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.”
The mailman/dog relationship is no lie. It’s like they can smell it on you, a scent that triggers their hunting instinct. But the owners are worse. Opposite of owners who talk to their pets in baby voice are the ones who scold their pets as if they were aristocratic children.
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.
(…Apartment routes suck. They’re full of lockboxes that usually require one or two keys to actually get to, and then you deal with boxes full of shit that people never empty, so you end up cramming everything in. If you live in an apartment with a lockbox, check your mail every day. For the love of God. I don’t like to destroy mail by jamming it in, but sometimes I’ll do it on purpose…)
February 23 — Pat, a regular, asks if I carried his route. “Yes,” I say, and then he tells me all the things I did wrong. “Look,” he says, “you don’t put any mail in the boxes labeled vacant. And when you deliver the advos, do it like this.” He pantomimes folding paper. “Because when I’m out there, I like to jam.”
March 3 — Two girls holler “Sexy mailman!” at me from a McDonald’s drive-through. Makes/ruins my day.
March 10 — I’m running the collection route: collecting the mail out of the blue boxes along a particularly trashy part of El Cajon Boulevard. I open a box and the unmistakable smell of feces wafts out: someone has finagled some human shit in there. The physics of dumping directly into the box seem tortured, which means it was probably picked up and placed inside. This seems profoundly sad. I scan the barcode on the box, but leave the shit-mail alone. I finish the route, for the next two hours feeling unhappy for the kid who won’t get a birthday card because someone crapped in the collection box. When I finally get back to the station, I go up to old-as-hell Jim. “Uh, Jim, I don’t quite know how to tell you this but…” He finishes the sentence: “…someone crapped in the collection box.” Then he tells me that I still need to bring it back. I do this. Despite the disgust of the other clerks, Jim finds the whole thing pretty damn funny. HAZMAT comes to take care of the shit.
March 11 — Greg calls and gives me the day off. In all my time with the post office, this is the only time a supervisor will tell me to take a day off.
March 28 — The weather turns beautiful, even by San Diego standards. The job becomes easier, and I love everything about it. I finish a route early and return to find Hardass Greg in the office. I’m hanging up my keys when he says, “You’re really getting the hang of this, aren’t you, Ryan?” I say, “Yeah, and I’m liking it a lot better, too. Especially on days like today.” I make a gesture that takes in the air all around us, the beautiful spring air. Greg smiles, a genuine smile. “Just wait until summer, you’ll love it,” he says.
April 10 — I deliver a rooster, sent overnight express. I deliver it to an apartment complex.
(…You begin to get the hang of the job. You take pride in being a civil servant, with an altruistic sense of duty. But this will be a fleeting period. There are no incentives for being good at your job at the United States Postal Service. If you finish early, your reward is delivering more mail. So you begin taking your time, or you finish early and read in your car for an hour, perhaps get a coffee. San Diego is a beautiful place. Sometimes you just look at the beach…)
April 21 — I do my work, come back to the office near 6:00 p.m. Old-as-hell Jim tells me to go back out to help Mike Mikelob. One of the daily goals for the post office is to get all carriers off the street by 6:00, but I think, “Oh, well, more overtime for me. Possible double-time.” We finish up by 7:00 p.m. It’s dark when we get back.
April 23 — I jam a route, after which Hardass Greg says, “Ryan, come here.” He has my timecard in hand. He tells me that I’m supposed to report to the Encanto station the next day. I figure I’m going out on a loan. “All right,” I say, taking the timecard. Hardass Greg hesitates. “Yeah?” I ask. “Nothing,” he says. I don’t know it yet, but this is how Hardass Greg says goodbye.
April 24 — I borrow my girlfriend’s car (I’d been riding the bus to Andrew Jackson) to get to the Encanto post office. The supervisor here is Elizabeth. Elizabeth has an accent best described as Transylvanian; that’s the kind of fear she instills. Hardass Greg’s power came from brute presence, but there’s a dark fire in Elizabeth’s eyes that devalues your worth as a human being. She calls me into her office. “I want you to know my expectations if you’re going to carry for me,” she says. “I’m strict but fair.” She then says, “You must take control of your route, DO NOT LET YOUR ROUTE CONTROL YOU!” I say, “Wait, what is this? I’m here with you for just today, right?” Elizabeth says, “No, you’re stationed here now. Permanently.”
I knew the routes over at Andrew Jackson, and being sent to a new station is like having to learn the job all over again. I’m having feelings of abandonment and frustration, mixed with the realization that I’ll have to buy my own car. It makes me want to cry right there in Elizabeth’s office. “Nobody told you?” she asks. She puts me on a route, whispering, “This is a black neighborhood.” It rains for the entire shift. I lose my pen and have to ask an elderly lady if I can have hers. I tell her it’s my first day.
