Growing up, and growing old, at the Post Office

Requiem for the post office

6 minute read
When was the last time you stood in line to buy stamps? To pick up a birthday package from a faraway county? Right, there's Amazon for that. The U.S. Postal Service is closing many of our post offices because nobody uses stamps.

Our post offices is how I think of them: mini-community centers, a part of our public lives. Sometimes I do stand in a line for the counter service. Once I would see a well-dressed corporate secretary with a box of crispy white letters to stamp, but no more. Now it's all flip-flops and cargo pants: The suits don't lick envelope; they have FedEx and desk-to-desk courier services.

I'm probably the last citizen who will miss post offices, because I haven't seen a child put anything in the Outgoing Mail slot for years. For children snail not. They text much, but only to their cohorts. "Cohorts" means other kids.

I knew only one mother who made her kids write thank you notes. The rest don't call. Landline? How quaint! And if you call them to prod for an acknowledgement, they grunt distractedly as they "interact" with a screen.

Whispered transactions

Used to be, getting the mail was a treat. You liked going to the post office to pick it up. If you were early and the mailboxes were empty, you could hang around and see who came in. Sooner or later you'd see everyone in town.

Neighbors gossiped or they cut each other dead. Transactions through the postal window were whispery and private. Even if people were just buying stamps, to this ten-year-old these secretive transactions could have been crimes of some sort.

Big grey sacks of mail piled three feet high on the floor behind the window. Could all that have been meant for our little town? There were mysteries in those lumpy bags, important messages, money, boxes of candy. Christmas presents tied up with twine.

Counting combinations

If the postmaster saw me peering in, he slammed the window shut. "Get out of here," he would snap, even if I was standing right by my own post box. "No fooling around in here. Doesn't your mother teach you to mind your own business?"

There is little justice in childhood. Of course I wanted to fool with someone else's box, to see if my combination worked on someone else's. After all, how many combinations could there be?

In my bored state, I counted how many boxes there were, multiplying the rows times the tiers, one wall plus the other wall (which had fewer levels, because some of these brass-fronted boxes were big enough to hold a package). Business boxes, probably. If I could remember to add the two— or three— counts in my head, then I had to multiply that by the number of possible combinations. That meant the alphabet (which began with A and went through to P, as I recall) times the highest number on the dials.

Heavy magazines

To tell the truth, I never did calculate a satisfactory total. But I was waiting for a pal to show up or just waiting for the mail, not that I got any. My mother and father got really dull, heavy magazines and occasionally letters and postcards from people I didn't remember but who often remembered me in a postscript.

"Love to dearest little Reedie!" in fat, round letters. Oh, an aunt.

"Here's your mail, now get out of here," the postmaster growled and slammed shut the postal window, snapping the inside latch with a good-bye, good riddance click. How can I not miss this childhood experience?

Rejections from The New Yorker

A rite of passage: One day I would mail letters I had written myself, and then I would mail typewritten, onionskin manuscripts to The New Yorker and dread the inevitable, final rejection, a small mimeographed message of bad news: I would never be a writer.

Every budding Eudora Welty has this experience, so it's a pity that rural post offices will close first. My grouchy postmaster had to run a candy counter out front to make ends meet. It about killed him to have to come all the way out to sell me a nickel roll of Necco Wafers.

Out in the country, rural free delivery was really free and really rural, and it served a greater good than just delivering utility bills. The mail gal got reimbursed for mileage if she used her own car with a sign in the back window. She'd drive as close to the tin box as she could, tires low in the drainage ditch; then her long, slender right arm fumbled around to open the box if it hadn't flopped down already, while her left hand rolled the mail around the largest piece— not a photo, she hoped— and stuffed it in. Then she slammed the door up with a twang that announced that the mail had arrived.

Whistling customer

Her sharp eyes were very useful on the countryside. She could tell you if your kid got off the bus or not. She would see if your cows were out or your house was on fire or a strange van had just pulled out of your driveway in an awful hurry. Who witnesses an e-mail or a Facebook stalker these days?

I'm a home delivery addressee, but these thoughts came back to me on a spring morning at a small post office near my house in central California. When I finished my counter business, I noticed that the walls were lined by the same brass mailboxes I remember from my childhood.

This post office was fancier than the one I knew, with a tall ceiling, automatic glass doors, big glass windows and marble floors. A middle-aged man stood with his elbow on a counter, looking out at the trees, whistling. He turned to me for a moment, then continued to whistle, very beautifully.

I was entranced. The foyer's hard surfaces made a perfect sound chamber, throwing his graceful tones into haunting harmonics. As I listened, a few people hurried in and out, noticed him, then moved on.

Finally one of them stopped— a shaggy guy about my age, old enough to look arty in my book— and really listened.

"Say, you got any gigs around here?" he asked. The whistler stopped and shook his head.

"You gotta hear this guy," I said. Another melody.

"You play professionally, right?" shaggy asked him. "Would you like to? I manage a blues club. You could come on up Monday night."

Hang around a post office while you still can.♦

To read a response by Alaina Mabaso, click here.

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