Going Postal: It All Makes Sense

The co-worker sitting next to me was fixing his breakfast at the morning staff meeting. He took out one Tupperware full of peanut butter cereal puffs and one full of milk. He pried the lids from both, poured the milk on the cereal, replaced the cereal’s lid, and shook the container like a maraca.

“Don’t get cereal milk on me,” I said, moving my things just a little farther away.

“You’ll go postal, right?” he said as he dug in his spoon.

I work in the hospitality industry, but my coworker didn’t worry that I would go hostal. Despite centuries of atrocious acts committed by husbands or wives, no-one says Jack Torrance went spousal at the Overlook. If an oral hygienist had a meltdown, we wouldn’t say she’s gone dental. If a realtor has a tantrum, has he gone rental? No: they’ve all gone postal, and to me, this makes sense.

It’s more than the nosy comments from my present mail carrier on the days I happen to be home. “You join a book club or something?” “You’re not really gonna read all those books, are you.”

The number of books I order online is, of course, part of the postman’s continued livelihood, but it’s also none of his business.

There are also the endless trials of actually going to the post office. I don’t mean just waiting in an acres-long line at a center city location because two of about sixteen windows are intermittently in service. There’s the difficulty my husband and I have mailing packages to his parents.

“And what country is this going to?”

“South Africa. The address is already written on there.”

“Yes, but what country in Africa?”

When I, an apparent dunce, am not sure which envelope is the right one for international versus domestic or standard versus priority versus express, the worker behind the counter at one office helps by pointing at three nearly identical envelope racks and saying, “That one!” over and over again, a little louder and angrier each time.

Despite what I see as a history of surly and unreliable service, some postal workers exhibit enormous, even aggressive pride in their infallibility.

Once I sent a package that never arrived. I mentioned the lost package the next time I was at the counter of that office. The postal worker froze and looked at me the way Senate Republicans must look at Olympia Snowe when she votes for health care reform or a review of the prison system.

“The Postal Service. Does not. Lose. Packages.” She said.

I was feeling feisty and I flashed my gauntlet. “Well, this package was never delivered.”

“Did you ask the recipient if it arrived?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, that package was definitely delivered. That person lost it, and didn’t want to tell you, or else it just got buried on someone’s desk after it was delivered.” It was a bit much to assert that the USPS has never lost a single item, but implying that my friend was a disorganized liar was adding insult to injury. (Why, may I ask, does Netflix maintain a link to report “shipping problems” on its DVDs?)

I met a postal employee with similar assurance just last week, when I had to mail sensitive documents to a government office to obtain a new passport in my married name.

“I’m nervous about putting these documents in the mail,” I said at the counter. “I think I’d like a trackable, guaranteed overnight service.”

The postal worker looked at me as if I’d just asked her to babysit her infant godson, but demanded that she keep him helmeted in a padded room full of Nerf toys. Clearly she had caught the subtext of my request: I’ll give you a chance, but I really don’t trust you.  “We are not going to lose your paperwork,” she said.

“So are you saying you think it’s not necessary to pay the extra fifteen dollars for overnight service?” I asked.

“Well now, that is YOUR decision,” she said. “I cannot advise you on that.”

“The Post Office has lost a package of mine before,” I announced.

“Oh, really,” she said, in the exact voice I would use if I met a real live Creationist and he told me that the Grand Canyon was made by Noah’s flood 6,000 years ago.

“Did you have that package insured and tracked with Express service?” she asked.

“No.”

“Well then.”

In other words, it’s my fault no matter what.

“The US Postal Service is the best in the whole world,” she said as she handed me the label for overnight service. “And I don’t just say that because I work for them. Other countries, anyone can just rip into your mail. But not here. Your mail is protected.”

I thought about mentioning the time a letter to me arrived weeks late and mangled, with the envelope ripped open down the side and stapled back together, but filed that under “unproductive” and kept quiet.

Sometimes my aggravation with postal workers is not due to their irritating insinuations and denials. It’s an apparent refusal to exert themselves at all.  Once, the interruption of our mail coincided with a minor snowstorm that left about three inches of snow on our apartment driveway. At first, I thought the next three or four days were an inexplicable respite from credit card offers and supermarket circulars. But when the resuming of our mail coincided with the melting of the snow, I realized that our postman had been disdaining his usual walk to our front door mailbox. Throughout the winter, whenever there was any snow at all in our driveway, we had no mail. The Pony Express it wasn’t.

But some former post-college roommates of mine may remember our most harrowing postal interaction to date. This postman would also skip our house if there was ice or snow in the yard. (So perhaps my expectations are too high, and it’s a settled postal regulation that nothing stops the mail – except for ice or sleet or snow and if the postman therefore doesn’t feel like walking up to your mailbox.) But in good weather, we noticed a curious phenomenon. The mailman would leave our incoming mail, but nothing would induce him to take our outgoing mail. He simply added our incoming mail to it. I tried propping up the outgoing envelopes, or making it stick out of the box a little, to tip him off, since the little red flag obviously wasn’t enough. When that failed, we tried putting a Post-It (an appropriately named sticky note, in this case) on the box which said “Please Take Outgoing Mail!!” The end result of this was that I called the local post office to complain and then took my mail with me in the morning, to drop into a city box.

On Halloween that year, I was feeling festive, and decided to try an experiment. I put some candy in a bag with a note: “Happy Halloween to the mailman!” and left it in the mailbox. If he couldn’t be bothered with taking our mail out, would he take an item meant for his own self? I also wanted him to know that there was more to us than our patronizing, emphatic little Post-Its and complaints.

Things came to a head that day. We had a mailbox like this:

and instead of leaving our incoming mail comfortably vertical in the box, the mailman had jammed it horizontally down in the bottom of the box with what could only have been the force of a karate chop. Once I pried the scuffed and bent envelopes out, the candy was revealed mashed in the bottom of the mailbox. My roommates and I convened that night, and we discussed the terrifying turn the situation had taken. It was not the last time we would come home to karate-chopped mail – obviously, we had pushed the mailman too far.

Sometimes when I was home on Saturdays, the mail truck would pull up opposite our house. I could see the mailman in there, just sitting. What was he doing? I could never figure it out from behind the curtains. Eventually he’d pull away. My housemates and I agreed that it was probably best not to leave the house for any reason until he was gone.

And there you have it. The term “going postal” is not simply a mysterious quirk of the English language which adapted a few tragic workplace events of the 80’s and 90’s into an enduring idiom. As a body of people who, in my experience, seem uniformly averse to going the extra mile or taking any responsibility, perhaps postal workers have a naturally lower tolerance for life’s challenges than other professionals. You can trace the origin of the term “going postal” to the obviously threadbare patience of nearly every postal worker I’ve ever met just as surely as you can trace the roots of modern English through the Norman conquest.

I work in tourism. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never delivered a letter. If droplets of someone else’s peanut butter cereal milk got on my notebook, my co-worker was right: I would have gone postal.

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