The last time I enjoyed being in a post office — sort of like enjoying being at the dentist, these days — was in the small, funky town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico with a woman who owns a house there on a ranch outside of town. When we dropped in to pick up her mail from one of the tiny gilded post office boxes, (and they really are boxes, one forgets), we had a great chat with the lively woman working at the counter. We admired the WPA murals and went for lunch.
Now that the U.S. Postal service is about to shut down thousands of post offices, many of them in small towns and rural areas like T or C….does it matter?
I think it does, as Walter Kirn wrote recently in The New York Times magazine:
The painful truth, of course, is that the post offices most likely to vanish also happen to function as the centers of the communities in which they’re situated. Social-networking sites aren’t just Internet phenomena. In Livingston, Mont., my current hometown, the post office does what Facebook only purports to as far as promoting human interaction. On the wide granite steps of the neo-Classical edifice that stands as one of our few local reminders that we 7,000 people of the Great Plains belong to a civilized modern nation, my neighbors and I trade news, contract for services and generally mix and mingle in a manner that permits us to feel like neighbors rather than strangers subject to the same weather. For people who live far out in the countryside or who are too old and frail to get around much, this can be a life-sustaining service, particularly in the winter months. The chance to chat improves folks’ mental health, and the failure of an old man to fetch his power bill for several days alerts others to go check on him.
I like the physicality of letters and packages, wrangling tape and cardboard and wielding a Sharpie pen for the address. I like the idea of a post office as one of the few services we all use, whether rich or poor, whatever our political views. In an increasingly divided country, it’s one of the few glues left.
As I prepare to launch my new book, I’ve sent a dozen of them out to reviewers in those little padded envelopes, lining up each time with a little bit of hope. With a mother living in another country, I’ve become adept over the years at minimizing the cost of the real contents I mail to her, and at finding gifts that won’t shatter or spill en route.
I have many great memories of post office visits while traveling — in Antibes, Florence, Paris, Venice, Sydney — but, sorry to say, very few as nice as that T or C encounter.
For me now, living in a small town north of Manhattan, my post office in recent years has beome a true circle of hell — dirty, understaffed and with clerks who seem to take a special delight in being rude because they know no one will discipline or fire them.
I’ve started to avoid the post office whenever possible, and that makes me sad and angry. I used to enjoy it.
And my damn taxes are paying for it.
What’s your local post office like?
Would you miss it if it were closed?