Liz Swain 9:30 a.m., Dec. 13
I went to my neighborhood post office to buy stamps. I thought I would be able to run in and out, so I didn’t bring the stroller but instead had my eight-month-old daughter on my hip. The line was six or seven deep, and while I waited, she squirmed and squealed to be let down so she could explore the dirty floor freely.
Post Office lines make me impatient even when I’m not wearing a squirmy baby. I’m one of those people who sighs and rolls my eyes when someone ahead of me gets sent off to the side to finish filling out address forms and then expects to step right back up to the counter when they’re done. “Give me a break,” I usually mumble, wishing the postal employee would send them back to the end of the line. (Unless, of course, I’m the one who’s been sent off to the side. In that case, I smile pleasantly at those who roll their eyes at me.)
I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. My husband had gone earlier in the day to pick up a package that came for us from a friend in Japan, but he forgot my stamps, so there I was, already feeling annoyed. Add to that my squealing child, and I almost shouted, “Hey, that’s bullsh*t!” to the man who skipped the line entirely to ask one of the ladies behind the counter if she had change for a dollar.
I grew up in a quiet town where the traffic signals flash after ten p.m. and then spent my twenties in New York where nothing shuts down and there’s no place to be alone. After ten years of that, I’d had enough, so I escaped and made my way to San Diego. Though I still retain a little bit of that east coast intolerance, I have softened some. Sometimes, when I’m at my best and have no place to be and no one on my hip, I can squash that standing-in-line-at-the-post-office irritation by reminding myself that at least I’m not in New York where the line would be twice as long and everyone around me would be sucking their teeth and sighing because they, too, hate standing in line and wish all these idiots would get the f*ck out of their way. “At least I’m in San Diego,” I say to myself then, “and the sun is shining. It could be much worse.”
This was not one of those days.
At first, the line moved fairly quickly, which helped, but then, just when I was next up, it stopped moving because both of the women behind the counter were helping people who had lengthy or multiple transactions. On top of it all my blood sugar was low and I could also feel my phone vibrating but couldn’t get to it because I needed both of my hands to keep the baby from leaping out of my arms and to the floor.
That’s when the deaf guy showed up.
At first I didn’t get that he was deaf, or pretending to be, anyway. All I knew was that an older man in a polo shirt, denim shorts and sandals with socks approached the people at the end of the line and held out a yellow piece of paper for them to read. One guy dismissed him with a wave of his hand and turned away. One of the women looked at the paper and shook her head, while another wagged a finger at him and said, “No English.”
The whole vibe in the room changed with his presence. Instead of staring at the idiots with the lengthy transactions and trying to force them with our minds to hurry up (I can’t have been the only one), those of us at the front of the line turned to watch the man with the yellow paper. I think maybe we were all thankful for the distraction. Even my daughter stopped squirming to watch him approach.
When he got to the woman right behind me, I leaned over to look at the paper with her. It was a handwritten note that said something like, “Dear Friend, I am deaf and need some help.” That was as far as I got and as much as I needed to know. In New York, I saw all the little notes and heard all the speeches on the subway about why I should feel bad enough to part with my money. Oh, back then I’d give a little here and a little there, but these days, I don’t have it to give, and the reminder is yet another source of irritation to me.
So I turned away. But the woman behind me told the man, “All I have is a twenty. If you want to wait, I’ll get some change.” I rolled my eyes at this do-gooder and thought about telling her that if she was so desperate to give her money away, I’d take it.
Then it was my turn. Finally.
“Hey,” said the postal worker as I set my daughter on the counter, “I know that baby. She was just in here this morning.”
“That’s right,” I said, relaxing some now that the wait was over. “She came in with her dad.”
“And they picked up a package,” she said. “From Japan, right?”
“Actually, yeah,” I said, surprised that she’d remember such a detail. It’s funny how quickly the annoying and impersonal experience of standing in line at a post office in City Heights can become personal and even friendly. That never ever happened to me in Crown Heights.
I wanted some sexy, pretty stamps to dress up my credit card payments, but all she had was bells and flags, so she had to step away to see what else she could find. Feeling somewhat guilty that my potentially quick transaction had become a lengthy one, I turned to the woman behind me and offered an apologetic smile. She returned it, which encouraged me to ask, “Do you really believe that guy with the little note? That he’s deaf?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I do.”
“Really?” I tried to make it sound like a curious, ‘Really?’ rather than a ‘Really?’ that questioned her intelligence.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I mean. . . he left.”
She waved her twenty-dollar bill to remind me that he hadn’t stayed around for the change she’d promised him.
“Oh,” I said, looking around, “I guess he did.”
We both chuckled. My heart melted just a tiny bit for the poor guy. I wished him luck with the kind half of my mind. The other half just wanted my stamps and to get the hell out.