SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 28, 2008

Grace Beats Karma

 

I had to get a package to the post office. The package itself wasn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme, but it was already late. It had to go out that day. Problem was, “that day” was two days before Christmas, which meant of course that the post office was going to be a nightmare, an endless line of unprepared sweaty people, each and every one of them bursting with tension, fear and anger. Their holidays were on the verge of being ruined, and they were ready to take it out on whomever or whatever happened to be nearby.

            But here’s the thing. My package had nothing to do with Christmas. It had to go out, yes, but it didn’t—my god my god—absolutely need to reach its destination by the 24th. Moreover, I had no other plans for that day. I could theoretically stand in line for five hours and it wouldn’t screw up my schedule.

            It’s a lesson I learned early: it’s all in the attitude. If you’re walking into an environment you know is going to be bad news, crackling with ugly hostile vibes, collective anxiety, and terse outbursts—but none of those things involve you in any way—then it immediately ceases to be stressful. It becomes fun and easy. Better than easy—it becomes a source of free entertainment. A kind of angry vaudeville. And if you’re looking for angry vaudeville, there’s no better place to find it than at the post office two days before Christmas.

            The weatherman had been right when he said it was in the single digits outside and that the wind was howling. It was nasty. But when I stepped through the post office door, I could feel the waves of a heat that was purely human in origin. With a light heart and a smile on my face, I assumed my place at the end of the long and convoluted line. The kind of lion’s den I’d strolled into made itself obvious within a matter of seconds.

            “Are you using that machine?”

            “Pardon?”

            I found a balding, bespectacled man staring at me with terror and fury in his eyes. “God—” he sputtered, “are you using that machine?!

            I hadn’t noticed that my position in line had left me standing in front of the stamp machine. “Nope,” I told him with a shrug, “can’t say as I am.”

            I stepped out of his way, and he began shoving money into the machine while muttering under his breath. This just made me smile more. He was probably buying stamps with messages like “peace on earth” or “love” on them.

            In line in front of me, people were wrapping and re-wrapping packages with shaking hands, elbowing each other out of the way for space at the counters, trying to commandeer the single roll of packing tape, filling out forms they prayed would be the right ones.

            A man walked into the post office and, ignoring the line, marched straight to one of the windows.

            “Can I just drop this off here?” he demanded, after squeezing in front of the customer who was standing there.

            “Need to get in line and wait,” the clerk told him.

            “The line? But can’t I—?”

            “Get in line.”

            The man slammed his hands on the counter, turned away and headed for the door again. “Fuckin’ SHIT!” he yelled before kicking the door open.

            Maybe it’s bad and wrong and rotten of me, but if I can stand outside it, merely observe it, I find awful human behavior a source of nourishment and comfort and honest joy. The longer we all stood in line, the angrier and more panicked the people around me became, the happier I got. By the time I reached the window with my package, I was almost giddy.

            “Good morning,” the clerk said with a broad smile of her own. “And how are you doing today?” There was something in her voice that told me she was experiencing the same thing.

            “I’m doing just great,” I told her. “And yourself?”

            I placed the package on the scale and slid the window shut. Then a middle aged woman shoved her head in front of me and tapped on the glass to get the clerk’s attention.

            “Can I just drop this box off here? It’s prepaid.”

            “Need to go to the end of the line.”

            “But it’s prepaid—can’t I just drop it off?”

            “We don’t have a drop off box here. You want to just drop it off, you gotta to go to the post office over on Ninth Street. They have a drop box there.”

            “But what’s the point of—?”

            “Ninth Street or the end of the line.”

            This woman, too, stomped away huffing angry curses into her scarf.

            “Hey,” the clerk said to me after the woman walked away, “she asked, right?”

            “And you told her. What more could you do?” It was like we were in an unspoken conspiracy, the two of us, feeding off the disappointment and rising blood pressure around us.

            I paid the postage, thanked the clerk and wished her all the best, then headed back out into the freezing Brooklyn afternoon, warmed by the kind of holiday-specific schadenfreude I knew would carry me through the next few days.

 

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