Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Going Postal

“A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
-Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

We manly men like to think of ourselves as capable of accomplishing anything. The more abilities we perfect, the more we can lay claim to the vaunted title of “Renaissance Man.” I could be the exception to that rule.

I recently enlisted as a Rural Carrier Associate with the United States Postal Service. After all, how hard could it be, roaming up and down neighborhood streets in those small but beefy mail delivery trucks? There are a dozen Postal Service workers in the chain of events getting your mail from here to there. Twelve persons receiving, collecting, sorting and sending, proofing and posting, servicing and serving, casing and carrying and finally, delivering letters and parcels, magazine and “advo’s”—advertising circulars—to your mailbox.

The Postal Service recently contracted with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. Fed-Ex and UPS also contract with USPS to deliver some parcels on routes that aren’t economically viable, since postal carriers do visit every address in America every day. Twice a week, the USPS is asked to place those light-reading materials known as advertising inserts into the mail stream, which effectively doubles the volume of mail to be delivered on those days. All of these extra functions must be performed without fail, within time constraints, and regardless of the weather.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That’s not the official motto of the USPS, but the phrase is engraved on the front of the James Farley Post Office building in New York City. And it’s quite apropos, even though the Postal Service does indeed cancel deliveries from time to time on occasion of extreme weather conditions.

I mention all of these factoids to point out that the men and women of the USPS are among the ranks of modern day heroes for being able to perform as they do. Each one knows his route intimately enough to be able to catch nuances that would otherwise delay delivery of important items. Hundreds of mailboxes; hundreds of addresses; hundreds of names, all mentally compiled and adjusted daily, as old customers move on, and new customers move into the route.

So earlier this year I was invited to interview for a position as a Rural Carrier Associate. I was assigned to a West Houston post office station, where I tagged along with a veteran carrier for two weeks. She was spectacular, and the difference in the way men and women think was never more glaringly pronounced than when I tried to learn her “system” for running her mail route. 

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars.
Men are linear thinkers, and women’s brains are more like The Matrix, which is a helpful thing to have as a postal carrier.

We “cased” the mail together—preparing bundles of mail grouped by address for delivery. We drove the route together, delivering and picking up from regular customers, both individuals and businesses. I began to have a greater appreciation of what postal carriers do each day. Which brings us full-circle to the Dirty Harry quotation about knowing a man’s limitations.

I was essentially able to complete about half as much work as the regular mail carrier in about twice the time it normally takes. I was counseled by one well-meaning postal worker to sort the mail right-handedly, so the addresses would be right-side up for everyone else. I am acutely left-handed.

I consider myself a pretty well-organized guy—but trying to arrange and remember stop sequences and packages unfamiliar to me was a learning curve I barely climbed before the regular carrier left for a well-deserved vacation. My first day solo on the route was a disaster.

One of the sources of stress for postal workers is the deadline at the end of the day to get “raw mail” collected on each route ingested into the postal system for distribution and delivery. There’s a big truck that visits each neighborhood postal station every evening to gather all incoming letters, parcels and packages, and deposits them at Houston’s central mail processing facility. 

As a postal carrier, you cannot miss that truck.
I did.
More than once.

Remember the “advo’s” that are delivered on Monday’s and Tuesday’s?
My already slow delivery time was compounded by dealing with the unwieldy print pieces that were difficult to manipulate—right- or left-handed—and impossible to easily place in some mailboxes already over stuffed with weeks' worth of other mail.

And here we come to a sidebar: The Postal Service is phasing out curbside boxes. They’re going to the MBU—multiple box units—that carriers can fill by making one stop. It’s an efficiency thing…unless people are lazy about picking up their mail. 

Apartment dwellers are the worst. I pulled pounds of mail from some boxes because they were so solidly packed, not another ounce of mail could be placed inside. Dealing with over-stuffed boxes slows down the delivery process, too.
It was poison for me.

The routines and rhythms of postal work can be learned in time. When you’re up against the clock to learn a route so someone else can take vacation, however, is a different kind of pressure. I failed. I admit it. I had other postal workers helping me case the mail. Others were bailing me out by delivering mail to parts of the route I couldn’t complete before the mail truck deadline.
It was taking three people to do one route. 

On a Tuesday night, after returning to the postal station way past time, I was told to not come in the next day. “Take a rest,” they said. “Come back refreshed.”
I’m no dummy. I was creating more havoc than the system could handle.

I resigned as a Rural Carrier Associate that week.
The entry-level position I’d hoped to use as a foot in the door for other work more suited to my skill set was a rung on the ladder impossibly high to reach.
A man’s gotta know his limitations.
I do.

This essay is featured in the October 15 edition of Houston Woman Magazine.

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