May 4 — I haven’t even worked a full week at Encanto when the San Ysidro station calls. Saul is the supervisor there. I like him; he’s the first one I’ve met who doesn’t emit hatred and disappointment. When I call at 3:00 p.m. for help, he sends out a Transitional Employee named Adrian who goes by “Rocky.” Rocky is older, graying, has braces, and sounds like Cheech Marin. His home station never uses him, either, so it’s the first of many times we run into each other. He talks of the supervisors at the other stations. “Just wait till you meet Cheryl at Riverfront station. She’s GOOORGEOUS.”
May 5 — I’m back in Encanto. I let the route control me.
Encanto uses me only three times during the month I’m stationed here. I get sent to Otay Mesa (92154), San Ysidro (92143), Southeastern Station (92113), Pacific Beach (92109), Paradise Hills (92139), City Heights (92105), Hillcrest (92103), Downtown (92101), and Riverfront (92104 and 92116). I meet Cheryl. She’s all right.
May 22 — Despite spending a week delivering fliers for the postal union’s food drive, I’m still enraged when the time comes to pick up people’s donated cans. It’s not like we aren’t already hoisting 50-plus pounds of shit. At the end of the day, I tell Cheryl I can’t wait for the National Association of Letter Carrier’s needle drive. She doesn’t think it’s very funny.
(…You never get a lunch. They say you’re entitled to one, but it never works out. You eat a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich, an apple, and a granola bar every day for a year. Easy to make, fast to eat. Combine this with the 80ish miles you walk every day, in 80-degree heat, and you lose weight. You come into the post office pushing 200 pounds, and five months later, you’re at a trim 167. People begin to comment about how incredibly tan and slim you look. Slave labor makes you look great…)
June 3 — The supervisor at the Hillcrest station is named Dre. He fist-bumps me and says, “Fantastic work, Bradford!” at everything I do. They put me on a route that has over 40 swings (most routes have 20–30), and I don’t get done till after 6:00 p.m. I come back, and one of the Hillcrest regs asks how long it took me. I tell him, and he says, “Psh, I would have smoked that route.”
(…You take advantage of every restroom you come across. The worst is delivering in a residential neighborhood and not knowing where the closest bathroom is. Libraries are saviors, as well as community parks. I’ve only resorted to going in the bushes between houses once. Some carriers used to keep bottles in their vehicles, until someone forgot to throw away the piss-bottle and left it in the car for the next carrier. There was a stand-up talk about it the next week — No more pissing in bottles! Imagine it: grown adults being told how to use the bathroom…)
June 8 — I get a call from Lauren, the supervisor at Point Loma, who informs me that, from this point on, I will be stationed at the Point Loma carrier annex (which serves both Point Loma and Old Town — 92106 and 92110, respectively). Lauren is young, has a good sense of humor, and hasn’t let the job crush her, a true anomaly in the Postal Service’s middle-management. Even the regulars are nice. Point Loma is beautiful. I spend mornings in my mail truck thinking this is the best job in the world.
I pass most of the summer at Point Loma. The rich neighborhoods get so much shit, so many catalogs. They also like their mail delivered just so: letters in the slot, flats on the ground. Sometimes you’ll shove it all in, and customers will call you out on it. “Would you please not crumple my mail?” They mean the five Neiman Marcus catalogs that they’re just going to throw out anyway. But it’s not a big deal. Really, there isn’t much to complain about here, except the occasional old person, asking about their regular:
Old Person: “Oh, you’re not Alan! Where’s Alan?”
Me: “I dunno. I’m just covering for him.”
OP: “I haven’t seen Alan in a long time. Is he sick?”
Me: “Lady, I don’t know. He could be on vacation.”
OP: “I hope Alan’s all right. He’s been our mailman for 15 years. He’s super!”
Me: “Yeah, well…”
OP: “But you don’t know where Alan is?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
July 14 — Bad things happen in Hillcrest. They put me on another long route. I get to one of the last swings and find out there’s a scheduled pick-up from a business. Pick-ups are always a pain in the ass, and this guy has over 50 priority boxes. He helps me load them through the side door of the van, and I swear I hear him shut it. I pull away and make a sharp left. Turns out he didn’t shut the door. Boxes spill out all over Park Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Hillcrest. A woman screams. I stop my car in the middle of the road and gather boxes, hoping the customer hasn’t seen. The screaming lady comes over to help. “It’s scary that the door just opened like that,” she says.
