Any pink slip can be disturbing. This one, from United Parcel, told me that four attempts had been made to deliver a package and that now item EX4307 was gone. Where, was not apparent. Back to sender, perhaps, whoever that might be, or maybe to the United Parcel warehouse. The slip advised me to call. I did. For two days, about 25 times. I finally decided to pay a visit, determined to see about my parcel and to inspect a business that was so busy no one could answer the phone. I had a nagging suspicion, however, that I was in for another of my "postal experiences" that would renew my faith in the odd humanity of the invisible gray clerk.
There had been a time, for example, not too long ago, when I had received no mail for two days -- a likely state of affairs, were it not for two facts: (1) my husband and I, both professionals, do a lot of business by mail and receive even more related junk solicitations; (2) no one on my street had had delivery for the same coincidental time. On the third day of no mail (a judgment that may have been premature, since delivery time is rather random and it was only 3 o'clock), I decided to call my local post office and make a brief inquiry. The day was sunny but my disposition dark. I was polite, reserved, proper, but perceptibly annoyed. Little did I realize that the psychology division of Post Office 11415 was ready for me with a compassion I never dreamed existed.
I told my tale, asked my question. There was silence on the other end.
"Hello," I continued, "anybody home?" My anger had already been undercut. SIlence still. Then, throad-clearing, and then a voice -- neither "harsh nor grating though with ample power to chasten and subdue." It was a voice concerned about my Predicament.
"Ah, lady," it began, "we're sorry about that. But it's not our fault. It can't be helped. You didn't get no mail" . . . (pause) . . . "Maybe you ain't too popular" . . . (pause) . . . Don't worry, you gonna get some soon. I promise. You be patient. That's it."
"You think that's it, huh? I get no mail because nobody loves me?" I ventured bolder now, adjusting my tone to his.
He sighed deeply. I saw phone lines sag. "Yeah. Life's kinda like that," he said.
"Life's kinda like that?" I echoed, caught between awareness of the cliche and the cunningness of the answer.
"Yeah, but don't worry. Like I said.There's gonna be deliveries very soon" . . . (pause) . . . "Con Ed's gonna love you, lady. And the water company and the government." He listed other promising suitors. He spoke of love and mail and many things. Sparkling, I listened. By the time he was through, itemizing a world of imminent affection through the mail, I was thankful for his time, apologetic about my complaint, and nonplused. It was to be the first of many such experiences.
And so, on this other sunny day, driving up to the United Parcel warehouse, I anticipated more than a response about the mail. I was not disappointed.
In spite of the emptiness of the stockroom and the fact that no one seemed to be using the phone (though the lights were on), I was ignored. A heavy glass window separating "them" from me remained closed. I flashed my pink slip. There was hesitation, but the glass window did go up a little. "What's the matter, miss?"
I could see that the exposition time would not be waived. I explained the slip and made my inquiry. The window moved up an inch or two more.
"Not home, huh? Didn't get delivery? The pink slip means they didn't find you," he elucidated." You wasn't in."
"They tried to deliver four times, young lady, four times," his partner volunteered. "Nobody home."
"I didn't know a package was coming." I was on the defensive. "I was out of town."
"Hmmm." The window now was cleared. "Four tries."
"I know," I said, falling into the pattern. "I'm sorry. I really wasn't expecting any package."
"You'rem sorry. Hey, Frank, she'sm sorry. How do you think hem feels?"
The plot was thickening. I rose to the occasion. "What do you mean, 'he'? Who-he?"
"The guy what sent you the package." The answer seemed simple, obvious. Frank nodded in agreement. Of course. They both grew silent then, starting.
"What guy?" I was caught again. Maybe they did know something about the package. Maybe there was coding on the pink slip. Frank patiently explained: "The guy that sent you the candy. You know. When you were outta town."
"Aren't you going to search to see if the parcel is still here?" I parried. "It may not have been sent back to the store."
"You should ask your boyfriend, lady. He can tell you."
Frank, however, was not so sure, my being out of town and all. Maybe they'd make a little search, now, just in case the package was still around. Then i could get my candy and "not have no trouble anymore."
The search began, a careful reconnoitering, since it seemed to take an unexpectedly long time. But for such as me, once unloved for two whole days, maybe three, these efforts on my behalf were very touching. The package, as it turned out, was not there, but as I left, they called out, solicitously, hoping I would behave with discretion and suggesting that next time I not waste time by coming in -- just call.
These two experiences (and they are merely representative) put me in mind of Jonathan Swift's qualified misanthropy about hating mankind but loving John, Peter, and Thomas. The postal system is sometimes deplorable: late mail, misdirected letters, Russian-novel bureaucracy -- enough to make us lose faith in the sense of service and in public institutions. What is remarkable, however , in a city like New York, where government dominates the employment industry, is how very many blue-collar workers have managed a system of their own to keep their hearts and minds from hardening. Of course, not everyone can be cast in their daytime dramas, but they seem to recognize the vulnerable in advance. More of us ought to succumb.
I know that my postman, Eddie, has reasons for continually leaving me someone else's mail -- always the same name, with an address that doesn't even come close, numerically, to mine. It's been going on like this for some time, though I speak to Eddie about it occasionally. He smiles sweetly, whispers something about "college kids messing it up" and how "some people like to lead double lives," and I know that it is only a matter of time before I accept another minor role in another human-interest play produced by workers in an often lonely city. In more senses than one, I have been impressed by their whimsical determination.