Over the last few months, I have spent more time at the post office then in my entire life combined. A confluence of factors, namely the start of several new business ventures, as well as the need to empty our P.O. box of its obligatory New Yorker, Yoga Journal, Forbes, and the blizzard of offerings for everything from computers to nail salons - necessitates these visits, during which time it never fails to amaze me how much the place serves as a microcosm of society. On any given visit, one witnesses the gamit of human emotions - anger, frustration, boredom, surprise, relief, confusion - the list goes on. The pattern repeats itself clearly - there is always the ridiculously long line of people waiting to be helped at the window; the confusion about Express mail vs. Priority; people with stamp issues or concerned about delivery times, reluctantly handing over their precious boxes to the agents at the counter as if they were children. There is always the presence of large, no doubt expensive machinery, that no one ever uses - the forever out of order stamp machine, the credit card only postal meter that no one understands how to use- huge blocks of metal standing idle in the lobby like the abandoned set of a science fiction movie.
During every visit, however, there is always an element of surprise. During the holiday season, I saw a young woman in a ponytail and ski suit camped out right smack in the middle of the post office floor organizing her packages for mailing. She had all her tools with her: scissors, packing tape, gift wrap, etc. and enough boxes to send to an army. Everyone looked at her, muttering comments like: "couldn't she have done this at home?" and "What is that girl doing?" as if she were commiting an indecent act. She ignored them all, and stayed for nearly an hour as she taped, sealed, folded, labeled, and didn't budge until she finished wrapping every last package. A few weeks ago, a woman stormed into the main section of the building and screamed at the top of her lungs:" Who left their dog tied up outside! Claim your dog, whoever you are!" You could have heard a pin drop. I didn't see anyone step forward, but by the time I left, the golden retriever, which had been yapping for quite some time, was gone.
I have overheard couples arguing, and men and children crying. I have seen people in denial at the infamous "Window 1" which is supposed to be for package pick up but serves at the ultimate destination to vent about just about anything, to whoever happens to be there to listen. "If you never got your package, then it's lost," I heard someone explain. "There's nothing we can do if we don't know who it's from." The thing about Window 1 is that it is marked by a metal pole and a yellow dividing line, and you are not allowed to cross the line until the agent behind the window calls your name - or better yet, motions you over. It's kind of like how I imagine a movie premiere, but there's no "Toms" on the other side (Hanks or Cruise), just Carmen or Yvette, or Stan, who can tell you everything you would ever want to know about First Class restrictions, but will probably never be famous. But then again, probably neither will I. The line can get hopelessly long, as people sigh and mutter and stare at their watches and wonder at the inefficiency of it all. While I am waiting, I think of a million ways the situation could be improved upon. Why not widen the window so two people can help instead of one? Why not post a "frequently asked questions" sign so people who shouldn't be on the WIndow 1 line can scurry off elsewhere? These are great ideas--I'll e mail them in. "Why does it have to be this way?" I say in the meantime to the woman next to me, who has already made four calls on her cell phone as well as significant progress on a scarf she is knitting for her husband. She shrugs her shoulders.
This morning, I had an envelope to mail. I was not near the post office - I just needed a plain old mail box, but every box I went to was so stuffed that I couldn't get drawer to open enough to deposit my envelope. I ended up walking five blocks,growing more and more frenzied, passing three more mailboxes before I found one I could open. I would have been better off at the post office! Suddenly, I missed it, everything from its awful fluorescent lighting to its depressing walls. I vowed I would only send my mail from the post office from now on, no matter how trivial it was. I thought about my envelope, which was nothing crucial at all. In fact, it was just a subscription enrollment for yet another magazine I probably didn't need, and would inevitably be waiting in line for in a week or two, along with the rest of the world.