Comfortable and Furious

The United States Postal Service: Why It Must Be Saved Edition

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When I was a kid, I went to grade school with a kid named Greg. His dad was a mailman. We all thought that was lame as fuck, and we used to harass him about it all the time. In a gym class locker room full of the sons of railroaders and General Dynamics plant workers, a third-grader will assume that being a mailman is a goofy, dopey job, right? What else would explain all those talk show jokes about “going postal” that were surprisingly mainstream at the time, despite being premised upon mass shootings? So, armed with little in the way of understanding short of the Mr. McFeely character on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, hucking a baseball at Greg’s face whilst yelling “speedy delivery!” was the height of comedy.

Yeah, I was kind of an asshole back then. Let me start over. Postal workers have taken it in the nuts for decades, for some reason. The whole Newman character on Seinfeld, the most successful sitcom of all time, was modeled on a lazy, obese, and vindictive sociopath who pined for a woman who reviled him. He kidnapped innocent dogs as a sort of missionary hobby. Later that night, another one of the most popular TV shows in American history brought you Cliff Clavin, an alcoholic loudmouth too stupid to cash in on a small fortune essentially delivered to him by the grace of God on a manufactured episode of Jeopardy! Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 2, Sinbad in Jingle All the Way, you get the point. Letter carriers, despite being noble civil servants, have been cultural punchlines since I was pitching their sons high and inside for no good reason, right around when Van Halen got ruined and everything else seemingly followed suit.

Yet no sin goes unremembered, my friends. No wrong that the universe won’t make right. And that is how, at the malleable age of 25 – the peak of my youthful exuberance and sexual prowess, mind you – I became a mailman.

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Now, let’s be careful. I wasn’t a real mailman. I never got to rock the ludicrously uncomfortable double-cotton twill you might be picturing from your youth. I was what is referred to as a “casual carrier,” which is, some 20 years later, apparently referred to as a “casual mail handler” now. The position was a byproduct of the postal workers’ unions CBAs, which stated that during certain peak seasons, the USPS could hire non-union help, but only if we answered to the actual (unionized) hierarchy, and only if we were fired, by mandate, after 89 days, i.e. one day before any benefits would actually vest. 

But sweet Jesus the money was good. I don’t remember the actual hourly rate, but it was like 15 dollars and change, per fucking hour, and double that if you did express deliveries on Sundays. Mind you, this was year 2000 money, which in the grand scheme of real wages actually doesn’t make much of a difference, but to a 25-year-old recklessly blowing $18.99 a pop on Big Tymers CDs and relying on his mother to buy “turkey mignon” in bulk to stay alive, it was a Goddamned fortune.

And hey, it wouldn’t be an article published in 2020 if we didn’t have some discussion about privilege, right? Well, guilty as charged. My dad was one hell of a poker player and perhaps an even better drinker and so it came to be that he wound up sitting across a round table from the postmaster of a medium-sized rust belt town, himself an enjoyer of the darker liquors, long after their wives would have badgered them relentlessly had cell phones been a thing back then. The last two men with chips, Dad bests the poor bastard with a fucking pair of tens.

The poor postmaster finds himself on his ass with nothing to pot and even less to charm, given his empty wallet and emptier bottle of Cutty Sark. Slurred discussions ensue, threats commence, transform into negotiations, and before too long the future prince of the Ruthless gambling vertical gets to bank a few bones before he heads off to law school in the fall. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t fair. In reality, nothing is fair. I can’t credibly express regret because I didn’t have anything to do with the machinations, but I can also credibly state that it wasn’t exactly a white kid thing. It was a multi-racial working class card game, after all. It’s not like a lousy pair of tens will seek out the whitest guy at the table.

So yeah, one week and one mysteriously dog-eared application later, I find myself at the post office, “interviewing” for a job I was gifted in a card game. I was immediately hired, given some form of basic mental acuity test that apparently qualifies me to be president these days, and presented with a trucker hat that said “WE DELIVER” in embossed gold letters. I know the kids call them “snapbacks” now, and they somehow survived their hipster phase when people in northern Brooklyn would go out of their way to look as stupid as possible, but those hats will always be an abomination. You either look like an abusive stepfather or a back-half-of-the-rotation starter for the 81 Mariners. I literally threw it in their own garbage can on the way out of the building.

