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.
First, some background.
The mail is a stream.
That’s one of the first things I learned when I began work for the Postal Service (USPS) in November, 1985.
The mail is not like a stream. It IS a stream, albeit not wet. It flows, the way a river does.
When I moved to the large regional mail processing center in Merrifield, Virginia a year later, this fact was familiar.
All day long, big tractor trailers backed into dozens of docks at the East end of that vast hangar-like building, and unlatched their back doors; then mail came gushing out.
Yes it was in bundles, parcels, and big grey sacks. But it still poured in. I was once told that six million pieces streamed in there every day; I didn’t doubt the figure.
Along the building’s long north side, other trucks were filled with outbound mail, much headed to local addresses, the rest aimed across the nation and over the nearby Atlantic ocean.
This stream ebbed and flowed, heaviest from early afternoon until past midnight. Local post offices closed up at 5 PM; but Merrifield never stopped: it ran three eight-hour shifts, 24/7/365.
Such a stream is relentless. If its course is obstructed, it piles up, the way rainwater turns streets into instant ponds or flash floods when storm drains get clogged.
On a vastly smaller scale, such a clog had happened on Northern Virginia’s mail route #77, in Fairfax Station, a small office in a minor strip mall about thirteen miles southwest of Merrifield.
Two months earlier, the regular carrier, Carl, had fallen off a motorbike and hurt his shoulder. After surgery, rehab was ongoing but slow, and he would be out for weeks or maybe months more.
About that time, I saw a notice in the main Fairfax post office. It said they were looking to hire some substitute rural carriers, official title Rural Carrier Relief, a “sub” for short. It was part-time, but a good hourly rate. Applicants needed a car.
I had a car, and I needed work. In 1981, after two-plus years on a congressional staff, my boss had stepped down and his staff was let go. So it goes.
I didn’t mourn the loss. It took battalions of reporters & news cameras to sustain the illusion that Congress was a nonstop hybrid of high drama and soap opera. In fact, most of its work was arcane and tedious.
(Tell me, Friend, do you have strong opinions on U. S. maritime policy? Me neither. But that’s what I had labored over diligently and anonymously in those two years. It was important in its obscure legislative corner; and there are hundreds more such. In truth, my biggest struggle on Capitol Hill was with boredom.)
I was one of the very few staffers there who seemed to have natural antibodies to the plague known as “Potomac Fever.” Yes, we need a Congress in order to be a democracy; but two years in its realm was plenty for me.
The one thing I did miss was the paychecks. After the pink slip, I stretched D.C.’s generous unemployment payments as far as they could go; I did some freelance writing; published a couple of books; went to many Quaker committee meetings. But I had a wife and four kids, and by mid-1985, I was going broke. So at the Fairfax post office I filled out a form and got an appointment.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was following a path well-worn by the tracks of Black Americans, over several generations, seeking a doorway into the middle class. I had been middle class on The Hill, hopped out, and was now trying to find my way back in.
I was ready for a change, and I got one.
Meanwhile, six mornings a week, before dawn, trucks from Merrifield were bringing dozens of trays and sacks of mail, along with wheeled containers filled with parcels, to the single dock of the Fairfax Station post office.
Two or three distribution clerks hauled the mail inside, and set about rapidly sorting the trays of first class mail into metal slots by route.
In November, 1985, I joined the rural carriers, who showed up at 7 AM. We took the first class mail from the clerks and “threw” it into scores of thin metal slots, on the shelves of an upright sorting case, each marked with a name & address, arranged in the order they were to be delivered.
Once the letter mail was “cased,” we “pulled it down” from the slots, bound it with rubber bands, and stuck these bundles back into letter trays, again in delivery order. These, along with parcels and any certified or registered mail, were all stacked carefully into our cars (only the most senior carrier then had a USPS van), and set off for delivery.
Sorting and pulling down typically filled much of the morning; lunch was squeezed into a few minutes before we left.
Delivery took two to four more hours, creeping along the edge of the winding semi-rural roads, flashers blinking to warn off traffic behind us, stopping at each box. Since steering, gas pedal and brakes were on the left side of the car, while the boxes were outside on the passenger side, we sat splayed in the middle of the front seats, driving with left hand & foot, stretching to open the boxes with our right.
We were supposed to be back at the office, finished and ready to clock out, by about 3 PM; eight hours start to finish, weather permitting. Somewhere, anonymous postal bean counters were monitoring and “adjusting” the routes, purportedly so we could deliver the mail on time, while driving safely, and on a tight schedule. Yeah, right.
The regular carriers could do it. I straggled in their wake for nearly a year, and never once came close to finishing a route on time.
I never came close for two main reasons. First, because the mail stream had backed up and pooled around the Route #77 sorting case for two months since Carl’s accident. Some stacks of trays were nearly as tall as me. It took many weeks to clear up the backlog.
And second, delivering mail is quite properly called a craft, a set of skills which takes months or years of practice to learn. And I came to it completely cold.
If Route #77’s mail stream had been an actual pool I was wading into, really I should have drowned.
Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to swim before I paddled. I was coached, asked questions, and in time I did get better. Ultimately I was able to finish the route, if not on time, at least within sight of it. Besides, I got paid by the hour.
Carl’s return kept getting delayed. I kept plying the route, through the snows of winter, spring’s unfolding, the sweltering summer (that was the worst), and into the next autumn’s colors.
There were slow periods when mail was light and I was sent home early, with less than a day’s pay. I chafed at that; and when I heard that the big mail center at Merrifield would be hiring some of what they called mail handlers, which could become fulltime slots, guaranteed forty hours weekly, with maybe overtime, I took the test and scored high enough to make the initial cut, even though I lacked the boost of extra points they gave to military veterans.
I was then told to report to a training room at Merrifield to take a skill exam.
What was that? I asked warily.
A test of whether you really had the skills to do the job. Like, mechanics have to fix a truck engine. Electricians do wiring . . .
And mail handlers do what? I pressed, getting nervous.
Don’t sweat it. They move mail. (But don’t we all?) You’ll see.
I sweated it anyway; I’m built that way, and walked into the training room.
It was mostly empty, except for a supervisor with a clipboard. I glanced around. At the other end of the room, a single grey mail sack, the #2 medium size, stood, full of something, the rope at the top cinched tight through the grommets.
Okay, said the supervisor, go pick up that sack.
Now carry it over here.
There was maybe 70-80 pounds of mail or something in it. It was heavy, but I carried it.
Now set it down.
I did, as carefully as I could.
Okay, that’s it, the supervisor said. He told me to report for work that Friday, at 3 PM. I guessed that meant I passed.
Friday was October 31, Halloween, 1986. I was reminded of that fact when a roomful of us newbies finished doing more paperwork and were conducted out onto the noisy, cavernous workroom floor for an introductory safety talk.
It was delivered deadpan by a tall black female supervisor, dressed in a flowing black robe, wearing a green rubber witch’s mask, and a pointed black hat.
“Welcome to Merrifield,” she said.
I listened carefully.
As for the mail stream, where Fairfax Station was a creek, Merrifield was a major river: the Potomac, or maybe even the Ohio. Six million pieces flowed in each day, went the story, and six million had to flow out.
I quickly settled into its routine: clock in, move mail; breaks, lunch, move mail; clock out, forget about moving mail. Often tedious; but no worse than most of my time on The Hill. In fact, overall, less tedious.
And soon I learned about the post office double life phenomenon.
More on that soon, maybe tomorrow.