Days and nights at the most maligned workplace in the country--the U.S. Postal Service.

On Sunday at the Mall of America, over 100 Twin Cities union members led by postal workers handed out a thousand shopping bags and leaflets critical of post office privatization and of Postmark America, a mall boutique opened in October by the U.S. Postal Service.

The union leaflet began: "Life is getting harder for too many of us. Millions of decent jobs, jobs which paid family-supporting wages and offered economic security, have been eliminated in the last twenty years. Far too many of the jobs which have replaced them are temporary, part-time, low-paying, often without benefits for ourselves and our families."

The store brochure begins: "There are heroes. And then, there are heroes. The Hollywood kind. And the real kind. POSTMARK AMERICA is a unique postal event that celebrates for the first time the real life of heroes of our nation's postal history." The brochure closes: "Where will the courageous explorers and trailblazers of the future be found? They'll be our own young Americans attired in their Just Delivered fashions & accessories."

The store's personnel, contract temps from Manpower, also have fuzzy bears dressed as mail carriers in postal blue and replica postal trucks, both made in China, for your little trailblazer.

On Sunday, union members, Christmas shoppers, mall security, and watchful temps milled around a sign at the store's entrance that reads: "Where the past meets the here and now."

True enough. But not the half of it.

Snow whistles sideways as I walk from the employee parking lot behind the St. Paul post office two weeks before last Christmas. I forgot my electronic passcard so I slip inside behind a guy in a mackinaw and watch cap. Along a walkway outlined by yellow tape I ask, "How come you know I'm okay to be here?" He gives me a late shift look and shrugs. "You aren't carrying a guitar case," he says.

In a space the size of an indoor football field, 24 dock doors span one wall. Across a concrete floor cluttered with rolling equipment used to move the mail, a wide ramp leads to the sorting floors. At the far end of the docks I hang up my dripping parka and put my lunchbox on a cabinet in the breakroom. The crowded room is dominated by a round table and six chairs, the domain of regular mail handlers. They are surrounded by casuals like me--part-time, temporary help--who stand around the walls in dripping boots and watch euchre and lightning chess games.

Just before 3:30 everybody moves out to mingle by the time clock at the supervisor's office. About two dozen of us work this end of the docks. Among the regulars are three women. The casuals include a couple black guys, some Mexicans, a Russian, and a mixed bag of gringos, or whatever we're supposed to be called these days.

This is my sixth temp job of the year, a prize at 11 bucks an hour with a night differential. If all goes well, both car and teeth get fixed.

We clock in and the supervisor, taut as a tuned guitar string, appears with today's roster. Looking us over she calls out names and assignments. I wind up on the center crew, which covers about a dozen dock doors.

Waves of afternoon mail begin to roll in from the countryside. Snow and cold swirls from the dock doors. Slam and clatter turns to roar. From somewhere a CD player thunders a bass line. Forklifts stream the ramp. The dock becomes a tiny stretch of whitewater in the great mail river.

Letters guided largely by hand to and from anybody anywhere in the country is a wildly impractical notion. There have been lots of quicker means over the years. Words by wire. By wireless. Pick up a handset, dial, and talk. Tap a keyboard and send instant digital mail to family, peers, and cohorts.

The postal service has endured for reasons beyond mere speed. Ben Franklin was the founding postmaster general. Tom Paine was next. Washington believed all newspapers--however partisan or radical--ought to be delivered free to make sure all the people were equally informed. The mail still laces every last one of us together, and not just those with the inclination and wherewithal to buy the latest gadget. You have an address, you have service. Use it when you want wherever you are. Thirty two cents for an ounce of words.

As our shift winds down, we reconfigure the rolling stock to channel a surge that will become the morning's work out in the countryside. Somewhere I hear a faint chirping. There is no time to ask about it. Mail streams down the ramp from upstairs. Dock doors slam open and we fill outgoing trailers. Suddenly we are in gridlock. The supervisor stands in its midst shouting dock door numbers and the names of men. It is like a moment of battle.

Then it's over. On this night over two million pieces of mail head every global distance and direction across our primitive junction. Included is a stack of chirping boxes with small circular holes. I peer into a hole. A quail peers out. One of four dozen en route from Florida to an upstate game farm.

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