There are few public spaces other than the local post office where people in the community can gather regularly to conduct business and to socialize. Indeed, such interactions are often cited by those opposed to post office closings, especially when such facilities are situated in smaller towns and rural communities. I wasn’t out to test this proposition, but allow me to describe what I observed at my local village post office the other day.
You never know how long you will be there, especially when mailing a package. In most instances, you’d best be prepared to wait (which is why I saw people who, after sizing up the line, performed an about-face and promptly left). Predicting wait times is difficult because of the wide range of services offered. If it were just about stamps, there would be few delays, but it can also involve packages, passport information, insurance, return receipts, money orders, mail pickups, special delivery, etc. Were there a sufficient number of postal workers at the counter, all could proceed relatively smoothly. But inevitably there seems to be one too few, or worse, a clerk stationed at the front (behind a “Window Closed” sign) performing some mysterious administrative task, and therefore “unavailable”. That was the situation on this occasion.
Once the line grew it didn’t take long before those waiting recognized they had a common grievance, and by word or gesture began venting their displeasure. (Being in no particular rush I did not join in.) Growing increasingly impatient they began muttering darkly about the poor service and wondering, out loud, why more postal clerks were not out on the floor. The woman in front of me, visibly upset by the situation, suddenly bolted the line and headed for the exit. Not before angrily exclaiming, however, that “I’m never going to get service here.” Meanwhile, someone turning to one of the clerks shouted, “Why is it taking so long?” This elicited an immediate response from yet another person. “What do you expect? It’s the government”, which in turn prompted a worker who, ignoring the question, shot back, “Listen, I got one year and eleven months to go before I’m out of here.” At that point a man next to me, in a tone that of resignation, observed that, “We’re going to have to pay the pensions of those guys”.
When I at last arrived at the counter (with a large package) it was time to hear from the “other” side. I know these workers; so they’re usually up front with me. One lamented the fact that he had to deal with such heckling and pressure daily. “The fellow who just left asks me every time to explain the difference between UPS and the USPS (United States Postal Service). You’d think he would get it by now”. To which his associate added, “And he always asks if it will get there.” “I hear that all the time”, the other added.
So what I encountered in my local post office that day was not the genial neighborliness we’d been told to expect, but impatience, frustration and anger. Maybe next time it will be different.