December 17, 2006

Post Office Dementia

I always try to be nice to people at the post office, and there’s a reason.

     My post office is very small and narrow. Once the line hits fifteen or twenty people, it’s already out the front door. Along one wall are forms and announcements, suggestions and big colorful posters announcing the latest stamp designs. Opposite that are the four service windows. Most of the time, only two of those windows are open.

     I don’t go up there often—I have very little reason to—but over the years I’ve come to notice something. I think I’ve been seeing it for a long time, but it wasn’t until I was there last week that it all became clear.

     Something happens to people between the point when they’re standing in line and when they reach the window. It might be something about that little walk between the two, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it causes people to go insane. It doesn’t happen anyplace else. Not this regularly, anyway.

     I paid careful attention this time. Granted, it was less than a month before Christmas, but still. If anything, it helped make an ongoing problem that much more evident. The people in line were pleasant and quiet and civil to each other. Nobody shoved, nobody argued—there weren’t even any babies crying. We all just stood there patiently waiting our turn like civilized human beings. I got to the post office around 9:45, and there were about ten people in front of me. Within a few minutes, the line behind me had stretched almost back to the front door. But no one was complaining—it was to be expected at this time of year, so we all just dealt with it.

     Something bad, however, happened to every single one of those people in front of me when they reached one of the two open clerk’s windows. They morphed somehow. They turned into idiots, or banshees, or assholes. I don’t know what it is—it’s not an issue of gender or race or age—it happens to everyone (except me, of course—I’m always a perfect gentleman).

     The first woman in line—a slim, dark haired woman in perhaps her early forties—raised the heavy glass window and plunked a heavy box down on the scale before pulling the window shut again.

      “I don’t even want to know how much this is going to cost,” she chuckled to the clerk. Everything seemed to be going fine. Then, after examining the package, the clerk informed her that she would need to step away from the window and fill out some kind of slip, then bring everything back to him.

     That’s when the woman suffered some kind of breakdown.

     “What?!” she shouted. “You’re fucking kidding me! Every goddamn time it’s like this! Something happens every goddamn time! I don’t believe this! I just do not believe this!”

     She threw the window up and snatched the package back before whirling on the rest of us.

     “Every! Time!” she yelled, before marching toward the exit, ranting all the way.

     The next person in line handed the clerk an open box and asked him to wrap it.

     Another woman—this one likely in her seventies, though it was hard to tell with the scarf, plopped a shopping bag from The Strand on the scale.

     “These can go media mail,” she said. “They’re all books.”

     And sure enough, the bag was full of books—unwrapped, unaddressed books.

     At this point—this always happens, too—I started to get paranoid about my own package. Was there something grossly wrong with it that I just didn’t see? It was just an envelope filled with papers I had to send to a government agency, but maybe something had clouded my mind and I’d just glued the papers to a pineapple or something. I looked at the envelope again.

     Nope, just an envelope. Sealed, clearly addressed, everything. I appeared to be well-prepared.

     Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman with bleached hair was at the window now, announcing for all to hear, “Yes, please be careful with that—it’s my latest manuscript.”

     Had the clerk asked? Had anybody asked? No. But she sure wanted everyone to know that we were in the presence of genius. I felt the urge to hurl myself across the table between us to pummel her. I didn’t though, as I was nearing the front of the line. There was just a tiny, pudgy, kindly-faced old woman, and then me.

     The old woman was carrying a shopping bag, too, which worried me. But when one of the windows opened up, she approached it, set the bag on the floor, and extracted from it a small, square, neatly-wrapped box. She opened the window, placed the box on the scale, and closed the window again. For once it looked like everything was going to proceed smoothly and normally.

     Then she said, “I would like to return this, please.”

     “Excuse me?” the clerk asked.

      “I would like to return this to the company—that’s still my address on the front.” She spoke very calmly and sweetly. “Will you do that for me, please?”

     “I’m sorry ma’am,” the clerk said patiently, “but first you need to put a new label on here with...their address on it, and cover up yours.”

     “Oh,” she said. “Could you just give me a label, then?”

     “No, I’m sorry—but I don’t have any. You can find them by that table over there.” He pointed.

     “But I just want to return this to them.”

     “Yes...yes, I know that, ma’am.” He was being very patient. “Look—maybe you could just turn the package over like this,” he demonstrated, “and write their address on the blank side here. But them you would still have to cover all this other stuff up.”

     “What am I supposed to cover it up with?”

     “Anything.” I could detect a small chuckle creeping into his voice. He was having a hell of a morning.

     “If I’d known how to do this, I would have!” the woman said, which left me wondering how someone could reach her age and still not understand the basics of mailing stuff.

     “Well,” she said, “if you could just weigh it and put the sticker on it, I’ll pay you now and go take care of those things and bring it back later. How’s that?”

     “I’m afraid I can’t do that, ma’am,” the clerk said. “I can weigh it for you and tell you how much it will cost—but that’s as far as I can go until it’s ready to be mailed.”

     She began protesting again, when the second of the two windows opened up. I squeezed past her with my simple envelope, focused on not losing my mind somehow between here and there.

     As I approached the window, I scanned the line of people still waiting, trying to gauge what sort of madness might be lurking behind those calm, bored faces. Some pretty scary stuff, I bet. I was almost tempted to stick around to find out.


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