Christmas Begins and Ends at the U.S. Post Office

While waiting in line at the post office last week, I had to update an old and racist joke.

What does my local post office branch have in common with Pat Boone? Two white loafers.

There was a man, probably in his forties, that was angry at having to wait. His beef, which he explained loudly and to no one in particular, was that the Post Office should know that there would be crowds every day around five P.M. when commuters stopped on their way home. Why would the Postmaster fail to staff the desk appropriately? he wondered aloud. He muttered a few choice epithets and that, more than anything, marked the true beginning of the holiday season for me.

We have had a few cold darks already, and a blizzard struck over the weekend, blanketing the city in snow. Bad weather gives us something in common and is useful in conversation, but the basis of the conflict, Man versus Nature, makes it a personal problem; i.e, we all deal with bad weather in our own way, and it frustrates, punishes, or exhilarates us all differently. But it’s the anger and frustration that ripples through the holiday crowds that truly unites us as a people.

Going to the Post Office is a personal errand, but it’s a social activity.  There was a time when you could slap a number of stamps on a box and shove it in a mailbox and expect it to be delivered. Now, thanks to bomb threats, we have to hand a package to a clerk. That social aspect means people, and people means conflict. You can’t expect a herd of wildebeests to simply get along. Inevitably, someone gets a tail in the face, and then there is a bite in retaliation, and pretty soon someone is getting stomped by hooves. So it is with people. Rather, so it is with people in society.

The holiday anger can spike at stores over prices or availability of product, waiting for checkout clerks, or getting bumped in the aisle by other shoppers like so many wildebeests. That kind of anger is fairly random and sputters out as quickly as it flares up. Rarely do people go postal at the mall.

But at the post office, a great number of elements conspire to raise tension. There is the approaching deadline of the gift giving season. There is also the stress of packing, addressing, and paying for the package itself. Children waiting in line to see Santa Claus are anxious and impatient, but they know it will be a pleasant meeting with the man in red who will assure them that everything is going to work out fine. Waiting in line to see a Post Office clerk arouses a discomforting anxiety because there is always the challenge to your packing, and the chance that it will not arrive in time. Even priority mail is not guaranteed. It’s a wonder that there are not more heated arguments.

I once rushed several packages to the Post Office, boxes full of Christmas presents, hoping to get them started on their way to my family in states distant from my own. I arrived before the counter hours were over, but only just before. As I waited in line, I checked my cell phone’s time (which is universally recognized as the one true, correct time) and there were three minutes to go before closing time. As I stepped up, the clerk said, “Sorry, we’re closed.” She then reached up and pulled down the metal cage, slamming it shut even as I staggered up to the counter. I protested and shouted out the correct time, but she turned and walked away, leaving me to schlep back to my car with the large packages balanced in my arms.

I clearly haven’t forgiven that clerk, who is gone now and probably retired, and perhaps even dead. I can only hope that, as she approached the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter would have looked her over carefully, weighed her, asked several questions about her origins and contents, and then placed her in a bin with no real guarantee of reaching her destination, and no real promise when, if ever, that delivery might be complete.