“The way we do one thing is the way we do everything.” – Traktung Khepa
“To not have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment,” Charles Bukowski wrote in his letter of gratitude to John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press, “if only for myself.” * In 1969, Martin had offered him a monthly stipend for life, to dedicate himself to full-time writing, which he agreed. Less than two years later, Black Sparrow Press had published Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office.
Post Office introduces Bukowski’s autobiographical anti-hero Henry Chinaski, who “has lost more than twelve years of his life to the U.S. Postal Service, somehow dragging his hangover out of bed every dawn to lug waterlogged mailbags up mud-soaked mountains, outsmart vicious guard dogs, and pray to survive the day-to-day trials of sadistic bosses and certifiable coworkers”. The 1971 classic opens with the first line, “It began as a mistake.”
“Hello. Are you the new mail person?” the man asked with a tint of disdain on his face. He looked like he might be one of those prima donna professors at the U of M. “I want to let you know that our ballot forms were misplaced in the neighbors’ slot, above ours, the other day. At an uncertain time like this, when these ballot forms are so important, we really need you to be more mindful.” It was amazing how far and wide the word mindful had gotten with its new-age depiction emptied out of its meaning. So much so, that more often than not, people uttering the word were entirely lacking any degree of openness or empathy, even as they were blurting it. And were there ever any “certain times” in the history of man? It was another one of those 94 degree days in Michigan. We were standing in front of the cluster mailbox unit where I was delivering the mail for the second day.
Three days were the longest I’d delivered consecutively on any route and it had only happened twice. So far I’d delivered in Dexter, Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Northville, Milan, and Brighton, to multiple different routes in each town where I’d never previously set foot. The cluster mailbox unit we were standing in front of, like most others, had no name tags on a number of its slots, and only some of those had unit numbers. The mail, to be placed in these, were mostly addressed only to individuals’ names without any unit numbers. How exactly was one to know where to place them in the unit? When you asked technical questions to supervisors they almost invariably looked at you as if you were a complete idiot, their body language, gestures, and the squelching sound bites that escaped their mouths clearly expressed contempt. Sometimes they might mumble words they were obviously uncomfortable with, such as “we’ve tried to put names on stickers or write them with markers but they won’t stay for long with the weather conditions and whatnot”, then they usually mustered up an authority posture, rather quickly getting to the fact that you were expected to deliver the mail into each of those boxes within an average of two minutes. You were promptly made to feel you were only as good as either a racing horse or a donkey- depending on your speed, and your speed alone. A third option was not viable. How peculiarly likewise the number of mock choices we the so-called-voters have in the elections.
Acronyms were used so profusely in every conversation in the postal world as if it were the only one that existed, that if one was to ask people what they stood for even half the time you’d probably be getting a beating. Nevertheless, I was speaking once, on a rare occasion, when Josie the assistant to my supervisor, who seemed quite subtly adept at topping her from the bottom, cut me off in the middle of a sentence with a not-so-subtly violent “Stop! Stop!! Stop!!! Stop!..”. I had already stopped after the first count but she didn’t even slow down until after she rolled out the fourth halt. When push came to shove, what was it that I was to be mindful of again, first and foremost? Kindness, ah yes. Gentle- kindness. Lord have mercy.
“You know my old saying, ‘Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”
Even though I was hinted at that it was better to return to the office with undelivered mail than taking time for overcoming obstacles to delivering everything, I was sure you didn’t want to return with as abundant undelivered mail as there were obstacles. I checked all the slots in the cluster mailbox (while the old man was standing over my shoulder, waiting), to see if there were any mail still sitting in there from days before so I could match some names and decrease the volume of my load. There were frequent calls from the office saying you should pick up the pace as if you were in the middle of enjoying a cone of ice cream, which only tripped things up further. Each cluster mailbox had its idiosyncrasies, sometimes you had to kick it once on the left side while adjusting the key to align with a small crack between the pocket door and the body, then push hard and pull instantly to open it, or it could be wiggling the door while pulling, then banging it shot while twisting the key to get it out and be able to leave the unit locked. These cluster and pick-up mailboxes were cranky and stubborn with such curious resistance that you thought they might take off and start walking one of these days with all that character. Fancy how they ended up doing just so with a little hand from DeJoy.
You took note in the head to remember what had to be done to open this particular one on Elm Street so it wouldn’t take as long to figure it out next time. But who knew if and when you might be delivering here again? Where was that one hiding in a big manicured bush so there was no way of seeing it, except from its front side facing a house about five feet apart? Did they not want any mail? I never knew if I was going to be working on any given day, let alone what route (you might get an email or text anywhere between 5:30 and 7:30 am -or not- with instructions on where to go for work that same day) so printing maps from the night before was not an option. And when street maps were not happening (sometimes a charitable supervisor would print one up where street names would be tiny blurbs unreadable by any standards), I could forget about any leads on cluster box locations.
