The Summer I Went Postal

My career path has hardly been a straight line.  I like to add in some detours, a few roundabouts, and even a bump or two in the road.  Such is the case with my brief tenure as a Casual City Carrier.

As a little child, I had a few notions of what jobs I would be good at.  The first was a version of Johnny Appleseed.  I like trees.  I like apples.  Quakers promote simple living.  Why would I not be attracted to the happy life of being outdoors all the time and planting trees where’er I went?  (The accent mark is my proof of just how folksy a dream it was.)

My second option was to be a librarian.  However, when I found out how much schooling was involved, I decided that working in a comic shop was close enough.

Thirdly, I wanted to be a mail carrier.  Have you ever seen a television show or a movie from the ‘40’s or ‘50’s?  Those mailmen looked so darn happy.  They smiled as they walked around with their bags.  No offices or suits for them!  Nope, they drove a little truck (with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car!  With the door open as they went!), made friends with their route people, and delivered long-awaited parcels.  Yes, the romance and allure of being a postal carrier hit me at a young age.

Thus, when I finished up college, I found an add looking for temporary mail men.  At a rate much higher than any of my jobs paid at the time, I could have the career I had always wondered about.  I applied and found out what was really involved.

I had never been fingerprinted before.  I still remember my fingers being covered in that black ink.  In a flash, I was in the federal system and on the government’s radar.  Oh well.  After I had passed their little tests, I was asked by the administrator to swear my allegiance.  I told her that I could not.

She put down the paperwork and gave me a look.  “Why not?”

“I am a Quaker.  We do not swear or take oaths.  I am happy to affirm, but I will not swear.”

“…Let me get my supervisor.”

A brief explanation: section one.  Part of the reason why Quakers fled England in the 1600s is that the church and government wanted us to pledge our allegiance to the higher-ups.  Quakers, being the wacky folks that we are, feel that all people are created equal.  That is why we said “Thou” and “Thee” back then instead of “Sir”, “Mister”, “Sire”, or whatever label of respect one might ask for.  We did not bow before royalty nor take off our hats to “important” people.  England did not like that.  Death and prison threats came along.  So the Quakers fled across the ocean.

A brief explanation: section two.  The Bible instructs people not to swear any oaths.  To swear on The Bible in court (or in a government office) gives a false sense of truth.  If we tell the truth all the time, then we should be covered.  Standing with one hand on The Bible and one hand in the air is not going to make us anymore truthful than usual.  If nothing else, it strikes us as insincere.  We will happily affirm, meaning that we agree and will strive to work towards the ideals and requests presented.  But swearing and taking oaths are not going to happen.

Off I went to the supervisor’s office.  He had the paper in front of him that I was to swear to and me in front of him.  I got the impression that he was busy and did not quite grasp why this young kid was in front of him.

“So what is the problem here?”

“Well, she asked me to swear or take an oath and I said that I wouldn’t.”

“…”  (He did not have to say anything.  The look on his face clearly communicated that he was not amused.

“However I am more than happy to affirm.”

“Why?”

“Well, I am a Quaker and we do not swear or take oaths.  But I am more than happy to affirm.”

“Fine.  ‘Do you… wordsIdon’trememberandmorewordsIdon’tremember?”

“I do so affirm.”

And then I was quickly ushered out of his office, a hired Casual City Carrier.

I informed by boss at the comic shop that I could no longer work for her.  I gave notice as a projectionist but kept my night usher shifts.  All I had to do was survive five days of training in a small classroom.

I found it terribly cruel that my ardent goal of escaping a desk job was ruined.  Here I was, spending eight hours a day, at a desk.  Yet, there was a bit of a consolation prize.  For one thing, I knew that the being inside part was only temporary.  Soon, assuming I passed all the tests, I would be outside and free of the artificial lighting.

Another thing; the testing took place at the mail processing plant.  That meant that every day I got to walk through the warehouse and see all the mail get sorted on massive conveyor belts.  I could have watched it for hours.  Digital scanners were programmed to read various types of handwriting.  That meant that a vast majority of addresses were scanned and sent to their proper stations by computers.  As we all know, some handwriting escapes easy classification.  The “rejects” were sent to a pile and those were looked at by a person, who would then send them off by hand.

(Apparently, cards are the bane of their existence.  Their more square-like nature did not go through the machines well or clogged the chutes or something.  I was never exactly clear.  It did, however, give me a perfectly good reason to never send a birthday card ever again.  “I was going to wish you Happy Valentine’s Day.  That was until I considered the ramifications.  You do not want to be responsible for delaying thousands of pieces of important mail, do you?  I did not think so.”

As much as I disliked the classroom, I had it rather easy.  A woman there was from an island town.  She was staying in a hotel for the week so that she would not have to commute two hours each way to get back to her home.  She also would not be driving a mail truck; she would have to use her own vehicle.  After hearing that, my thirty minute commute going the opposite direction as rush hour did not sound so bad.

I sat.  I watched videos.  I learned that we were expected to always go slow in school zones because we never knew when “kids are present.”  I was taught to never ever put one’s vehicle in reverse.  On the last day, I was trained in the actual vehicle itself.

The instructor had clearly dealt with someone like me before.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll stay out here until you get this down.”  I had started to stress that I would be a terrible failure.  After driving for five years on one side of the car, it was quite jarring to suddenly be forced onto the right side.  The curb is right there!  If you are in the left lane, the driver of the other car is right there.  I was a bit unsettled.  Eventually, I managed to drive through the orange construction cones in the big parking lot without injuring any of the rubber denizens.