I do remember one other thing from my screening or interview or indoctrination or what have you, though. The guy who schooled me was a postal clerk – not a letter carrier, which amounts to a big difference in that world, as discussed infra – and he pointed out the very real fact that USPS delivers packages anywhere in America, inclusive of Hawaii and Alaska. If you live hundreds of miles away from a hub, UPS and FedEx will indeed tell you to pound sand. But in all honesty the importance was lost to me, because to this day I can remember is the way he said “United Parcel,” the name postal workers use to refer to UPS. He said “United Parcel” the way people refer to their kids’ step-parents. “Good luck getting Brett to show up in Glasgow, Montana!”

So, what happens when you get baptized into America’s most trusted and well-regarded governmental entity? Well, it sucks. For about a week, anyway. You spend your first week or two “spreading mail,” which means sorting the letters that the sorting machine didn’t pick up and delivering them to the carriers that need to deliver them. Though apparently, the Trump administration has recently decided to just toss the sorting machines that cost millions of dollars into dumpsters for some mysterious reason, so perhaps the workload is different in that regard.

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Back then, however, the idea behind making the kids spread mail for a couple weeks was basically to wash people out. You answer to real postal clerks, for the most part, though if you fuck up enough times you could hear it from the carriers. Wait, I should make the distinction here: the people who work in the post office, meaning the people who help you at the window, and the people behind them, those are clerks. The people who actually bring your mail to your house are called carriers. Clerks and carriers have a sort of friendly, quirky rivalry, similar to when veterans of different branches of the service drink together at a bar. 

There is no outright hostility, and everyone realizes that they’re on the same team, but in my experience carriers sneer at clerks because they don’t undergo the very real physical toll of carrying dozens of pounds of mail every day, while clerks point out that they have to deal with the sometimes irate and disproportionately senile public inside of a musty pre-war building with oak phone booths and decades of smoke stains on the wall. Also, most clerks don’t get Christmas cards stiffened with fast food gift certificates or cold hard cash. As a casual, I wasn’t really part of the discussion, but I can tell you that over the span of a mere 89 days, I heard at least three clerks make the joke that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will prevent a postal clerk from getting to his station warm and dry,” and every single time the other clerks would react like they were hearing Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip for the first time.

So, as previously stated, casuals start out spreading mail under the direction of real, full-time clerks. Clerks are disproportionately black, mostly female, and a lot of them are veterans, thanks to USPS’ admirable veteran outreach hiring program. This leads to the type of coworker banter that would instantly get you cancelled online, but is familiar to everyone who has ever actually worked for a living at some point in their lives. I was once chided by a superior, who I will call “Keesha” for purposes of both anonymity and affect, for allegedly “brown-nosing” with a higher-up on the floor. This led to a nuanced discussion about race in America that I’m not going to recreate here for the sake of going viral, but trust me, for the rest of the day I may as well have been the one white guy they used to occasionally sit in the front row at Def Comedy Jam.

If you can spread mail for a couple of weeks without a catastrophic fuck-up, eventually you start to carry some mail. This is the de facto purpose of the casual carrier, because the carriers with seniority like to take their union-earned vacations in the summer months. I did a few supervised rounds with actual USPS carriers before I was allowed to go out by myself, as was the policy. This was interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, you’re literally useless, just walking behind an actual mailman for no distinct purpose. If you’ve ever seen two people – one in an actual USPS uniform, the other in plain clothes looking like the world’s least-ambitious groupie – delivering mail together in your neighborhood for no conceivable reason, now you know why.

The other memory is a bit more not nefarious, really? base? Ignoble? But before I tell the story, let me be clear. Nothing happened. I’m not a victim. I don’t wish anyone any ill will whatsoever. I mostly just feel bad for the guy. But I should explain. This 89-day period in my life coincided with my retirement as a post-grad, barely-not-pro-level athlete. I was 6-foot-something, 200-something, with maybe 4% body fat. I was fairly shredded too, and I am including a photo not to be a narcissist but for context to the story.

So, one of my supervised rounds was with a carrier in his mid-30s. Decent looking guy, probably a six if you were interested in guys. He drove a cherry red fourth-gen Corvette, which even then would come off as a bit try-hard in cosmopolitan terms but still qualified as cool in the aforementioned medium-sized rust belt town. On this day, he absolutely blew through his route, delivering half a day’s mail in about 90 minutes. He said it was time for lunch, and damned if he didn’t live right nearby, in a decent-looking middle class house where he lived alone.

