Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The post office


The sentence seems absurd, ungrammatical. How could a post office building, ordained and constructed and maintained for a century by The People, as valid a res publica as any item in the Constitution, be "for sale"? It's as if you were to say the Washington Monument is for sale, or the Mississippi River, or the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Constitution provides for the post office. Article I, Section 8, paragraph 7: "The Congress shall have power to establish post offices and post roads." (The establishing of an army and a navy comes a little further down.) I don't see anything in the Constitution granting power to disestablish post offices.

The Post Office I'm concerned about at the moment is the one in Berkeley, a fine Beaux-arts monument to civic pride. I have a particular fondness for it, I suppose, because I worked there for a couple or three years, in the late 1950s. I remember thinking at the time that the Postal Service was in a way the federal government's way of subsidizing creative artists and intellectuals; many of us clerks — I can't speak for the carriers; I never associated with them — were perpetual students, or closet novelists or poets, or musicians, painters, philosophers, content to work at a humdrum job, sorting mail and cancelling stamps like automatons, the hands and eyes busy but the mind free to roam.

I worked the face-up table, where several men stood around the perimeter of a huge polished-steel table whose long edges were bordered by troughs with fast-moving belts at their bottoms. Mail fell onto the table, dumped from an invisible source above, and as quickly as possible we grabbed up envelopes, two at a time using both hands, and dropped them into the troughs, stamp down and to the left, sending them at great speed to the cancelling machine.

Envelopes to thick to pass through that machine were quickly thrust into overhead pigeonholes, along with "flats" — large envelopes or the occasional magazine or newspaper — and any small package that might have found its way into the mix. The job was dusty and noisy, the cancelling machine clattering away. I never was able to let my mind wander at the face-up table; rarely even able to lift my eyes from the constant supply of envelopes to enjoy the sight of the physical dance of all those hands and arms grabbing, turning, flipping or dropping, suddenly shooting upward to the pigeonholes.

When the mail had all been faced and cancelled, though, and we returned to our cases, then the mind could wander. We sat-stood on high tilted stools, one foot on a footrest, the other steadying our stool, grabbed a cancelled envelope from the right end of the tray in front of us at waist level or a little lower, quickly glanced at the city named in the address, and shot the letter into the correct pigeonhole. The several "zones" of Berkeley were centered on our cases: Thousand Oaks, Downtown, Station A, North, Temescal, and of course the University. Just surrounding them were the nearby big towns like San Francisco or Oakland or Richmond; more distant or smaller cities were distributed around them; in the far corners were remote destinations, or catchalls: Arizona, or San Diego, or Portland, or Chicago. "Speedies" — Special Delivery letters — we put in on edge, so we could tie them to the top of a bundle.

When a pigeonhole was full, too full to slap another letter into it quickly, you pulled out all the mail with your left hand, grabbed the end of the twine that fell from a spool above you, and wrapped the mail once lengthwise, again crosswise, tied a quick square knot, and cut the twine with the little knife-ring on your little finger; then you tossed the resulting bundle into a small bin.

Those bins went to the Postal Transport Worker, who had a similar job except that he sorted bundles of letters, or flats, not individual pieces. He faced a rack of canvas sacks bound for different destinations: by truck to Richmond, or San Francisco, or Oakland, or beyond; or by rail to various points on the Coast or Valley trains; or — if it were a bundle of Air Mail — into an orange nylon pouch which would soon be sent to the Airport Mail Facility, where I'd also served a stint, from 1958 into the following year when we moved to Berkeley.

I remember a few of my colleagues fondly. Kenji, small and Nisei, who ran the cancelling machine. Austin, ponderous and sober, a specialist on Russian liturgical music. Charles, black and scholarly, who introduced me to Negro bars. Charlie Dorr, ancient, bent, and good-humored, a constantly optimistic leftist. We didn't associate with the carriers, who sorted mail to Berkeley addresses over on the Cityside cases.

As a Postal Transport Worker I had never learned the assignment of mail by carrier routes, so I never had to go Cityside. My expertise was in the Stateside "scheme": I'd laboriously memorized the locations — and, more important, the means of supply — of all of California's post offices. (Lindsey's help was inestimable, quizzing me from flash cards, as she'd quizzed me in Latin when I was cramming for finals — at about the same time, come to think of it.) When there was no other mail to sort, I'd be sent to the basement to sort parcels.
The Berkeley Post Office looms big in my memory for other reasons than work, though. It, the YMCA, the Library, and J.F. Hink and Son formed the public center of my awakening civic and social consciousness when I was a boy. Shattuck Avenue, with its sleek F Train and its rattling traffic, was Business and Excitement; Hink's was the ultimate expression of this attractive though somewhat forbidden aspect of mysterious adult social life. The Library was still social, but allowed for introspection and daydreams. The YMCA was for handiwork and weight-lifting and swimming classes.

The Post Office was quite a different slice of public adult reality. Here people were engaged in transactions, consigning personal matters to an unseen but very perceptible collective and public network. Even as a small boy I was aware that transportation and communication stood behind this network, enabled it; and that if this was possible it was only because men — I didn't think of women being involved in this sort of thing — had agreed to work together, all across the land, for a common good. Not simply for individual livelihood, like the Jewel Tea man who brought tea and coffee and spices to the front door every now and then; not for a Store like Hink's, as the elegant, slim, remote Mrs. Shirley did in the knitwear department downstairs: this was something more like the Fire Department, but on an unimaginably grand scale. Maybe even like the Army and the Navy.

I don't know when I began to think of the Building. I mean the Main Post Office, of course; but I also mean the Library, my grandparent's Church, ultimately the buildings on campus. Whenever that was, that was when I began to think of such buildings as standing for something beyond mere physical shells housing public or civic or social institutions: they were also both symbols and rally-points.