A grand perk of my assigned route was that the post office was three blocks from my apartment.  If I did not know all the streets I was assigned, I at least had an inkling of where I was.  Getting lost was not a concern, even if finding all the side streets was.

Adding a morbid air to the environment was the number of people that insisted on wearing blue gloves at all times.  This was June of 2002.  9/11 had happened less than a year before.  More pertinent to the USPS, the anthrax letters had been mailed just a week after.  The fear of being poisoned by merely sorting letters at your job was still in the air.  I was offered blue gloves, but declined.  (I was a young college kid; invincible to the troubles and woes of the real world.)

I was given a key to all the mailboxes on my route.  “Do not lose this”, I was told in no uncertain terms.  “If you lose this, we have to re-key all the mailboxes in our area.”   I was also given a can of pepper spray (for dogs, they claimed).

I was also given a key to my truck.  Every morning, the mail carrier was to inspect their vehicle.  Lights on all four corners were to be investigated.  Only after every aspect was verified as functional, was I allowed to get away from the home office.

Allow me to offer an insider view on the vehicle.  Calling it a “truck” is perhaps inappropriate.  A tin can might be more fitting.  Imagine a U-Haul vehicle.  Now picture it smaller and less structurally sound.  I am convinced that the back two-thirds of my vehicle were pure aluminum.  You should have seen the way that entire care bounced at even the slightest speed bump.  Had it not been weighed down by ten trays of mail, I think it would have bounced even higher.  And in place of the left front seat was a shelf holding ever more trays of mail and a fire extinguisher.

800px-USPS-Mail-Truck

92.87% flimsy aluminum. 100% bouncy fun.

Amusing tidbit:  Mailmen are not allowed to read the mail.  If the front page of a magazine blows open and the carrier happens to read a single word on that page, technically they have committed a federal crime.  So rest assured that there are laws and strict rules preventing the federal employees from reading your Soap Opera Digest on their breaks.

How they would find the time to read anything is beyond me.  I cannot recall how many lunch breaks I took, but it was not a daily occurrence.  We were told to take breaks, sure.  However I was dumb.  I was trying to get done with my route and downtown in time for my 4:30/5:00 usher shift.  As I said; dumb.

The timing restriction was ultimately what killed the job for me.  I was always rushing to get done in time for the other job.  That, and bulk mail.  Ugh.

Did I mention that I was delivering mail to an area that had a high concentration of rich people and college students?  Solicits all over the place; I have never seen so many credit card applications in my life.  I had armloads full of ads.  The mailbag weighed heavy on my shoulders.  (I choose to believe my frame is a little more robust now and could handle the load.  But I like my spine, so I have no desire to prove that fact.)

I had never quit a job out of wimpiness before.  It was a three-month assignment and I thought for sure I could make it.  Six weeks in, that seemed less and less likely.  The weight was too heavy.  My delivery time was too slow.  I got more and more frustrated.  Like, for instance, the time that I found out that I had lost my keys.

That moment filled me with terror.  I had taken the lanyard off so that I could fumble with my armload of mailings and forgot to pick the key back up.  I retraced my steps along every house on that block until I finally found them sitting on the brick-porch at almost the end of the road.  (It does not count as “losing” if you have some idea where they were, right?)

Then there was the time I erroneously delivered an entire block of mail.  I was tuckered out from the summer heat.  (Casual City Carriers are not given uniforms.  I was given a hat, which did not fit my massive head, and a lanyard which bobbed and jangled in my face and arms.  Jeans and flannel soon become too toasty from all that walking.)  Somehow my skill for getting lost kicked in and I ended up putting mail in houses a block off target.  When I realized my error, I went back and retrieved what I could.  The doors with mail slots in them were lost to me, but the actual mailboxes were made right.

Did you know there are many variations on where to have a mailbox?  It is infuriating.  Technically, the mailbox does not belong to a resident.  You place a mailbox on your property and that small depository on your land becomes property of the federal government.  It is not actually “yours” anymore.  So you would think they would regulate placement more.  Nope.

I had wicker baskets sitting on a porch as “mailboxes”.  Some were mail slots up several sets of staircases.  I will never understand this, but some had the mailbox on their back door.  They were inviting me to go up to the front of their house, go along the side, and then to the back porch and put the mail there.  Who does that?  Thankfully, carriers make notes to give their substitutes about the wackos and their oddly placed boxes.  Play nice with your mailboxes, folks.

(My own church tried to pull this sort of shenanigans and “move” their mailbox around the block.  Happily, the post office stopped them.)

I could go on.  I could tell you two-months’ worth of stories.  I could tell about the lady who thought I should not cut across here grass.  I could share how a man who did not want me to deliver a parcel because of my overly-casual attire (“Where’s your uniform?” he asked through his door).  I could comment on having to fight to get the day off for my brother’s wedding.  Suffice to say, I quit a month early.  If I had stayed on, or taken the test to become a full-time carrier, I am sure I could have had enough stories to fill a book.

Although, the man did say that I was eligible for rehire.  “You did an okay job while you were here.”  I could always go back…

Nah.  I had my fun.  I got to play outdoors.  Every time the allure of driving around with the door open and the truck rattling along on a bumpy road strikes me, I bring myself back to reality with this somber mental image:  Driving, through snow, with the sheer volume of Amazon packages that have exponentially increased over the years.  Uh, no.  I can guarantee that situation would go horribly awry.

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About anecdotaltales

He's a simple enough fellow. He likes movies, comics, radio shows from the 40's, and books. He likes to write and wishes his cat wouldn't shed on his laptop.
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