Back in the late 1980’s I spent one long, hellish year as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. It was during that year that I learned the hard way that the road to Hell is lined with mailboxes.
I wasn’t the only carrier that hated my job. Sometimes a fellow carrier would call me on Sunday night and tell me that they were considering robbing a convenience store just so they could get thrown in jail. Anything was better than carrying the mail so I understood this logic. We were all kindred spirits and tortured souls.
Monday was the worst day for us because it had the heaviest mail volume of the week. We hated Mondays, but to be honest, we pretty much hated every other day of the week as well.
Yes, carrying the mail was a horrible job but there was one thing about it that made it interesting – I knew everything about the peeps out on my route. And I do mean everything. The FBI and the NSA might be spying on us, but they don’t know half of what your mail carrier knows.
When you carry someone’s mail you learn everything about them, like for instance what kind of marital problems they are having. I always knew who on my route was getting divorced. The first tip-off was the forward order for the husband. His mail would stop coming and then after a few weeks a new guy’s mail would start to show up. Yep, poor old Joe moved out and Raul moved in. And I knew Raul was doing more than just taking care of the lawn.
The squabbles between the married couples were always the most entertaining and also, sadly, the most viscous. One poor guy flagged me down while standing at the end of his driveway one afternoon because he wanted to explain why he had padlocked the door of his mailbox, and to also tell me why he had cut a slit in the door with a pair of tin snips. When I asked him why, he said that his soon to be ex-wife was coming by in the afternoons and stealing his mail before he got home from work. He cautioned me to be careful sticking the mail through the slit because he had purposely cut the edges jagged to deter anyone from sticking their fingers into the slot. He said this with a devious grin on his face.
And I also knew which husbands weren’t taking care of business. I knew this because I would deliver long, slender packages about the size of a flashlight to their house. Those packages didn’t contain flashlights, and they weren’t nearly as discreet as the wives thought they were. I knew what was in them.
I knew where the alcoholics lived, I knew when the DMV revoked someone’s driver’s license, and I knew who bought sexy lingerie for their wives because I would deliver their Victoria’s Secret credit card bill. I knew whose kids got into college and which ones had to move back home to the basement after they graduated.
I knew where the golfers, woodworkers, guitar players, fishermen and hot-rod car aficionados lived. You can tell everything about someone by the magazines they subscribe to.
I also knew where the porn addicts lived, and what kind of porn they liked. Most guys went for Playboy, because, you know, the articles are good. But some went for Penthouse, and occasionally I would deliver a Swank, Hustler or maybe even a High Society. In those days porn magazines came in brown wrappers which enabled me to sneak a peek before I put the magazine into the mailbox. This was one of the few perks that came with the job of carrying the mail. Come to think of it, it was the only perk.
I delivered red and green holiday greeting cards until I started to hate Christmas. Santa Claus had nothing on me when it came to delivering packages. Then after Christmas it was time to start with the Easter cards and the IRS tax forms. If there is one person that hates April 15th more than any other American, it’s a mail carrier.
I delivered Social Security checks until I started to loathe old people. Back then most of those checks weren’t direct deposited and they had to be delivered. And we had to make sure we didn’t put the check in the mailbox before the date showing through the little window of the envelope. To do so was a surefire way to bring on an ass chewing by the postmaster at the station.
I delivered so many certified letters from lawyers that I started to hate lawyers. You’d be surprised how many people are being sued every day.
I delivered registered mail and Express mail that I could not let out of my sight until it was delivered and signed for. That meant I had to take it with me if I went to the bathroom.
And then came the most pleasant part of the job – the interactions with the customers. Yes, the sweet, polite customers that thought that carrying mail was just a cushy government job with great pay and benefits. All they saw was me glide by in my mail truck, stop at their box and deposit a handful of mail. I’m sure it looked easy to them. What they didn’t see were the other four hundred boxes that I had to stop at, along with another three hundred boxes at the two apartment complexes on my route. And they didn’t know that I had thousands of letters waiting to be sorted when I got back to the station.
