IN THE SHADOW OF THE INFORMATION AGE

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

Scams happen. 60 Minutes warmly empathized with the doctor but not just because of credit card fraud. They also assured us all they understood affronts--all too common these days--in which the carefully ordered lives of young American professionals are undone by people on the order of postal clerks.

There isn't just a huge income gap these days. There's a chasm of attitude in which a principal blue collar function is apparently to be on call for those among us who need to remain cell-phone ready in silver Japanese sedans. There isn't a corporate training or marketing plan these days that doesn't make clear that causing boomer indignity is at least unspeakable.

Now, about this word "disgruntled."

Sometimes we get snow, sometimes bitter cold. Tonight both. And tons of boxes, bags, Christmas cards, X-rays headed for diagnostic centers, free mail for the blind, catalogs and junk mail, newspapers, stuff to Bosnians or from Serbs, an amazing number of trinkets for John Madden, and long tubes or heavy bags of coins. Up the road or across the world.

A bundled-up man with ice in his beard comes in blowing and stamping. At his side is a boy no more than 5. The man is a contract driver in from a small town with a semi of mail. Nine below and his heater's out. He stands the boy at the wall by dock door seven and says, "Don't move." One of us throws the dock door up and the driver slams the lever on trailer hatch and jerks it open. We raise the steel runway at the edge of the dock and then walk up the ramp until it slams across the gap between the dock and trailer bed. The driver disappears into the darkness and a parade of mail begins. Equipment spins in all directions. Up into the building. To sorting. Other doors. Ramps rattle. Carts crash together. Shouting.

Then the trailer is empty. The driver slams the trailer door. The ramp is raised with a hooked rod and bangs down on the dock. The dock door rolls down and crashes shut.

The boy has stood silent and unmoving. Eyes large. Seeing what work is. How it sounds. Watching his father.

The boy's father takes him to the break room for hot chocolate. Other doors need hands. When I come back both have gone out into the winter and onto the road.

It is summer in another corner of the postal service. Dr. Bob has roused from his fatigue with another story.

"The English left rows of neat bungalows where their civil administrators lived. Our doctors and lawyers moved in. Sometimes they even kept the same houseboys and maids."

Dr. Bob is a Ghanaian and works day shift at a Mail Transport Equipment Center where I too have landed a 90-day casual job. Part of a four-man crew, we stand at adjacent carts called Nuttings that are piled with mail bags full of mail bags. We examine each bag for damage and overlooked mail, then turn and flatten it according to type and condition on squared stacks rising from a row of pallets behind us. Dr. Bob does this for eight regular plus two overtime hours on weekdays, plus eight more hours on Saturday. I do just the regular 40. Both of us have night jobs as well.

"A houseboy told a surgeon who had moved into one of the English bungalows that sometimes during the day a man came and slept with the surgeon's wife. The doctor said to phone him the next time he saw this. One day he did. The surgeon came home, waited until the couple napped, and chloroformed them both. When they awoke the wife was groggy. The man as well except he also had a neat bandage between his legs and no balls."

Dr. Bob came by his title because he wears a white face mask to ward off dust from the bags. John and Big Bob are the other two casuals on our crew. Both have come out of retirement, John to finance a family trip and Bob to pay unforeseen medical expenses. Together we examine 10 to 15 carts a day. Perhaps 4,000 bags. There are two other work crews like ours. Dwarfing us all in the long warehouse are rows of five-high stacks of pallets holding over a half million bags.

Some jobs in the postal service are active, interesting, or at least outside and in contact with the public. Not this one. Showing me around on my first day the supervisor said, "Whatever you've heard about job satisfaction, don't look for it here."

So you get your work done, get through the day, and then join up with your real life. After you learn the repetitive motions here everybody gets sorted out into crews in such a way that, like on the docks, there's rice in every bowl. What then?

Music wars for one thing. You're surrounded by boom boxes and CD players. From all sides comes U2, Travis Tritt, Soul Asylum, Rush Limbaugh, and somebody saying, "Ah come on, who's playing that shit?" Except when Tony, the large black guy, switches a boom box to R&B it doesn't get changed until he goes on break. Those with arcane or, by acclaim, no taste, eventually withdraw behind fixed eyeballs and personal headsets.

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