I Love the Post Office

May 21st, 2015 by

An interesting column from the New York Times:

I Love the Post Office by Ethan Hauser, NY Times Sunday Review, May 17, 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/opinion/sunday/i-love-the-post-office.html

NOT because it still delivers letters — the Alamo of warm and fuzzy Luddites like my mother and multinational credit card corporations.

And not because of stamps. Collectors, may you never give up on the dream of finding that inverted Jenny-plane 24-center at a flea market in Ohio.

And not because it is celebrating National Dog Bite Prevention Week by ranking cities by the number of attacks on postal employees in 2014 (No. 1: Los Angeles, with 74).

Nor is it the workaday architecture of post offices themselves, whether Brutalist concrete or prefab ranch style.

Nor even the small-town half post office, half general stores, with idiosyncratic hours, and bricks of hunter’s Cheddar.

No, this is a paean to the big-city post office, those grimy, chaotic, good-will-draining temples of American bureaucratic dysfunction, where hopes and packages are mangled, and lunch hours are not to be trifled with, and where you can still experience a city in all its magnificent, unfriendly, unruly mess.

Like the D.M.V. and jury duty, the post office is one of the last great equalizing institutions. There are no V.I.P. windows, no first-class lounges, no velvet ropes — save for the vinyl Tensabarrier aides that children claim as dance partners. All of us — including the actress from “Girls” I spotted one Christmastime, her boulder-scale Chanel shopping bag swinging close to the eye of a toddler — have to face the same beleaguered civil servants, who recite the same scripts about liquids and perishables. It doesn’t matter if you star in a hit television show about Brooklyn — you are still not entitled to mail a lithium battery or genetically modified crops.

As with many of our objects of affection, the post office has shifting moods. Stress and crowds spike around what are thought to be the most anxiety-inducing parts of life: changes of address (moving), tax day (finances), Christmas (major holidays) and Mother’s Day (mothers).

Quieter stretches valley the peaks, but you are always just a passport-renewal seeker or a clerk’s coffee break away from the line threatening to move so slowly that it is actually inching backward. Then one fellow patron might roll his eyes, another might huff, still another might appeal to Jesus. Here, beneath the fluorescent bulbs speckled with what may or may not have once been tiny, vaguely prehistoric winged creatures, our differences dissolve.

Yet there are pleasures to be had, beyond the masochistic ones. At the same Brooklyn post office where I saw the boy nearly blinded by the bag, there is, amid the self-inking stamps used to label mail, one that reads “PRETENTIOUSLY HAZARDOUS.” So flawless was this, so in perfect pitch with the light-speed-changing neighborhood in which it sits, that I thought maybe I had dreamed it up. So I returned and there it was again, the accidental poetry of an author within the United States Postal Service, some 625,000 men and women strong and $5 billion on the bleeding side of its yearly operating budget.

No one can sanely argue that this is money well spent. It could probably buy everyone on earth a candy bar. But maybe that is not the point. Maybe the point is to pick up some stamps today, or send back the empty toner cartridge from your printer — because you’re a good person and you want to save the planet — and lucky you, you are about to see the stubborn, glorious disarray that still tatters our gleaming cities.