Some of this is going to make me sound dense, but it’s the absolute, God’s honest truth. He made some food. He offered me beer, which I declined thinking it was some sort of test. He bragged about the Vette. He complimented my physique. Repeatedly. And good Lord did he want to show him his home gym. It was full of trash, specifically those 80s Orbatron Challenger weights covered in grey plastic that would crack and leave sand on your floor if you dropped them. Then he started lifting in front of me, grunting as he benched these kiddie weights while asking me, who still worked out in a Big Ten college weight room, what I thought of his setup. I was as polite as possible. He never crossed any line. He eventually gave up and we finished the rest of the route while barely speaking. I felt so bad when I put the whole thing together. Lord willing, he’s still alive and on Grindr meeting all sorts of new people. Or better yet, out and proud and doing whatever he wants.

Regardless, I made it through the supervised phase. Even the Corvette guy played fair and gave me his seal of approval, though I suppose he could have dinged me for my incredible naivete. So, for the rest of the summer of 2000, I was an honest-to-God, not official but nevertheless authorized-to-do-so mailman. It was the hardest job I ever had. 

You learn certain things very quickly. For one thing, you must dress the part. Technically, casual carriers weren’t held to any sort of dress code beyond “clean and presentable,” and I knew enough not to show up in a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. However, the industrial midwest is, then as now, fully cognizant of its Second Amendment rights, and it’s not a fantastic idea to go romping onto someone’s porch uninvited for any reason, even if you’re dressed like a Mormon. Especially if you’re dressed like a Mormon, in certain areas.

So, I quickly hit up every Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul store in the vicinity and cleaned them out of red, white and blue knits and shorts. I also learned to carry my USPS-issued mailbag the wrong way, meaning that if you or I were to carry a gym bag with a shoulder strap, we’d carry it with the bag resting or bouncing behind us, or on the hip as opposed to the groin. It only takes one heavily-accented “who the fuck are you?” followed by the racking of a shotgun to convince you to display that U.S. MAIL and eagle logo more prominently than House of Pain did in the “Jump Around” video. And yes, I soon recognized the squandered value of that ugly-ass hat.

I also started wearing rubber gloves on day two or three of my route. Here again comes the privilege, as my mom worked in the A.V. Department of a hospital. Thus, not only could she hook my friends up with a Nintendo in their hospital rooms after, she could boost enough boxes of gloves to safely recreate Hands Across America in the present day. The gloves were important because handling paper for eight hours a day sponges every drop of moisture out of your skin, leading to OCD-adjacent thumb-licking and blisters. Take it from me; specks of blood on a Mother’s Day card tend to take the charm out of the gesture.

Finally: dog treats. I am not lying when I say that this may have been the cleverest thing I’ve ever conceptualized in my entire life. During the orientation, they cautioned you about the dogs. When you spread mail to carriers, they would warn you about the dogs. When you did the supervised rounds, they would point out the houses with the dogs. When they gave you the official USPS please-don’t-shoot-me mailbag, they gave you pepper spray for the dogs. But I could never pepper spray a dog.

So, in conversation with my mother, possibly centered around stolen rubber gloves or turkey mignon, it was decided that I would be the world’s first dog-friendly mailman. This being 2000, I bought a giant bag of cheap ass Milk Bone knockoffs, probably made in China and full of yak hooves, stuff I wouldn’t feed my dog on a bet now, but with the best of intentions at that time.

And it worked! I was wildly popular amongst the dogs on my various routes. See, the thing about dogs and mailmen is that they smell them every day, but never see or interact with them. I gave a yak hoof to every dog at every house on every block every day and before too long, I got greeted and licked and thanked in all sorts of ways. People would even comment on how their dogs would get antsy waiting for me on the route. I know this is a bit of an overshare but I swear to God, the few minutes I spent goofing around with those dogs are probably among the best memories I have from that whole summer. 

I was only charged by one dog, one time. I was on the south side of the city, which I’m deliberately buzz-wording to indicate that my weird little steer-on-the-wrong-side truck may have been parked on a street named after Adam Clayton Powell or Martin Luther King. Those deliveries can sometimes be contentious because the folks who lived there often received checks right around the first of the month, and would be dismayed if they didn’t come on time. This is completely understandable – the legacy of racial inequality in this country is unforgivable and people who are underwater need and deserve those benefits, no matter their color – but for what it’s worth, those checks are First-Class mail, and as such are always delivered the very day the mailman is able to deliver them. I suppose, theoretically, there could be a situation where someone with a bigoted agenda messed with the normal process, but I never saw anything like that. Carriers are proud of delivering mail, on time, as soon as possible.

