January 15, 2010 — I’m hired into the USPS as a Transitional Employee (TE) in the city of San Diego.
The job description states that this will never lead to a career position. The base pay is $21 an hour, but with none of the medical benefits of a regular. Stations will use us until they don’t need us anymore, then we’ll be sent to another desperate outpost. We are expendable. This is mercenary carrier work.
January 18 — The first person to speak to us during training is from the Employee Assistance Program. It’s her job to make sure no one goes “postal.” (A bad omen for a new position?) We watch an hourlong video about reading the “language” of dogs.
January 30 — Last day of carrier training. It’s also the instructor’s 20th anniversary of being a letter carrier. A classmate thinks it’s a good idea to give the instructor a card. For some reason, this classmate announces to everyone that the card was my idea. I leave training looking like a teacher’s pet.
February 3 — It’s my first day at the Andrew Jackson Post Office (92115). I arrive dressed in a plaid shirt, corduroys, and postal hat. I meet my supervisor, Greg, an imposing man with very white skin, bulging eyes, and what looks like coke-jaw. Probably an ex-Marine. The first thing he asks is if I’m military. “No,” I say, adding, “I used to write internet content!” He tells me to wait in the swing room. After awhile, a 20-year carrier named Rick takes me out. We have a pleasant time delivering mail until the sun goes down.
February 8 — Two days post-training, it’s Rick’s day off. Greg tells me to “case” — the term refers to putting magazines, fliers, etc. into correct order — and “carry” Route 17.
It’s a Monday, which also means it’s a big junk-mail day: every carrier hates Mondays. Greg tells me to take the coverage there, too…after only two days of training. I’m fucked.
I go out. The day is too hot. It takes me forever to find anything. The junk-mail keeps falling apart on people’s lawns. At 3:30 p.m., I call the station and tell Greg I have quite a bit of mail left. I expect him to say, Well, you tried your best… What he says is: “WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, BRADFORD, SOME KIND OF GAME? This is people’s livelihood you’re dealing with!” He tells me to stop delivering the advos and finish up. I make it back to the office, where Greg tells me to go home. Before clocking out, as if nothing has happened, he asks how I liked it. I’m on the verge of tears, but I tell him I could get used to it. He says, “Yeah, you’ll probably dream about it tonight.” And I do; yes, I do. Nightmares about letter-carrying.
February 9 — I scavenge through old uniforms in the break room. Hello, sweat-stains! Greg gives me some final training, then sends me out with Charles. Charles lifts my spirits by reminding me that a job is a job, especially in these rough times. Things will be all right.
I can’t stop looking at his fingers.
(…You come home every night, and your fingers are torn to shreds. You are constantly jamming them into rows of paper, which get up under your fingernails, under your cuticles. You don’t vote in elections, because of the paper cuts endured from political mailings. You spend each night cutting your nails down and removing the broken skin around them…)
February 10 — I arrive to work, spirits up. Greg hones in on my good mood and sets out to destroy it. He assigns me Route 33. He gives me a pep talk: “Route 33 is a ghetto route. On coverage days, they get a lot of mail, because they live in apartments, and they’re poor, and they like the coupons, but on normal days it’s not too bad. Now, there are 400 deliveries on this route which means…” He performs some sort of calculation to determine how many deliveries I’ll have to do per minute, which comes out to about 1.3 — he thinks. “C’mon,” he says, “you’re into computers.” Reminding him that I wrote internet content is probably a bad idea. Greg says: “You can do this. They’re poor, and you’re an American.”
It’s three p.m. I believe I’ve been doing a slow-but-steady job, but then I turn around, and Greg is there — on the street! watching me carry the route! — along with the station manager, Jim, who is old as hell. I am unnerved. After a few deliveries, Greg pulls me aside. “I’m not seeing the attitude,” he says. “I don’t expect you to have technique — you’ll learn that later — but you don’t have the attitude!” He grabs my satchel and does an exaggerated impression of a goofy letter carrier. Supposedly me. He hands back the satchel. “I can’t have you out here past 4:00. A white boy like you in this neighborhood, you’ll get shot. Just work on your attitude.” He and Jim leave. I carry past 4:00. I don’t get shot.
February 12 — Supervisor/boss/hardass Greg eases up. He gives me a couple hours on various routes. When I return from one of them, he says, “That was pretty fast.” I’ve never felt more validated. Old-as-hell Jim — who licks his lips constantly — also tells me, “Good job.”
(…“Fingering the mail” is the official term for, well, fingering through the mail, but that doesn’t make it sound any less second-basey. “Finger the DPS until you’ve found all the letters for the first address, then finger all the flats that also go to that address. Make sure you have all the letters and flats fingered before arriving at the delivery unit, finger finger finger…”)
February 16th — I go with Mike, the senior Transitional Employee, to Mission Valley to pick up express mail for the 92115 zip code. Mike drives a large black SUV with a license plate that reads something like “MIKEALOB.” On the way, he tells me to be wary of the regular carriers (the “regs”) and that, as a TE, the most important thing is to shut up and do whatever management says. No complaining, no filing with unions, nothing. Again, we’re expendable. You can tell that Mike has a sense of pride at having been with Andrew Jackson for three years. When we drive past the college area, he comments about how tiny girls with big breasts are amazing.