The first time I heard the Jeff Bezos Apology story, it was from my big brother just the other day, and I immediately thought: No way.
There is just no way Jeff Bezos publicly apologized. And he simply could not possibly be dumb enough to do what he had allegedly apologized for.
Not that he’s some paragon or guru or the Dalai Lama of Prime. Most of the bad things people say about his Amazon empire are true, and I kept rooting for the union drive at his Alabama warehouse right til the organizers drove off the cliff.
But this other story, new to me, was so ridiculous that it had to be one of those floating internet legends. Had to be.
I mean, sure, sometimes Amazon gets caught with its corporate pants down; or at least unzipped. Take its initial dismissal earlier this month of the charge that many Amazon delivery drivers are so driven that some have to pee in bottles to stay on their inhuman schedules.
It’s Opening Day, and I have a confession to make.
It’s not an April Fool.
Here it is:
it’s Opening Day, and I don’t care.
And I’m not sure why.
Is it part of the pandemic hangover, part of the “Old Normal” that was ripped away from us a year ago, now lost somewhere amid the endless charts and graphs of debility and deaths? The exhaustion of these masked months continues, and has left me no spare “disk space” for wondering about trades and predictions and highlight reels.
Or is it another side effect of surviving the long brutal years of 45? That could be a big part of it. As the renegade Republican sage Rick Wilson put it in his first best-seller, Everything T—— Touches Dies. His reign certainly sucked the pleasure out of so many other things. The toxicity of this anti-Midas touch was clearly in evidence by October 2019. That’s when the White House Occupant paid his sole visit to a game. Sports Illustratedtold it plainly:
“President Donald T—— was greeted with loud boos from the crowd at Game 5 of the World Series between the Nationals and Astros on Sunday.
T——was shown on the big screen at Nationals Park during the team’s salute to veterans after the third inning. Fans in attendance loudly yelled “lock him up,” a chant T—— supporters began in 2016 directed at his opponent and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. . . .
T—— did not sit with the Lerner family, the principal owners of the Nationals. According to WUSA, a representative for the Lerner family requested that MLB not put the family in a position to turn down a request from the White House to sit with Trump.
Except T——, every president since William Taft in 1910 has thrown out a ceremonial first pitch, either for Opening Day, the All-Star Game or the World Series. In 2010, President Obama threw out the first pitch on Opening Day at Nationals Park to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Presidential Opening Day first pitches.
According to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, T—— decided not to throw out the ceremonial first pitch “in order to make the fan experience as positive as possible.”
Sunday marked T——‘s first [and last] major league game since he took office in 2017. [Note: Trigger word emended as a public health measure.]
There’s not much left on my personal bucket list. That’s especially true when the dreamiest, yet most implausible items (e. g., hitting a homer against baseball’s Evil Empire in Yankee Stadium) are subtracted.
But one hope, after so many decades, still dances tantalizingly on my horizon: living to see a king of England named after me.
Chuck The Third. By the grace of God, yada yada.
Not, let me hasten to add, that I fantasize about being king in his place. The royals are periodically interesting to watch, but would be purgatory to be. I’d rather be stuck preparing a tally of all the times You-Know-Who said “incredible” to describe something he knew absolutely squat about.
Nor am I counting down the days. After all, I know his queenly Mum is merely 94 & evidently immortal.
But still, it could happen, in my remaining span. I turn 78 next week, and that’s old enough to have seen the Cubs and the Red Sox win the World Series, and Mike Pence lose a race for re-election as Veep.
And just in time to put more flies in the ointment, the hit Netflix series “The Crown,” I gather, has been doing its best to besmirch my royal namesake as the Bad Guy of Balmoral, the Weasel of Westminster, the Cad of all the Castles, not to mention the Doom of Diana.
One of the advantages of age is finding old jokes one has forgotten about, so they’re new again. Like these Quaker gems that just turned up:
The Clerk had just worked through an extended monthly business meeting, where unified decisions were hard to come by.
After a long silent pause, she glanced down at the agenda.
“I believe we have one more item,” she said, “a report on the new Queries. Is the committee ready with a final draft?”
A Male Friend of a certain age stood up. His expression was a bit sheepish. “Clerk, please,” he said, “I don’t think we’re quite finished, but we did come to unity on sharing some newly-proposed ones.”
“Very well,” Abraham,” the Clerk said, as he unfolded a sheet of paper. “Proceed.”
Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:
One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me; I wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or
Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.
Post Office work is more than drudgery. It’s honest, productive work, an integral part of what keeps our society going.
I kept reminding myself of that. But I often wondered: do many children in the United States daydream about growing up and getting a job as a mail handler?
I doubt it. Maybe a few want to be letter carriers. Or even postal clerks, like an admired parent or role model.
Mailhandlers are semiskilled laborers. Google was unable to find me any history of the job, or craft in postal lingo.
But it looks like it was an example of “occupational segregation,” which was long rampant in the post office, like everywhere else in the U.S. Mail handlers filled a space between carriers on the outside, and clerks on the inside, lower in status than either.
On Google, the mailhandler’s “Functional Purpose” reads “Responsible for loading, unloading, and moving mail by the bulk. Duties may include long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching. Candidates may also handle mail containers weighing up to 70 pounds.”
Was such a space filled originally by Black workers, who were excluded from other crafts? The fact that I can’t find an answer to that query suggests it was.
[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]
For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.
This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.
Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.
I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.
How did this come about? Who knew?
I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.
That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.
Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.
For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:
I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages.
The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation. [2021 Update: the company still exists; lab rats are still dying for our sins.]
Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.
I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.
By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me. [Update: I hear that the FBIS has since disappeared into some bureaucratic slot in the spy world; but one hopes the agencies are still paying some attention to the rest of the world.]
One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.
In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.
As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–
— But first, some explanation.
My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot. He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.
In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.
And I almost did.
Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.
But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)
If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.
But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.
How many of us get a chance to do that?
I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.
The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.
I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.
Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.
The retired could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.
Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”
Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”
And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.
The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.