(…For the most part, letter-carriers are the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, people who love their job and treat it with the same pride as a firefighter. But there are bad apples. Some regs can be shitheads. You see how they take advantage of union protection. They’re nearly impossible to fire and always want more hours but less work. You’ll cover a route for them, and they’ll purposefully miscase it to slow you down [regs don’t like it when you run their route, because management will see that their routes take less time than they’re allotted and add to it]. Or, sometimes they’ll sneak extra mail in. I’ve seen it happen…)
August 5 — A desperate-housewife-type woman in a black-and-neon tracksuit chases me down the street. She tells me she doesn’t think she’s getting all of her mail, which seems like a normal complaint, until she explains that it’s part of a Crip network that’s been stealing people’s mail out of boxes and taking identities. She says that the neighborhood has collectively lost an absurd amount of money, like 40 billion dollars. She asks me what she should do and seems annoyed when I tell her to get a PO box if she’s worried about her mail’s security. She says that a PO box would be too inconvenient.
August 19 — I come to work wearing a blue Dickies work shirt. Technically, Transitional Employees can wear whatever they want, but my outfit catches the eye of our station’s union representative. He demands that our manager, Francine — a fast-talking, intense Filipina in her 70s — give me the uniform allowance I am entitled to. She doesn’t, so the union files a grievance against her. She becomes bitter about the whole thing and acts spitefully toward me. When I tell her I spent most of the allowance on a nice rain jacket, she smugly asks, “Oh, does it rain very much in San Diego?” I go, “Nope.” At the time, I am sad that I don’t know what else to say, but in hindsight, I’m pretty happy with the response.
It rains the entire next week.
September 2 — They put me on a route where one of the swings is in an underground garage. Going down the slope, I hug a corner too tight and scrape up the van. And it’s just not a scrape. It’s a CHKSHH, and then me going, “What was that?” I put it in reverse and CHKSHH! “Was that me?” And then back in drive. CHSHHKSKHSH! “Yup, that was me.” I hop out of the car to assess the damage. Then I look down at my hand and realize I’m still holding my fucking peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich. I’m pretty sure damaging government vehicles warrants instant termination, so when I get back to the station, I park, hang up the keys, and don’t say anything. I’m still waiting for the day where they present me with the evidence, a videotape of me scraping up a van while shoving a sandwich into my face.
(…You love driving the trucks, those right-sided driving ones. They’re called LLVs [Long-Life Vehicles], and they handle much better than the vans. You get a sense of reckless abandon when you drive them — something about being able to stop, make a drop, and run. The perfect getaway car. You get caught up in the excitement of it, sometimes. There are long stretches of neighborhood in the upper regions of Point Loma where the road plateaus before continuing down a slope, and, I swear, I’ve gotten those wheels off the ground…)
September 30 — Encanto calls me back for the day. Elizabeth says she hears good things about me from Point Loma. She seems to take pride in that, despite the fact that Encanto used me only three times when I was there. Elizabeth sends me to a neighborhood where I notice cop cars hanging out. A large lady drinking a soda comes walking down the street, and she asks if I have the mail for such-and-such address. People do this sometimes; it’s so annoying. Mail is delivered in an order called DPS (delivery point system) — that’s how each route’s first-class letters arrive every morning. So finding an individual’s mail messes up the whole order. But this lady looks particularly crazy, so I find her mail and give it to her. She takes some, gives the rest back to me, and tells me to deliver the rest. She says she can’t go back to her house because someone called the cops on her.
(…People will tell you that you’re late. Only people who don’t have jobs know when the mail is “supposed” to come. You’ll blame the station or management or the weather, anything to appease the customer. And then when they close the door, you fart on their porch…)
October 11 — I ask for my birthday off, so I can go home to see family. Francine mulls it over, excessively deliberating. “You know, you’ve asked for a lot of time off from us.” Once was to go to the Bay Area, and once was to get eye surgery, and now I’m asking so that I can celebrate my birthday — well, I can see how that is a lot of time off. She takes a deep breath. “I guess I’ll take a chance,” she says, and signs my annual leave request. She looks up at me. “No more for this year, all right?”
October 12 — It rains, and 30 percent of Francine’s carriers call in sick. And I get shit for asking for my birthday off? I take a little comfort from my awesome rain jacket that Francine hates so much.
