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

The urge to automate is not endangered at the post office. They once even studied the notion of firing mail to Europe in submarine-launched rockets. But the core work is human. Work by hand. There are parts of this country where the mail is still delivered every day by mule. It's hearsay, of course, when the heroes of commerce these days are its great downsizers, but it is possible that better postal service for the customer and the long-term public interest may be better served with more rather than fewer people in the postal service.

Symbols are everywhere in the postal service to remind you it's not a hotshot marketing idea that will come and go in a flash. Not a Schwarzenegger picture with Sinbad playing a postal grotesque. Not a low wage, high mark-up boutique.

A number one canvas bag weighs about 3.72 pounds. It is made in the prison systems, most recently in Illinois and Arizona. A leather-reinforced pouch version is still sometimes snatched off a harness by a moving train out in the middle of nowhere after midnight. The month and year a number one was made is stamped on its side. While sorting bags sometimes we'd look for the oldest date. Last summer's winner was March, 1930. Sixty-six years.

Some carts in use on the docks were invented by Elijah Nutting at the turn of the last century as baggage carts for the railroads. At the equipment center there was a stack of 200 broken all-aluminum, 485-pound carts that were supposed to replace the Nutting. But there weren't any of Nutting's shin bangers. They were all in service.

There are 23 kinds of bags in use, from heavy number ones to featherlight plastics. Now and then foreign bags turn up. Bags are like their countries. Swedish air mail a clean light gray with wide yellow and blue stripe and national crest. German somber grey with yellow and red stripe. The silken royal blue French model for a mail service, now privatized, that no longer guarantees delivery.

Fred Raabe began delivering the rural route in Hillview Mo., the week after Pearl Harbor. He still does, 55 years later. Walter Beams, who has farmed the Hillview Valley for decades, says, "Fred's the best rural carrier I ever had. You can set your watch by him. Of course, now that I think of it, he's the only one I ever had."

So the sign outside the new post office boutique at the Mall of America says, "Where the past meets the here and now." The fact is the postal workers milling around outside admire the place and would like to be a part of it. But Manpower temps and toys from China? What the hell could Washington be thinking?

Time for the dinner break approaches. It's Christmas Eve 1995. A clearing has been made amid the equipment. Two picnic tables have been brought in and the snow cleaned off. Break time approaches. Boxes are opened and food laid out. Tossed salads. Vegetables. Pies. Cakes. Casseroles.

The mail is in its nightly lull. At 7 a truck pulls up and the main course arrives. A huge standing roast of beef and container of fat potatoes that have been rolled in kosher salt, wrapped in foil and baked.

It is John's work. He fills in as cook at a nearby hotel restaurant. Now he slices off great steaming slices of beef and we fill our plates and find room at a table.

I get a queasy feeling. Val, the Russian, is standing behind me. He has no plate. You were supposed to pay five bucks for the main course and sign up to bring another dish, in my case a couple of pies. I turn around and look at him. I am committed morally. He has told me when his mother first came over they took her to Cub and she cried so hard at the food they had to take her home.

"Sit down." I cut him half my beef and get him a potato.

"What the hell's going on down there?" John's voice. I say I can't eat all that meat and don't want it to go to waste. In the time I explain, Val has cleaned his plate, gristle and all. John walks by and growls something short and Slavic. Val stiffens, looks at me, shrugs.

When I go for pie, John says, "Those sons-a-bitches always do that." Who? Do what? I let it ride.

An hour later, food and tables gone, the mail is running again and we are all side by side along that river that will roll by us for the next hour. The next day. Week. Years. My lifetime. Yours.

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