Karmic Collision III: Living My Double Life

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?

Richard Wright, author of “Native Son” and other works.

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.

But the post office was also an early target of organized efforts to win more and better-paying jobs for Black Americans. And the relatively higher pay and job security attracted many who were blatantly overqualified.

Former carrier-turned historian Philip Rubio, in his book, There’s Always Work at the Post Office, African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality, fills a couple of pages with a listing of locally prominent and nationally famous Black Americans who worked at the post office, or who were saved from impoverished childhoods by parents who worked there: author Richard Wright, actor/activist Danny Glover, comedian/activist Dick Gregory, former Congressman Charles Rangel and Detroit mayor Coleman Young; these are just a few. Also many activist local NAACP leaders were postal workers or from post office families.

Even so, for many, maybe most, it was a job of consolation, rather than aspiration. Author Wright told an interviewer about many of his colleagues, “They want to become doctors and lawyers, but few make the grade,” given the vicissitudes of work life in racist America.(Rubio, p.3)

Some, in fact, had advanced degrees, but could find no secure work in their professions.  “Though there are no accurate statistics,” reported the November 1949 issue of Ebony magazine, “it is generally conceded that Negroes [in the post office] have a higher educational level than white postal employees. As a result, the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’” (Rubio, p. 4)

Rubio tells a piquant story recounted by George Booth Smith, who became

“Durham [NC]’s first black letter carrier and among the first black postal workers [as] a revealing story of black resistance, [lobbying] ‘clout’ in the nation’s capital, and low-paid black professionals taking postal jobs and becoming labor and civil rights activists.

Smith recalls that while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in library science at historically black North Carolina College for Negroes (NCC, now North Carolina Central University) in Durham in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the noted black activist C. Elwood Boulware, a professor of mathematics, would give students time off to take the postal exam.

Despite high test scores, blacks were never called. But Smith kept noticing whites who had taken the test with him now carrying mail. By the mid-1950s, Smith, who had worked at libraries in Oklahoma, Virginia, and in nearby Raleigh, was tired of commuting:

So after a while, I went back to see [Durham] Postmaster Allen, and he told me: ‘These jobs weren’t for niggers, these jobs were for white high school graduates, why you want to come up here with a master’s degree?’

And then I got mad, and there was a fellow [from Washington] who was in the National Alliance of Postal Employees came through here and he knew [Postmaster General] Summerfield, he worked in Washington, D.C., so he made arrangements for me to see Postmaster General [Arthur] Summerfield, and I went up there and sat in his office and told him what had been said….

So he told me to ‘get that SOB on the phone down there in Durham.’… He told him that he was ‘sending Mr. Smith back to Durham: if he doesn’t have a job when he gets back there, we’ll have a new postmaster [in Durham].’

… I’m just kicking my heels up in the office. I came back to Durham Sunday, had a certified letter waiting, asking if I was available to work. I went up on Monday, and Postmaster Allen ‘just happened to have an opening’ for a clerk/carrier.”

Such mismatches were more frequent with carriers and clerks. But one mail handler spoke to Rubio of a “’class war’” with other crafts that often prompted mail handlers . . . to joke: ‘I’m just a dumb mail handler!’” (Rubio p. 213)

By the time I arrived, the crafts in the large postal facilities had been somewhat integrated; mailhanders came in various colors. Degrees were rare, though aspirations were not. That’s where the double life comes in.

I lost count of how many wannabe musician postal workers I ran into. Writers too. Another colleague bragged like a scholar about his wall-to-wall collection of porn VHS tapes.

But one of the most interesting ones was Vin. I fell to talking with him during a break, when I noticed his tee shirt, which bore a large vintage Coca Cola design.

When I asked about the shirt, it was like pressing a button on a tape player. Vin’s eyes lit up. He said his main pastime  outside work was collecting Coca Cola memora-bilia. And yes, there was a national club for such collectors, with newsletters and local chapters and exhibits and conventions, the whole schmeer.