(…You begin to not mind the rain. Fewer dogs are out, and fewer people to annoy you. The rain is soothing. You take satisfaction in letting it destroy the mail you’re delivering, as if it’s punishment for customers expecting you to work in these conditions…)
October 13 — It’s 4:00 p.m., and I get a call from my supervisor. She says there’s a carrier who needs help and gives me his phone number. I call the guy. He tells me the location, which is all the way across town. When I finally get there, he’s still at the same place as when I talked to him earlier. He hasn’t done anything. Worse, he’s sitting in his truck, tossing parcels to kids on the street. He convinces me to just trade vehicles, instead of reloading everything into mine. It seems like a good idea until he speeds off, and I notice that his truck is almost out of fuel. I do my best to deliver the mail, throwing letters into boxes by the handful, not really caring how they’re addressed. I don’t make it back until nearly 7:00 p.m. By then, all the outgoing mail has left. This guy had a huge pick-up of priority boxes. Francine makes me drive to Poway (40 miles away) to take them to the plant up there. By then, I’m too tired to be enraged. I drive at a safe 50 mph, let my time on the clock add up, stop for a drink, and make it to the plant an hour and a half later. It is the day before my birthday.
The next time I see that particular carrier, I ask if I left my water bottle in his vehicle. He says, “No, that’s God’s punishment for being unorganized.”
October 28 — Through the space between two houses, I see an old man on his knees yelling for his wife, Ethel. I knock on the door and tell Ethel that her husband is on the ground, calling her name from the backyard. “Oh, dear,” she says. I finish the block, and on my way back to the truck, the old man is standing on his porch, smiling at me, hands clasped together in praise.
November 8 — Leaving work, I run into Hardass Greg at the Point Loma station. He’s dropping off the express for Andrew Jackson. Without thinking, I skid to a stop and yell, “Greg!” For some reason, I’ve dreamed of what would happen if I saw him again, what I would say. I thought about something cheesy, something they’d say in a movie, along the lines of: “I thought you were an asshole at first, but you made me a better carrier. Come here you sonofabitch!” Then we’d shake on it. He comes over to my car. He says he likes my car. He says it’s good to see me.
(…If you have a mailbox that I have to search for, you’re an asshole. If your mailbox is camouflaged to look like a part of your house, you’re an asshole. If you grow or place cacti near your box…why? If you want to know what delivering mail is like, try holding a rotting watermelon in your left arm and a pile of OK! magazines and white-supremacy pamphlets in your right hand. Wait until it gets to be 80 degrees. If you can suppress the anger of holding all that filth long enough to dispense it into a box, good for you. Now do it 300 more times. That’s a single work day. So, don’t be an asshole…)
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I’m heading out when my supervisor tells me that I’m supposed to clock in at 6:00 a.m. on Monday.
There’s a 6:00 a.m.?
These are 12-hour days. The union has agreed to lift the double-time penalty for working over 10 hours. You should see how happy the supervisors are when they realize they can work you for 12 hours.
I arrive, and there’s a mountain of boxes waiting for me. My new job is making parcel runs during the early hours of morning.
The regs catch wind of what I’m doing and become jealous. Why can’t you run parcels for my route? Jon, a senior carrier who calls me Brad Pitt, begins to bribe me with Egg McMuffins to carry his parcels…which aren’t really bribes, more like assignments to pick up his breakfast.
Then it begins to rain.
December is one of the rainiest months San Diego has seen in years. I leave to deliver parcels in the morning and drive through three feet of standing water on Midway Drive. Waves splash over the hood of the LLV, as if I’m driving a boat. Carriers call in sick by the dozen. Twelve-hour days become 13-hour days.
Then cards begin to show up in peoples’ boxes. Goddamn Christmas miracles!
“Thank you for carrying our mail.” There’s a $20 bill. Or a box of chocolates. Or even a goddamn plate of baked goods.
Those regulars who called in? Fuck ’em. Those cards meant for them are now mine.
I go into a frenzy. My satchel fills with so many gifts that I have to cover a swing twice to pick it all up. My pockets fill with gift cards and small tokens of gratitude. Finally, the credit that I deserve! I don’t even wait till I get home to eat the cookies, just chow down right in the truck.
Then I find a card at the bottom of a bag of baked goods. It reads: “To: The Andersons. From: Your Neighbors.”
One Sunday, outside of work, I run into one of the few openly gay carriers. Turns out, he lives close to my house. The next day, while I’m casing up a route, he comes over and asks me if I can give him a ride home. Due to how late I get off at night, it doesn’t really work out. After he goes away, Jon pokes his head between the cases and says, “Hey. Brad Pitt. I think he liiikes you.”
I get one letter to Santa. It’s from a girl named Amy, who wants nothing more than a pair of Ugg boots and a Fushigi ball. That night (after looking up what a Fushigi is), I write a reply:
“Dear Amy, seems like you’ve been a good girl, so I’m going to try my best to get you your Fushigi. Remember, no matter what you get, your parents love you very much. Love, Santa.”
Thinking it sounds too corny, even by kids’ standards, I add:
“And, Amy, tell your parents to check their mail every day.”