Save the Post Office: A Personal Essay

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Kendall, FL post office employee, 2011

I’m not sure about the ethics of sharing this picture of a one-time employee of a Kendall, Florida branch of the United States Post Office, but I do have only wonderful things to say about him. He let me take the picture. I remember documenting this moment, because it was so emotional for me.

Most of us are scared about certain aspects of the Donald Trump presidency. At the top of my list has been the prospect that he would 1) turn national parks into Trump golf courses and 2) abolish the postal service, which seems to be happening. Sorry, those are my big things! While it is clear that the Constitution doesn’t allow Trump to abolish the postal service, it is also clear that he and his predecessors don’t really care about that document.

I’ve always loved the post office. I love the institution. I love the old-fashioned aesthetic of stamps, envelopes, and mini-trucks with no doors. I love the smell of mail. I love how I can use the office supplies at post offices. I love how some things still cost under a dollar. I love how the post office is in service to people of all walks of life equally and, until recently, very effectively. I grew up with a ton of pen pals, including the kids I met in math camp that helped me emotionally manage the terrible school year. The mail has resonance for me. I loved every postal employee I’ve met, and none have seemed even slightly “postal.” I’ve wanted to be a postal employee, because I love walking. I loved the Project Runway postal outfit challenge.

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When design meets socialism

The post office has been there for me a few times in my life, but one time felt particularly pivotal. So I want to share that story, as a love letter to the institution. I put it into the ether, in the hopes that my voice will contribute to the chorus of postal love and help save this institution.

First, this is a story about my family. I took the picture of the postal worker in May 2011 on a trip home to see my parents. I was just starting to document my life back then, although my life really wasn’t that interesting. A few years before, I had run away from the interesting part, leaving behind my family and history on the east coast to move to Los Angeles. During those first few years in LA, I was inexplicably happy, healthy, dating, very employed, and creatively fulfilled — so not that interesting, as noted.

I had a therapist, to whom I discussed my dating life obsessively. Sometimes she would push me to dig deeper, into my family dynamics and childhood. I would say, “This is what’s on my mind right now. I’m paying you to be my audience. Advice not needed. I don’t pay you to make me uncomfortable!” She was so nosy.

But then occasionally, I would break down crying in her office because my parents wanted to visit me for three weeks. I did want to see them. I loved my parents. We were close, and I wasn’t close to many people. But three weeks was too long. And when I tried to explain to my parents that I couldn’t halt my very busy life for that long, they would offer four weeks as a solution.

“That way, we’re just there, in Los Angeles. You don’t have to see us everyday.” (They retired young.) But it wouldn’t work that way. I would be wracked with guilt every day I didn’t see them. I would see them more than I should, and by week four, we’d probably be driven to assaulting or murdering each other.

My childhood wasn’t the best, but I had thought we had all worked past that. My parents were funny, fun, and generous, at least for the first two weeks. We were evidently co-dependent, and I may have partly moved far away from Miami to see who else I could be outside of that relationship.

My mom could be a lot, with intense mood swings, and I couldn’t always handle them. Sometimes, she put them on me; sometimes my dad put her moods on me; and sometimes, I just took them on myself, while she was just expressing her feelings. Talking to my parents could cheer me up or sink me down at that time in my life, and I didn’t feel in control of it. I was an adult, I swear.

My mom also wasn’t the best with boundaries. In college, once, she wanted to stay in my dorm overnight. I shared a bunk bed with a girl with pink hair. That was one of the times it was easy for me to say, “Nope. No way. Not gonna happen!”

My nosy LA therapist had recommended us not visiting each other for awhile. But then our cousin George died, in April 2011. This was my mother’s closest cousin, whom she had grown up with and loved dearly. He lived right by her in Miami. My mother was also dealing with a recurrence of the ovarian cancer that had been in remission for five years.

I flew overnight to Miami. I walked into my parents’ house at about 6am on May 1, which was my birthday. My mom was sitting at the kitchen table, looking about as miserable as I had ever seen her. She looked right through me. It felt heavy, like a new kind of extra heavy. She was sick, her closest cousin died, and she wasn’t registering my presence.

My brother arrived a bit later. And for the next few days, my nuclear family was back together under one roof — both parents, my brother, and me. I don’t think we had been together like this, just the four of us, since he left for college, over a decade before. I also really hadn’t seen or talked to my brother much for years.

