Stamped Out

Counting the seconds until the post office finally closes.

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Post offices must die. Nothing says world of yesteryear like a post office. Post offices remind us of the heavy and stupid material world that the 21st century is trying so earnestly to shed. Luckily, the post office will soon be dead. Last summer the United States Postal Service announced it would close more than 3,300 post offices. That’s almost 10 percent of the entire postal network. Unfortunately, the Service recently backtracked in a report, stating that this number had shrunk to a mere 162 post offices. They say the number may go back up again, they’ll have to see. I say this shilly-shallying is not a serious commitment to killing our post offices.

As they wheeze and linger, post offices are only deteriorating. Take my own local post office in Brooklyn, which is the worst post office in America. On an online review page, one commenter wished he could give this post office negative stars. Another claimed it gives him nightmares, and one man called this post office an advertisement for libertarianism. Yet another reviewer deemed it the ninth circle of hell. A couple of years ago, I mailed a letter from my local post office to Manhattan and it got there two weeks later. Two weeks for a letter to cross a mile-wide river. I guess they threw it in the river and waited for it to float to the other side. My only consolation is that this post office will one day die.

Just as we can worship without churches, we can mail without post offices. For nostalgists unable to toss your last wad of sealing wax, you can still send letters from home. Better yet, you can buy postage on the Internet. I know, it’s shocking. And here’s more. You can even mail actual stuff around — presents, for instance — without ever seeing the actual stuff. Perhaps this worries the materialist in you. Not to worry. The physical world still very much exists, which leads us to this question: How can we transport bits of the material world without using the dumb, inefficient logic of the post office? It’s one of the primary issues of our day. It touches on environmentalism, economics, civics, politics, health. It is at the forefront of the great, human battle against annoyance. As we laze over this primary issue of our day, the postal service zombies on.

Post offices must die. I know this makes some of you sad. Some of you are old and/or poor and/or live in small towns. I’m sorry, your local post office will not make you young, or rich, or urban, nor will it do a very good job of connecting you to the world. For the world connected by paper is no longer the actual world. The good news is, despite the heartbreaking tales of the demise of small-town post offices, it seems that USPS will mostly be shuttering urban post offices that exist in states (California, Florida, thankfully New York) where individuals are using them less and less. For now.

Post offices are variations on loneliness. Standing in a post office line, a little bit of your soul slips away forever. But no one suffers more than postal workers. It’s not that I look forward to postal workers losing their jobs. The USPS is the second-largest employer of civilian Americans after Wal-Mart. But everyone’s time must come. Look to the eras when out-of-work scribes and milkmen roamed the streets. We found other things for them to do. Let’s remember one thing. This is a profession that turned the word “postal” into an adjective meaning violent and crazed.

No one describes the pain of postal work better than Charles Bukowski did in his autobiographical Post Office. Tough work, especially when you are always hungover.

Apartment houses with boxes that had scrubbed-out names or no names at all, under tiny light bulbs in dark halls. Old ladies standing in halls, up and down the streets, asking the same question as if they were one person with one voice: “Mailman, you got any mail for me?” And you felt like screaming, “Lady, how the hell do I know who you are or I am or anybody is?” The sweat dripping, the hangover, the impossibility of the schedule…. The people. The people. And the dogs.

Neither rain nor sleet nor…what is it exactly?

When your shorts get wet they slip down, down down they slip, down around the cheeks of your ass, a wet rim of a thing held up by the crotch of your pants.

Farewell, Gabriels, messengers of our holiest news.

A New York Times article states, “The common disposition to criticize and disparage the management of the American postal system…often leads people…to question the efficiency of the Post Office.” That this article was written in 1876 seems to indicate that there has never been a time when Americans didn’t hate post offices.

And yet… There’s still something of the old magic of words in a post office. In the beginning, letter writing was for the very few, useful for the declaration of wars and the amusement of aristocrats. Post offices were the symbol of what the letter had become: the single most democratic expression of a newly literate society. The post office was a giant publishing house for everyone, where ordinary people communicated in writing, just as the Internet is today. The inhumanity of war, the absurdity of love, unanswered questions and unquestioned answers all came together at the post office. The poem “To a Post-Office Inkwell” by Christopher Morley says it well:

How many humble hearts have dipped
In you, and scrawled their manuscript!
Have shared their secrets, told their cares,
Their curious and quaint affairs!

Your pool of ink, your scratchy pen,
Have moved the lives of unborn men,
And watched young people, breathing hard,
Put Heaven on a postal card.

Postal workers have become some of our great writers (Faulkner, Lanier, Wright, McCourt, Bukowski). Maybe they, too, were struck by the literary power of the post office, in all its mundane glory. After all, how many American professions come with their own poetic code of honor, which is actually: “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” It’s an unofficial code, true, swiped from the colonnade of one of New York City’s palaces, the James Farley Post Office on 8th Avenue (itself taken from Herodotus), but it’s a code taken seriously nonetheless.

The post office must die. So let’s celebrate post offices as museums of the start — but not the finish — of something grand: the practice of often boring, usually quotidian, utterly democratic writing. Sing a little song for your post office as you pass its crumbling walls. Especially if it’s the James Farley, which will soon be turned into the new Penn Station. • 12 February 2010

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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