These people figured that since my job was so easy that I surely wouldn’t mind doing extra things for them. After all, they were “paying my salary” as they often reminded me.
For example, sometimes they would tape a few coins to their outgoing envelope where the stamp was supposed to be and then leave it in their mailbox and expect me to replace the coins with a stamp. That’s still funny when I think about. I repaid these people by “accidentally” delivering their mortgage bill to their neighbor’s mailbox.
My favorite customers were the ones that would stand by their mailboxes and try to get me to hand their mail to them instead of placing it in their box. It was against postal regulations at the time to put the mail anywhere but in the mailbox. You should have seen how bad this pissed people off. They would call and complain to my supervisor who always took my side because she knew I was following regulations. I would repay these people by delivering their electric bill to a house three streets away from theirs.
Some people would try to be nice and leave me a piece of fruitcake in their mailbox wrapped in tin foil. This always happened around Christmas when, like I said before, I was already in a foul mood from delivering red and green envelopes. But the rum in the fruitcake did tend to take the edge off of carrying the mail.
I also loved the customers that used the flag on their mailbox as a way to signal whether or not the mail had been delivered. They would leave the flag up when they came out to get their mail knowing that I would put it down the next day when I arrived with that day’s mail. All they had to do was look out of their window and if the flag was still up they knew the mail had not been delivered. Once I caught on I stopped putting their flag down. You’d be surprised at how many of these people called my station to complain. I rewarded them by delivering their credit card statement to their neighbor’s mailbox.
By far the angriest people were the ones that left their trash cans in front of their mailbox, thus blocking my access. I was not required to get out of my vehicle and if I couldn’t reach a mailbox because it was blocked by trash cans, or a parked car, then per regulations I was allowed to just pass right on by and take that box’s mail back to the station. Man did this piss people off, especially if they saw me drive by without stopping. And you guessed it, they would call and complain and I would reward them by delivering their cable bill to a house with the same street number but in the neighborhood next to theirs.
Sometimes I was able to have a laugh or two while out on my route. It was the only way I could hold onto my sanity. I was a rural mail carrier so I didn’t get an official postal Jeep with a steering wheel on the right-hand side. As rural mail carriers we had to use our own vehicles and those vehicles had to have automatic transmissions. I would sit in the passenger’s seat with a lap full of mail and steer with my left arm while using my left leg to press the gas and the brake pedals. All rural carriers did this unless they bought their own surplus mail Jeep. Often I would sit at stoplights and watch how people reacted when they saw that the driver’s seat of my small pickup truck was empty. I didn’t have any signs on my truck that said U.S. Postal Service so they didn’t know I was delivering the mail. I’d sit there acting like I was having a conversation with a person sitting in the driver’s seat that only I could see. Then I’d tap the gas and move the truck forward a foot or two and continue on with my conversation with this imaginary person while waiting for the light to turn green. Sometimes I would point my finger at the invisible driver and then get animated like I was arguing with them. People in the cars around me would go bananas thinking that I was in a driverless truck having a conversation with a ghost. Then the light would turn green and I would drive off. The looks on their faces were priceless.
It took me about a year before I figured out that life was too short to spend it hating every single minute of every single day. That’s the life of a mail carrier. At least it was back in the 1980’s when the mail volume was very heavy and there was no such thing as email. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was when the porn magazines suddenly started coming in plastic envelopes. Gone were the brown paper wrappers, and with them the only perk that made carrying the mail even remotely tolerable.
Once I couldn’t get a free peek at the latest issue of Swank magazine, I knew it was time to turn in my notice and move on. On the day I quit, my supervisor congratulated me and told me she was happy that I was escaping while I still could. She said it was too late for her, but that she had never understood why a young guy like me wanted to carry the mail.
She knew, just as I did, that the road to Hell is lined with mailboxes.