I noticed some things about the dynamic among the four of us that I had either forgotten or never articulated to myself at all. One thing I noticed was that if I ever started speaking, my brother would get up and leave the room. Literally. He did this every single time I contributed words out loud to a conversation. And my parents did not seem to notice.

Holy shit! I thought. What is happening? It felt terrible, like the wind suddenly pulled out of me. I guess I had always wanted his approval. But it was also hilarious and surreal — like, is this really happening? Were there cameras in the corner?

I observed another thing. I noticed that my mother was an entirely different person with my brother. She was chipper and lively, laughing at every single one of his jokes, many of which I didn’t find funny. What was going on? Didn’t dad notice this? My mom and brother were also spending a lot of time in her bedroom. It suddenly hit me: They always did this. When I was growing up, my brother would go into her bedroom, and they would hang out, talking, leaving me out.

During this trip, I heard them laughing and walked in at one point, hoping to join in. My mom was sitting up in bed, and my brother was in a rocking chair next to the bed, with his legs in this leg massager. This is going to sound inappropriate, but they were talking as if they were boyfriend-girlfriend, with that kind of energy. Take it as a metaphor.

As soon as I opened the door, they suddenly stopped laughing at looked at me, annoyed. And then, I realized: Oh. I’m the killjoy. I was always the killjoy. How did that happen? I’m a fun person. I do improv comedy. I sing karaoke in character. It all came rushing back. I had always been their killjoy.

Anyway, I left them to their good time, went downstairs, and sat next to my dad. He was reading a book on World War II. I tried to get things going with him. “You know, since they’ve got their thing, dad… maybe you and I, we can see, you know, see what’s up here… no? You just want to read in quiet? Okay cool.” I looked at my phone.

We’re still getting to the post office. But first, I need to take an aside about this leg massager. Before I moved to Los Angeles, I had a sciatic nerve issue, and I had bought myself a leg massager at the Sharper Image. It was from the older generation, with an awkward shape. They don’t even sell it anymore.

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Something like this, but fabric. And it didn’t have a bottom for the feet, so you could use it on your thighs.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I left it for my mom. She suffered neuropathy and other pain, and I wanted her to use it and feel better.

I rarely saw her use it, but my brother was using it a lot on this trip. As he was packing up to leave, my mother approached me, “Hey, I was thinking, that leg massager, your brother really enjoys it. I was thinking we could give it to him! What do you think?”

She looked at me with sweet, nervous, pleading eyes, as if she were Blanche DuBois at her most vulnerable. I wasn’t used to seeing those eyes on her.

“No. Sorry.” I responded instinctively. Like I said, sometimes the boundaries come easily. And then I said, “If you don’t want the leg massager, I think I’ll just take it back.” Then, my mother shot me another look, like — no joke — she wanted me dead. She looked at me like she was Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” putting a hit on me, as if I had crossed an unthinkable line.

My brother left a few days after George’s funeral. George’s kids even left. But I thought I should stick around. Mother’s Day was one-and-a-half weeks away, and my mom had been through a lot.

By the way, Albert Brooks made a whole movie called “Mother” about everything I am describing here, down to the sibling dynamics. I may be weird, but I’m not alone. Like Brooks, I decided to stick around and see if I could make right with my mom whatever didn’t feel right. I went shopping for what I had hoped would be the most epic-of-all-epic Mother’s Day presents to cheer her up — a collection of different small aesthetic objects that I felt would remind her of her childhood, even though they had nothing to do with her childhood. A totally normal birthday present ambition.

While I was out shopping, my brother called me. “Uh, hey, can you get some flowers or something for mom and put my name on them?” He must have sense how deeply, psychically upsetting that would be for me. “Uh, it’s okay. I’ll just order something,” he said.

George’s wife Penny joined us for Mother’s Day dinner that night. After dinner, as she was leaving, Penny turned to me and said, in an accusatory tone, “That is your mother! Okay? Don’t forget that! She’s your mother!”

What? How could I forget it? I’d been hanging around for twelve days because she was my mother. What was going on here? Why did Penny say that? Why did people often say things like that to me? What were they being told about me?

The next morning, I took a walk, dwelling on everything from the trip — my brother, the leg massager, what Penny said — when I had a revelatory moment. I started crying. I realized how much of my life, personality, and anxiety had been created by this essential familial dynamic that probably had nothing to do with me. I was born when my brother was a terrible two. My mom had her own family baggage around gender. I had been cast as a bad part in a terrible play.

