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

At 11:30 I log out on the clock and walk back along the yellow-taped walkway.

Late November. About a hundred of us sit in plastic chairs awaiting orientation. I am surrounded by thin, fine-featured black people. A woman in front of me stands and arranges her coat on the back of her chair. In big letters her T-shirt reads: "Born in the USA." Underneath and smaller it says: "...but 100% Eritrean."

Some Eritrean must have gotten the word out. It's what happens these days. Jobs open up and you find yourself in the midst of Somalis or Laotians or guys who last worked as guerrillas in El Salvador. Global disruption brings them to frigid Minnesota in search of social services and decent livelihoods most have found unavailable in warmer southern states. Clinton's States' Rights version of welfare reform is now arriving daily in St. Paul by Greyhound.

As orientation begins we settle back for friendly, upbeat talks about regulations and job expectations, which generally come down not to whether you can do the work but whether you can get along. You will be immediately escorted out if you swing at somebody or if you retaliate. A training video featuring Cliffie and the Cheers cast relieves the bureaucratic tedium and then we all get up and take the standard oath to uphold the Constitution and defend the country. The woman in front of me finishes repeating the words and gives her neighbor a quizzical look. The other shrugs. They don't seem ready to fix bayonets.

But every one of us has filled out a work record and had our fingerprints sent to local police and Washington for felon and warrant checks. We've all taken the drug whiz quiz, had a physical exam, and thrown some mail bags around to show we can hold up under modest duress. The most exotic mix of Americans in a century, we will work temporary jobs for a decent wage along that endless stream of mail. Last year there were over 27,000 of us to go with over 750,000 regulars.

I don't lead a carrier's work life, or a clerk's. I've seen the electronic sorters and moved carts in the slapdash maze of this woefully inadequate building that was erected in FDR's first term. To most people "the post office" means their carrier. Me too. But as a worker I feel most at home on the docks.

About 4 o'clock each day we set up a U-shaped arrangement of rolling equipment near the mouth of the ramp to the sorting areas. Here we do a preliminary breakdown of mail that goes upstairs or back out to other processing centers.

One day everybody seems to be elsewhere and I'm at loose ends, so I begin arranging equipment. John appears and says, "What the hell you doing?"

"Just setting up," I say. John leans on a hamper and watches until I stop, walk over, and stand near him.

"You ever see The Sand Pebbles? The Steve McQueen movie?"

I say no.

"McQueen shows up as new engineer on an American gunboat in old China. He works on the ship's engines all the time. Likes to do it. One of the crew finally takes him aside and tells him how things work. Chinese who seem to be everywhere on the boat do much of the daily work. It's an arrangement everybody's in on. The Chinese get some money but mostly are paid in rice. The idea is to make sure every Chinese has rice in his bowl at the end of the day. With no work there's no rice. You see that?" I nod.

"Then you understand how the post office works," he says and walks away. I go sit on a pile of sacks and try to think about nothing.

After a time the others begin to appear. Some wait at dock doors. Others arrange the U or move loaded and unloaded equipment into patterns agreed on by means of minimal gestures and nods. As if on cue, the early trucks start pulling in. The tempo on the docks suddenly rises, and we are again sorting out a Mississippi of mail with tin cups.

Processing mail is like counting populations, building roads, or providing public transportation or water supply. Huge undertakings. The kind where it doesn't take long to discover the work will never end. Then you understand that in order to survive, there has to be some internal balance to the work and within the workers. The labor will work best when it is runs at a commonly understood, reasonable pace. And somebody has to lay in enough rice.

A physician from Mayo tells 60 Minutes that after her mail abruptly lapsed, a postal clerk said she had filed a change of address card redirecting her mail to a P.O. box number in Brooklyn. The doctor said she had done no such thing. The clerk produced a signed card, but the signature wasn't a good match and one letter in the doctor's unusual name was wrong.

Sizable credit card charges had begun showing up on the doctor's account. Eventually a credit card scam running out of a Brooklyn storefront was uncovered and stifled, and the post office closed an enabling loophole in its change of address procedure.

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