They had a century’s worth of advertising and promotional marketing to mine, from  countries across the world. And of course, Vin despised the catastrophic “New Coke” rebrand the company had introduced and fumbled in 1985. (Does anyone remember that? It did make for some new and rapidly rare memorabilia.)

This was fun for awhile, but was a pretty narrow field of interest. Yet I’m not one to criticize, because Vin’s other life was no more obscure than mine, and was no less consuming. When mine did occasionally come up, the fact that it had led me to do graduate work at Harvard Divinity School was usually met with shock.

“Really? So, what are you doing working here?” was the typical response.

“Just lucky,” was my standard deflecting reply.  But they were right. Like many others in the building, my body kept up with the mail, but my outside interest took my mind elsewhere.

Where? Regular readers should be able to guess: Quakerism. I was a religious fanatic. Not that I tried to convert anybody; I didn’t leave Quaker brochures in the toilet stalls, and generally avoided religious discussions. With all the background noise and the “long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching,” there wasn’t all that much time for socializing or intellectualizing anyway. During breaks, I typically had my nose in a book, often taking notes.

Notwithstanding the forty hours on the clock, around the conveyors, in those years I was becoming a “public Friend,” sticking my nose into Quaker concerns and events far from northern Virginia.

To this end, while wearing the mail-handlers apron I wrote, published and mailed more than eighty monthly issues of the print edition of A Friendly Letter, (archived here) which I had begun in 1981, to report on the numerous Quaker mini-scandals and scoops, then being notably neglected by “mainstream Friends publications” (as most still are). And it still amazes me to look at the tally and see that I also published a book each year I was at the post office: collections of conference papers; essays, short stories, even a Quaker novel. Some of them actually sold a decent number of copies.

This is not to mention arranging leave to attend yearly meetings, conferences, gatherings, and such; even organized a few. Or committee meetings. (All without email or Zoom.)

The ego in this is obvious enough. But there was another motive, or at least rationale: I was persuaded that, despite our many shortcomings, Quakers as both individuals and a group still had useful work to do in the world, and I was continually engaged in both doing what seemed to be my bit of it, and reporting/commenting on as much of the rest as I could.

Did all this fuss and bother cause friction with my then-wife? Yes. Did I neglect my children because of it? Somewhat, though they were included in as many of the activities as I could manage, which was more than a few.

But again to my colleague’s question of why I was slinging mail: who was going to pay me to be a Quaker pot-stirrer and gadfly? It wasn’t just wages, but also, and essentially, health insurance.  The combination, I saw in some article, yielded a condition called “job lock”: chaining a breadwinner through pay and insurance, to a position which provided them with few practical alternatives. The monthly newsletter brought in subscription checks that covered production and postage; but I wrote it, sometimes spending many hours on an issue, for free. So in return for solvency and health coverage, was Merrifield going to become my personal “graveyard of talent”?

That question felt heavier as the months and years passed. When I first clocked in at Fairfax Station in 1985, Ronald Reagan was still president. I suffered through the balance of his years, then those of George H.W. Bush. I lost sleep when Bush invaded Iraq in Desert Storm, and then endured the months of jingoist celebration of that ersatz “victory.” There were rays of hope when Bush was toppled by Bill Clinton.  I followed these events from the radio, and leaning over the conveyors, chafing all the while. We could do more. I could do more.

It wasn’t that I wanted to be back on Capitol Hill, that center of posture and illusion. Instead, I yearned to be somewhere, working full-tilt, helping dream up and organize Quaker initiatives. Not just  running after the latest media-generated fad-crises, but getting ahead of  them, in new ways that fit the quirky but useful inventiveness Quakers had shown repeatedly in our history. But again, who was going to pay (and insure) me to do that?

Over time, my underlying dismay intensified. I asked Langley Hill Meeting to appoint a clearness committee, to help me explore options. They did; its members were good people, empathetic, but we came up blank.

Then one day there was a tap on my shoulder that sent the whole mess spinning.

More on this soon.

Previous posts:

1- Karmic Collision – I: The Post Office, Voting Rights & Me. Dog Days Reading.

2 – Karmic Collision-II: Lab Rats and the Road Not Taken

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