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.
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.
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.
This just in: a lawsuit filed against Friends Central School (FCS) in Philadelphia in 2017 by two teachers who were fired after a Palestinian speaker they invited in February 2017 was disinvited by school officials. The order of settlement is below. (More text follows.)
The speaker, Sa’ed Atshan, teaches at Swarthmore College. FCS Students protested, walked out, were ignored. The Philadelphia Daily News slammed the administration action:
Philadelphia Daily News: Friends’ Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker
“ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source – a Quaker school.
Last week, the head of Friends’ Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying – in effect – that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.
Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded “our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.”
We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends’ Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.”
The teachers’ attorney, Mark Schwartz, filed for many documents to begin discovery. At some point, the school chose to negotiate, and the settlement was entered earlier this month, more than three years after it was filed.
The terms of the settlement were not announced. Schwartz’s full statement in response to my query was: “NDA.” That is, “nondisclosure agreement.” I speculate that it was a generous amount of money, enough to move the plaintiffs to agree to keep quiet about it.
In the world of employment lawsuits, such settlements are generally counted as a qualified success: at least the plaintiffs have something for their trouble, and interrupted or terminated career.
For the record: Here is a list of the blog posts on the Friends Central School lawsuit:
“This is a hard step to take,” Jane says. “But the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated financial challenges for virtually all colleges and universities nationwide. We have to recognize and respond to these challenges.”
Personnel losses include 45 staff employees and 5 visiting faculty, approximately 15 percent of Guilford’s workforce. The College will continue to offer the degree programs that have attracted students from across the country for decades, along with the Guilford Edge, a reimagined educational experience focused on uncommon engagement in real-world learning.
“Our singular focus at this point is ensuring a great academic year for our students. And that begins with the safe and successful opening of campus next month. We look forward to welcoming our students, both new and returning, home to campus,” Jane says.
[End of statement. Our call to Guilford requesting details of the cuts was not returned.]
[UPDATE, Wednesday 9:45 AM-a source reports that as many as 40 names of Guilford staff are on the list of cuts. More when we have it . . .]
“Over the past year and a half while dreaming about how I might create the next chapter of my career and life, I was considering stepping down, probably in 2022.
Now with the increasing uncertainty of our altered reality that this pandemic is causing, Ithink it best to complete some of the hard decisions we need to make, assist the Board of Trustees with a transition, and allow another leader to envision and implement the structural adjustments in higher education that undoubtedly will follow this crisis.”
The “structural adjustments,” aka job cuts due to “our altered reality,” reportedly began on June 30, with email notices of job terminations. This is a developing story, and we do not yet have a confirmed list of how many job cuts have been made, but credible sources indicate they are underway.
While the specifics of the job cuts are not yet clear, in an earlier post, we cited this report from April 3, 2020, in the Greensboro News Record:
GREENSBORO — Its campus empty through the rest of the spring semester, Guilford College has furloughed 133 full-time and part-time staff employees for the next two months. Slightly more than half of the college’s 250 non-faculty employees were notified Thursday (April 2) that they would have to take unpaid time off from work through at least June 1, President Jane Fernandes said in an interview Friday.
Furloughs were ordered in all campus areas except among professors, who are teaching classes remotely through May.
Send news leads on this developing story to our secure encrypted email address: oldmustang (at) pm.me
(NOTE: Friend William Bartram, traveling by canoe alone, somewhere in Florida, circa 1773. Considering the dangers he faced here, I ponder on the fact that this was still what he most wanted to do, what he felt was his leading. (A relatively long read, 4400 words. I have divided some of his long sentences & longer paragraphs, for modern readers. The spelling is original.)
Human & Animal Hunting
From Bartram’s Travels, by William Bartram, 1791:
I AM sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet whichimplies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary action without any premeditated design or contrivance, this we term instinct which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.
In the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, there’s an episode which is called “Things Fall Apart.” It appears to center on an incident of violence during the January, 1968 Tet Offensive that produced one of the most unforgettable images of the war. This image still produces intense reactions. Indeed, this photo was back on the front pages after that Ken Burns episode.
And I have something to say about that.
Not commentary, exactly, or film criticism. More of a footnote. A real-life footnote. It’s not in Burns’s documentary, and I’ve changed a name or two. But what follows is as true as when I lived it. I’ve called it “The Secret Life of Pizza,”and the connection to Vietnam will be clear enough in short order.