
I was beginning to choke.
At another, the worker unaccountably walked away from her window and disappeared.
Two down, one to go. The postal roulette played on.
The woman returned to her window AND another one opened. Now we were back to three functioning civil servants, not counting the guy who was still looking for a box. God bless the Midwest!
I approached the newly opened window still swallowing residual frustration with my meager handful of mail.
“How are you today?” asked the nice-looking, middle-aged man at the window.
I put on my cheery voice, “Oh! great!”
Then I noticed that he was making eye contact and was actually interested in my response.
“Well, really, I’m kinda tired,” I said.
“Yeah, I am too. These are pretty long days.”
Then, from such light banter, the conversation drifted—I don’t know how—to his wife, who had died a handful of years ago at 42.
“She was the most incredible person I ever met,” he said. “Seeing her face in the morning just made me happy. If the day wasn’t going well, I only had to look at her and I’d feel better.”
He was weighing and stamping, sorting and processing.
“Not too many people have that kind of relationship. It was a gift, and I was incredibly lucky. I just loved her so much…”
He hesitated. “I still have a good relationship with my in-laws, but it was a little rough at first. They kept asking questions like ‘Why didn’t you call the ambulance sooner?’ But they got over it, and we get along pretty well now.”
I didn’t ask how she’d died or if they had kids. I just let the moment run its course.
“That’ll be $3.50,” he said.
“You know,” he continued, “people say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, I think that whatever doesn’t kill you helps you grow.”
I paid him. Our interaction was complete.
I reached over the counter to shake the man’s hand.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Have a blessed day,” he said.
I already have, I thought.