I would better not worry and carry on for now. It was already a good eight minutes spent on this cluster box. The only way to true efficiency seemed through having a route down to muscle memory. However, moving from town to town and route to route for a good few first years was in the cards for all newcomers before the sight of any steady routes. Even the birds knew that this was how you were ‘broken in” or “weeded out”. I wondered how many of us were substitutes among some 650.000 postal laborers? It was wildly curious to have thus heard that a huge number of letter carriers in New York were Chinese workers and that they had their own Labor Union.
When the entitled old white man must have noticed the hopelessness on my face he added, “Of course you don’t know each of our names yet and there are no numbers on some of the slots but I don’t know how we can help that.” It didn’t matter if the misplacement of the mail the other day was my mistake or not. “I do apologize sir”, I said, “How were you able to retrieve your forms?”, tackling friendliness in conversation. “My neighbor had to knock on my door to give it to me.”, he replied.
The 1989-make postal trucks had no ACs or heaters. It was 118 degrees in it on summer days. The gear shift handles could point N on the windshield when they were in fact on Drive, or they would point P when they were in Reverse for all one knew. Whatever else each car did without rime or rhythm was for you to guess and work with as you got on a different one every day. Sometimes it would be an utterly lax and useless parking break, other times the horn that would not honk which you were told you could do without and get moving. Other times the truck would not start in the middle of the day and had to be towed while all you could do was wait for another one to be sent out. The trucks had a lot of character too, that you had better humor with.
Next, I was at a park and loop, which is parking the truck and delivering the mail on foot to each house, looping the two sides of the street, and ending up where you started. It was one of those neighborhoods where a dog, or more, lived in just about every single house. There was an alert for an aggressive pit bull that had previously attacked and bitten a carrier on this street. You might be surprised to find how many are kept as guard dogs when even the friendliest of our dog friends don’t like a stranger in a uniform and hat, approaching the house they feel entrusted with protecting. The dog, about which the scanner gave ‘an aggressive dog close by’ alert, almost succeeded jumping out of his fence when I got around 50 feet away from him. He was completely enraged to have someone coming close and I later learned that he had indeed jumped above that very fence, ran after the carrier along that street, and bit him the previous time around, which was how the alert had been placed.
Another time, as I was dropping letters into a mailbox right outside the door of a house, all of a sudden the door flung open, and a hysterical little poodle barking his lungs out, was jumping all over me trying to get ahold of flesh in no time. You’re carrying an average 35 lbs of mail tucked onto your arm, between your fingers, and maybe more with boxes on your shoulder in a satchel, so even if you were able to drop all your load all over the place immediately, which sort of runs counter-intuitive as it is, there’s still not much of a chance to get hold of that pepper spray on time before the dog is already on your face. At the Academy training, you are taught never to turn your back on a dog and never to run away. And you are told not to be afraid. All I can say is, it’s easier said than done. In any case, some of these dogs couldn’t care less one way or another. Fortunately, it was a small dog and I was able to keep him from biting by pushing the satchel full of boxes against him, and screaming until the owner showed up. A larger dog would have easily jumped higher and had his piecemeal. Luck seemed to have everything to do with it. Then again, if I didn’t have bad luck I’d have no luck at all, so I was grateful for the rest of the day although shaken by the event. I had better concentrate on the task at hand. It was getting late and lunch was obviously never going to happen at this job. The good news was that I had some extra weight to lose, 11 lbs of which was already gone in three weeks without any concentrating on my part on that.
“In fact, at many of those places, in order to keep your job, you don’t take lunch. Then there’s overtime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.”
My friend Carlos texted back when I sent him a picture on the new job, “Are you really as happy as you look cause you love the job, or is it the money?” I texted back, “I can assure you the party will be over without pay!”
The job was no picnic. But we were no slaves, as long as we were getting paid, either.
At 4 PM one day, out of the 60 worked, I got back to office having delivered my load from that morning, to be handed another route. It was the same one that I’d worked the day before which had taken seven hours to deliver, without a single, if a five-minute break, nor of course lunch, or restroom stop, hell-not even a moment to wipe the eyeglasses clean and take a deep breath but to run and run for seven hours straight under the blazing sun. I was stunned at this point by getting instructed to be back at the office in three hours, having delivered it all. I said, “It took me seven hours to deliver this route yesterday, so I don’t know how I would be able to do it in three today”, and only in thought did I add, “not to mention after already having worked for seven.” We ended up splitting it with a seasoned carrier and between the two of us, got it delivered by the estimated time.