Societies ordain and construct public buildings as metaphors of public agendas. This has been going on since the Pyramids, the Greek temples and theaters, the great Mounds in the American midwest. Such buildings are a testament to the indispensable civic qualities of stability, permanence, capaciousness, propriety, foresight, care.

I am certain this was clear to me when I was a little boy, though of course never stated or formed in any articulate verbalization. You didn't read about such things; grownups didn't talk to you about them. They were truths you absorbed through observation and example, through repeated rites, as regular and unremarkable as the newspaper delivery — or the twice-daily mail. They were neither internal, part of your own secret or at least inexpressible growing consciousness, nor purely external, known but of no concern: instead they were the cement, or part of it, that bound your own internal life to the society beyond family that you knew instinctively you were a part of.

Well, hell: these days, it's all for sale. These days the only language seems to be Economics. Our society has become like that fellow who Oscar Wilde said knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Letters are sorted by machine; it's more efficient; never mind that scholars of Russian liturgical music, or students of English literature, or unreconstructed leftists will have to fall back on waiting tables, or making espressos.

Not that there's anything undignified with that. But I wonder what will happen to bonhomie, and civic awareness, and the cement of personal-societal interface.

And I wonder if the politicians who decide to sell the post office buildings, which they do not own because it is we the people who own them, can't be reminded that they have sworn to uphold a Constitution which empowers them to establish, but not to destroy.

Read about the sale of the post office here.


Curtis Faville said...


After reading about the Berkeley announced closure and sale in the Chronicle, I had been going to write about this on my on Compass Rose blog.

There are many aspects to this story.

The U.S. Postal Service has been one of worst run Federal agencies for decades. The record of mismanagement, waste, corruption, abuse and inefficiency seems like a sequence of 19th century novels (Dickens's "office of circumlocution" comes to mind).

For those of us who grew up right after World War II, who inherited our parents' and their parents' world of ambitious civic construction and commitment to American quality of life, this has been like a very bad dream. The efficiency experts and real estate developers have been busy, like armies of of strange new hybrid insect species, burrowing from the inside of our traditional infrastructure, co-opting and converting the nourishing material into cheap shit as they go.

The city planning insects of Berkeley have been busy too.

Reading about Berkeley's original city fathers, and the grand visions they had for the little East Bay hillside community, can make one very sad indeed. The University, right along with the city, has systematically gone about dismantling one of the most charming and prosperous and progressive towns in the world.

Shattuck Avenue was transformed from a solidly functioning middle-class shopping and business center to a sad makeshift of franchises, city-condos, and vacant office space, while the university has expanded into the community with mostly tasteless business office buildings. They've systematically eliminated parking, and chased away the customer base which used to support independent businesses.

When I'm in the post office these days, I hear stupid people waiting in line complaining about how much more "efficient" UPS and FEDEX are than the USPS. It seems perfectly obvious that if USPS were to go completely private, letter, package and other service charges would increase exponentially.

I could go on. Just another old fart bitching about change, I suppose. Maybe we just auction off America to the Asians and be done with it.

America was a grand experiment, but maybe China has a better idea. Top down dictatorship and rampant entrepreneurial capitalism for all, no prisoners taken. What's a few stray poets and fiddle-players, when the future lies before us? The hum you hear is the bees in the hive.

Charles Shere said...

Your last paragraph may well describe the future. I've just finished reading a very important, persuasive, discouraging yet oddly uplifting book, Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Tom Snyder, which surveys the matters we're discussing: I'll try to address that soon.

Curtis Faville said...

Sorry to have been so sour.

Once, in the 7th grade, I'd been held at home for a day to get over a head cold. (In those days, I could shake off the flu in a day, whereas nowadays, it takes a week.)

Anyway, the next day when I returned to school, I forgot to get my mom to write my excuse note, so I tried forging one. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to spell "soar" and so wrote that "Curtis had a sour throat yesterday." The math teacher Mr. Orr had a good laugh.

louann said...

Well, I haven't absorbed the depth of your comments Charles nor of the respondent - however I have been mediating for USPS for almost 15 years now and have also trained people internally re conflict - and on top of that my mother-in-law ran a post office in a small Montana town, AND I live two doors down from the Laurel post office in Oakland with the sign shining in my I feel intimately connected.
One of the many things I have learned from working with but being external to the overall operation is that although they are a federal agency, I understand they are completely responsible for their own budget and get no government subsidy. In fact, feds have used USPS profits in the past to cover deficits in other federal budget items. I have also watched as increased automation and tracking has been implemented, to such an extent that the human condition seems not just subsidiary but perhaps an obstacle to progress. I think frustration for employees is very very high, including managers. This used to be a civil service job that was maybe not exciting or creative, but solid. Or so my mom said as she encouraged such a pursuit on my part. Not any more. I don't think that USPS people from the top down believe that they are valued or seen as an important institution - it reminds me of the controversy about maintaining passenger trains a number of years ago. It is very clear to me though that if they really do go down, we can count on much increased costs, a terrific lack of service in all kinds of less urban areas, and in general a sadness because the mail"man" isn't around anymore.

Curtis Faville said...

Clearly, it's important to understand and remember that none of the USPS's problems are the fault of the line workers--or, perhaps, even their supervisors (though a good deal of negative feedback has been heard about them, as well)--

Automation has taken its toll. And efficiencies of scale--not all of them good, as I see it--have been implemented. The steep decline of snail mail--as I have seen it--has contributed lately to a big drop in postal revenues. But if my local stations are any indication, the flow of package mail is brisk. In my own mail order business, I routinely drop $200 to the USPS each week. I think internet sales activity has been a huge boon for them. If the Congress passes new internet taxation legislation, though, that could dampen the new web trade(s).

Joan said...

I ran across these today...