So anyway, lucky me, it’s June or July 2, 2000, and this pit bull comes raging toward me. He’s young, probably only 45 pounds, so from my vantage point he’s all tongue and head. But he’s cruising, and I’d never seen him before, so we don’t have our yak hoof rapport. So just as I’m eyeing the best big-body Pontiac with aftermarket rims to leap on top of, the little bastard tucks his ass like Chase Utley taking out Ruben Tejada in the 2015 NLCS, and slides in belly-up, looking for scratches and kisses. My heart just melted. I hooked my mailbag strap to his collar and walked him back to the address listed on his license, some three blocks away. His family were so appreciative that we split up one bowl, two racks of ribs, and four ears of corn directly off of the grill (except for the bowl, kind of). I still remember the taste, two decades on.

The rest of that summer was more of the same. I was just trying to bank money for law school, so my social life sort of revolved around work. And it was hard, believe me. Mail weighs a ton, especially on Mother’s Day, or Publishers Clearing House day, or when some opportunistic pyramid scheme or religious cult decides to send some fake ass three-pound magazine to every sucker unfortunate to wind up on a mailing list. You might have an older, out-of-shape carrier to deliver to your house. Believe me, do not try that dude. He may look soft, but that guy has been lugging around hundreds of pounds of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues since Kathy Ireland was on the cover. 

And yeah, from a distance, the whole letter carrier ethos is a bit over serious. I once had an ex-Marine clerk call me into an office only to insist that he and I go see Metallica when they were announced to be coming through on tour, probably because of my hair. I remember him saying, in that weird military staccato, “August first, such-and-such arena, gotta do it!” Those aren’t even sentences, of course, but I knew what he meant, and that his intentions were different from Corvette guy. Probably, anyway. And this was like “Load” Metallica. “S&M” Metallica. And I don’t even like what some people consider to be the “good” Metallica. But the guy was being nice. He was trying to find a common bond. Because, with very few exceptions, the USPS people are really nice people.

One more story. Toward the end I wound up getting assigned to a suburb. This meant taking a big hit in the free weed department but also meant you could wrap up your route in way less time and still clock the same number of hours by just picking up mail from the big blue boxes in the afternoon, i.e. driving my little mail jeep like Bubba fucking Wallace in between boxes and then just chilling there for 20-30 minutes until the pickup time came. 

Yeah, I know. Look, it’s government work. I’d have been stupid not to exploit the inefficiencies and you would have done the same thing. It’s not like I’m shattering any illusions here.

So anyway, because I’m working in the suburbs, I have to drive the mail to the suburbs from the main post office before sunup. And one morning, we’re just crushed by a bunch of crates of bulk rate crap. It was some newspaper thing, but all bullshit. Just ads, but crate after crate of it in front of the first-class mail. So, realizing I need to make two trips anyway, I load up all of the bulk rate newspapers first and drive those to the suburbs. As I get ready to head back to the main office to get the First-Class mail, one the veteran carriers says “maybe bring us some real mail next time?” 

That carrier wasn’t being a dick. I know this because he backed me up after a guy named Moran, who sent his mother’s birthday card the day before her birthday and then addressed it incorrectly called to complain that it came late, and he kept saying “yes Mr. Moron, I’ll see to it he’s disciplined Mr. Moron.” Nor was he looking out for his own time, because he couldn’t leave until all of the mail was sorted, whether the First Class or the bulk bullshit arrived first. He was razzing me because he cared about his route, and he figured if he was going to spend time sorting mail for his customers, he should be spending his time making sure they got their prescriptions, or their bills, or their cards on schedule, before he had to worry about them getting ads for hell, I don’t know, George Foreman grills or waxed denim or Blue (be-da-bee) ringtones or whatever the hell else people sold to people back in 2000.

Because the people who carry your mail bust their asses and they care about you. Their job is an element of one of the greatest public works ever conceived in this country. Over 600,000 people work for USPS and it’s one of the last good jobs that working class people can get and use to build a life for themselves. And they continue to do their jobs under relentless pressure from politicians from both parties who see the postal service not as a public good, but a “big government program” defenseless from the arrows of greedy people who seek to privatize it for their own gain.

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As crummy it was for third-grade me to harass a kid because his dad was a mailman, it’s 10,000 times worse for Trump or any other elected representative to pick on the USPS as a whole, whether that be a crippling 2006 law that requires it to pre-fund pensions 75 years in advance, or destroying million-dollar machines that are the very definition of efficiency by throwing them into a dumpster in order to sabotage an election.

We need to fight like hell to save the United States Postal Service. With the possible exceptions of the highway system or rural electrification, there is no comparable government program that has benefited as many people. There is literally no way to know what kind of country we would be without it. I would know. I deliver[ed]!



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