I got home, ran upstairs, and I grabbed that leg massager. I brought it out to the car. It was already awkward to carry. The cord was dragging behind me, and the power button hung off of the machine by a coiled cord that I couldn’t keep twisted around the machine. Meanwhile, the massager part was connected to the frame by a hinge and swung around.

I was going to ship this stupid machine to myself in LA. I would give myself the belated birthday gift of something that I wasn’t gonna let these people take from me anymore! I was an adult!

I put it in the car, and I drove to the UPS store, first. There were two people behind the counter, who appeared to be in their early 20s. They measured it and put it into a box that would’ve cost about $40 to ship, but the top part jutted out a little. So they put it in the next sized box. It was huge and ridiculous. The machine was swimming in that box, and it would cost another $80.

Well, I had just about had it with the global injustice that day. I yelled at them, through tears. “This is bullshit! I will not be exploited by you or anyone else here in South Florida, the capital of exploitation, I guess!”

“Uh, maybe try the Post Office. It’s on the other side of the strip,” one of the UPS workers answered, looking nervous.

So I dragged that stupid leg massager, with the stupid cords and the power button attachment hitting into my thigh, all the way down to the other side of the outdoor mall, still crying. And I got in line. And a very kind man behind the counter called me over. He appeared around 35 to 40 years old.

“I’m just, like I just need to mail this to myself in Los Angeles, but I can’t pay over a hundred bucks!” I said, still crying. “I mean that’s as much as the thing costs! I could just buy another! But I can’t leave it here. It’s mine, okay? And UPS wanted to put it in a bigger box and add another 80 dollars and...”

He must have noticed that I was definitely an adult.

The man told me not to worry. He studied the machine, measured it, then disappeared into the back. He came back with some empty broken boxes, which he cut up. He called over his coworker to help. And for the next twenty or so minutes, they proceeded, with patience and enjoyment, to literally build me a box. They cut up the parts of boxes, put a box in a box, and built a box that fit around the stupid leg massager. They saved me over a hundred dollars. (The store was empty, mid-day.)

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While they did this, they told me about themselves. I wish I could remember more of the conversation. They were Black men, family men, military veterans, and proud government employees. They loved working for the post office. They were helpful and generous to me, even though I hardly deserved it. They were enjoying the challenge. And they were recycling materials.

So on the one hand, we have this really friendly, affordable, and resourceful government institution. And on the other hand, we have “family values.”

I have always been ideologically a socialist, but there are moments where my beliefs resonate. This wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten extra help at the post office. I remember more than once being helped while trying to mail ballots on time, among other examples.

I’m sure working at the post office is not a socialist paradise. It’s a job, after all, and a very demanding one. But it pays middle class living wages with benefits to people who probably have families and might not be otherwise able to get sustainable employees. About 18 percent of postal workers are veterans. The postal workers I see are often middle aged people of color. I have also seen more disabled people working at the post office than a lot of other environments. And I’ve heard camaraderie among postal workers many times, like I did in this story.

This was a specific moment in my life, in which a government institution gave me sanctuary when the conservative institution of family caused me stress. And that is, ideally, how government institutions would work. I know they don’t always work that way, but they can be improved. The absence of that sanctuary is terrifying. The federal government has also come through for me with disability and Medicare in recent years when the conservative institution of the workplace could not.

I do need to say that my parents have also helped me enormously — so much, it’s ridiculous of me to insinuate otherwise. And I’ve come to understand that my mother may not have gotten the same spark from me as she got from my brother, but she did feel comfortable to be herself with me, which was an important form of love. Again, this was just one moment of drama, where the post office was truly helpful.

If Trump has his way, the post office will be phased out. When we need to ship a package, we will be stuck paying much more to enrich large corporations that do not support their workers. Corporations like UPS have huge margins and enrich their stockholders specifically by not giving their workers living wages and benefits.

And on top of all of that, the post office employs artists who create cute stamps with birds, flowers, and “The Voices of the Harlem Renaissance.” I’m apt to start collecting historic stamps. They are too cute. Though, if the post office is abolished, I’m not sure my heart could handle it.

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Written by

Crime, politics, culture, personal essays, humor (but I’m sad). Twitter: @jewstein3000.

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