“And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.”
A couple of days later I was scheduled for a Review with my supervisor Margaux, at the base office. She said that I was argumentative and that I “didn’t get it”.
M- You took three hours more than the person who delivers the mail to this route.
T- It seems reasonable enough to take three hours more on the first day, than someone who’s been working that same route for the past 14 years. I mean, it took the scanner 4 minutes 50 seconds to scan a barcode alone, inside that pickup box in front of the hardware store, cause it wouldn’t fit in it to reach the barcode on the exact right angle.”
M- Those minutes here and there don’t add up to 3 hrs! I will give you the chance to resign so you can still apply for a postal job again.
T- I would like to consult with a couple of people before I sign anything.
M- You don’t have people. You have no union representation until 120 days and you’re on your 42nd day. You don’t have anyone.
T- I would like to think then before I speak. (not so fast, dear, if it were that easy to dismiss this, this little-self as it were, I would have done it already. And I’ve tried.)
“Early on, when I was quite young and foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”
They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds. Now... They are laid off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:
“I put in 35 years...”
“It ain’t right...”
“I don’t know what to do...”
A few days later, as it turned out I hadn’t even been given the full official training yet, I was back training with Kyle. While we were delivering, a man on the street ever-so-enthusiastically exclaimed, “Thank you for your service! We appreciate you!” Kyle at once appeared ultra proud turning to me saying, “You’ll encounter this kind of thing quite often.” Maybe Margaux was right, I surely did not get some of it to say the least. How was it “service” when we were getting paid- and well above the minimum rate at that?
How much longer could we continue fooling ourselves into pride as if we still lived in days when carriers on horseback saved lives? The postal system first had developed in the colonies, in which merchants, slaves, and Native Americans would pass letters and parcels from person to person until they reached their destinations, which had then given way to the horseback system. Matter-of-fact is that what we carry today are by and large advertorials and Amazon packages. And the small percent of pharmaceuticals – the last front for the postal authorities to boast about in romantic patriotism.
Natural hierarchy, in my experience- as a relational phenomenon, is felt quite more naturally in NYC than in the Midwest. One enters a social predisposition of an animalistic sense-of-urgency that openly detects whom not to fuck-with in the Big City. It is not only a useful survival instinct but also honors the dignity of the ones who’ve achieved a deeper sensibility, without feelings of inferiority/superiority getting in the mix. We don’t have to pretend we’re all equals at every turn, instead, we can compliment, learn from, and play with our different capacities and capabilities. We can trust an “I don’t know” mentality more readily when what we do know in all relativity is seen, heard, and respected. Competence becomes synonymous with confidence as a holistic phenomenon while we do our work, as opposed to patching layers of flimsy band-aids to cover up our incompetencies. The Apple is big enough for everyone to have a bite, and the best strategy is to know one’s place.
Guns and dogs seem to have substituted for these functions in the Midwest. One never knows in which yard a dog that has been trained into viciousness might be roaming about and which truck might have a loaded machine in its front pocket or a riffle in the back trunk. We are all equal when it comes to whom one can not fuck-with and it has nothing to do with nature or intelligence about it.
Sean- (during a union Zoom meeting) She took your badge? She took your badge without you signing the resignation? She can’t do that!
T- How would I have known? What was I to do, get in a catfight?
Betty- Where was the union representative in your office?
T- I don’t know who that was. I was constantly rushed out with “You have to get going- go!” in the mornings, and “You have to punch out- right now!” in the evenings, I didn’t have a dot of space to rest my water bottle for a minute in there.
B- We have to make sure the union people introduce themselves when a new person starts the job.
John- Yes, we should file an EEO and transfer her to another office. This is not a healthy environment.
“So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle.”
“... and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.
To not have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.” Kyle- (on a breezy summer morning) It is a fine day to be a mailman, isn’t it Doug?
Doug- Yes, only if it wasn’t for the mail!
When I tell my fellow, Fate, that my writing’s been leaning more towards the socio-political these days, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”, she asks, as if it were black or white. It is rather my breathing that is far more political than that.
We’ve all heard of Trump saying, “The Post Office for many, many years has been, you know, run in a fashion that hasn’t been great... And I don’t think the Post Office is prepared for a thing like this. You have to ask the people at the Post Office... “
As the old wisdom saying prescribes, “Render unto Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar.”
*Italics are quotations from Charles Bukowski’s 1986 letter to John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press.