You must have been wondering when I’d write about it. It was inevitable.
The post office. Before I really begin, I want to issue a disclaimer: the people who work at the post office, those tireless public servants, deserve nothing but respect—and compassion. It’s the institution that I have a problem with. I really don’t want any trouble. Don’t lose my packages, don’t forward my mail to Podunk.
It’s around the corner. A small, neighborhood branch. Convenient, no? Like having a relative with the bubonic plague is convenient. I go there when I must. It’s never anything less than annoying. But sometimes it rises to the level of maddening. And then there’s the palpable sense that I’ve crossed over into a bad other dimension, where everyone is at their worst and crazy gets the preferred table in the corner.
Two recent incidents come to mind. There are so many to choose from…but I digress. Last week, I had brought all my considerable patience with me, prepared to stand on line to have a package sent. It was media mail—it was a book I was sending to my cousin. The self-service machine doesn’t have a “media mail” option. As if there is no such thing. It’s radically less expensive than overnight mail or priority mail or even first class mail. And it gets to the destination just fine. But it’s a bit of a postal secret, and it does require waiting for one of the long-suffering women at the desk to make it happen.
I stepped to the end of the line, which was—by my best reckoning—a good thirty to forty minutes long. After about thirty seconds, a woman stepped in front of me. I had seen her off to the side sitting on a chair adjacent to the line. She was writing an address on a label.
“Excuse me, but I was standing here!” I never know exactly what to say in these situations, but it always starts with “Excuse me.”
“I was over there,” she replied, gesturing to the very chair she had been sitting in.
Knowing full well that we really didn’t have a comprehension issue, I nevertheless informed her that “You can’t wait on the line from the chair!”
“Oh, yes, I can.” She was unfazed.
From in front of her the voice of another woman was heard. “You can if you’re disabled. But I don’t see any disability.” She said this continuing to look straight ahead. I appreciated her words of solidarity, but now my nemesis was getting heated. I had the distinct feeling that she might be looking for a larger fight; perhaps she wanted to generate some disability.
I shut my mouth. Not easy for me. I stood behind her for the duration, knowing that when her turn came, there would be more drama.
If there is any satisfaction in being right, I would have been comforted.
When she got to the counter, she was—as they used to say in school when a student hadn’t done their homework—unprepared. She required the postal worker to fill out her label for her. (What was she writing an address on whilst on her disability chair?) And she had many questions. The woman helping her all but rolled her eyes. That’s what I mean: these people deserve compassion. And, finally, the line-jumper needed a larger or smaller or differently shaped box for her package. But she wasn’t about to leave and come back. No. Her needs had to be ministered to while we all cooled our heels. Well, not much was cool.
What might be surprising to those of you who haven’t been graced by this type of experience, was how quietly the line behind me (now at least another thirty minutes long) took the delay of game. A good part of the external tolerance which is displayed is a consequence of fear. We’ve all heard the not-really-apocryphal stories of madness and mayhem which happen when insanity meets the slow burn of post office frustration. Ergo: going postal. Each of my fellow line-standers was aware of that possibility. They did not want to set anyone off.
Nor did I.
A different kind of situation prevailed today. I arrived with package in hand, ready to do it myself using the automated system. There were two young women at the machine when I arrived. They were clearly together, so I thought: not bad, I’m next. It became apparent, after a few minutes, that they were translating from another language, which was slowing them down considerably. I peered over shoulders and saw that one of the women was inputting “RUSSIA” as a response to one of the prompts. Ahhh. Russia. Will this be glacial?
Many, many minutes later, I started to release my body language to convey my impatience. It’s a strategy. No one noticed. Muttering would be next. I waited a few more minutes and, lo, girl number one was done. But girl number two stepped up. She was not as quick-witted or fluent as the first one, and she poured over each step in the computerized process. Then, in response to whatever she was asked, she left the machine and started sifting through a stand of priority mail boxes and envelopes. I couldn’t help myself. I muttered. …supposed to do that before you use the machine…
She heard me! And reacted! She closed out her process and, with an international gesture (no, not that one) she offered me her place. I was a little ashamed, but mostly happy.
I would show her how we efficient Americans do things. My fingers flew over the buttons, moving through the prompts with ease. What was the zip code? I input it cleanly. There is no record of that zip code. This was a surprise. I reentered the digits. Same result. Grabbing my package off the scale I quickly slunk away. Embarrassed and angry…but at whom?
As I walked away, confused, I glanced down at my packages. Those five unknown digits that I had entered as the zip code—they were the street address.
Can I blame this on the bad energy of the post office? Can I blame it on the bossa nova? Or is this just some cosmic comeuppance? What do you think?