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New York, New York

George Eastman House

Going Postal

This summer, record highs turned the city into a pressure cooker—and its inhabitants didn’t suffer it mildly. Braving the brimstone to mail a package.

It was a long, hot summer this year. Somewhere in early July a mass of superheated ammonia and carbon monoxide moved over Manhattan and pretty much stayed there the next eight weeks. Old people stayed in their apartments. Young people called old people in their apartments—or at least texted (“u ok? 2 ht?”). People used umbrellas against the sun, surgical masks against the air. They trundled down the street looking glazed, bedraggled, homeless.

I try in general not to let the weather affect me, try not to complain. And I did pretty well at first. For a while I just pretended I was living in Morocco, and it seemed to work. I have to admit, though: After a few weeks, it started to get to me. I started to get short-tempered, snappish. I got impatient at my Chinese takeout, waiting for cold noodles (“How long does it take to make something collllllld?!”) Pretending I was in Morocco didn’t work anymore. Instead I pretended I was in hell.

Then Mercury went retrograde. Astrologers say a planet is “retrograde” when it appears to reverse its course and begin moving backward through the zodiac. (Scientists explain this as an optical illusion caused by differing orbital speeds.) When this happens, according to astrologycom.com, the energy of the planet—in this case Mercury, the planet of communication—is also reversed, “sending communications, travel, appointments, mail [my emphasis] and the www into a general snarl-up!” It’s not a good time to have important discussions, sign a contract, get a haircut. If you post a new profile pic on Facebook, probably no one will notice. And while in general it hampers communication, it seems to increase blogging. Mercury went retrograde Friday, Aug. 20, the day my computer died. A week later my cable box melted.

And somewhere in the heat and warped planetary energy, the summer ended. It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend, midafternoon; the temperature had climbed to the 90s again, with humidity like lead. People were cranky with the heat; they were cranky with the end of summer—and they were cranky because if they were still in town Friday afternoon they hadn’t been invited anywhere for Labor Day.

I needed to go to the post office. The German edition of a pornographic book I wrote had just come out, and a friend in Paris wanted a copy. He doesn’t know German, but he’s excited to see my filth in another language. The air was slightly spongy as I walked into the lobby. The air conditioning was on, of course, but not quite enough, and the atmosphere was a little heavy, a little thick, like at the aquarium.

A group of eight or so customers huddled glumly in the labyrinth of stanchion roping leading to the service windows. Most of them were clutching some manner of form, which they were trying to fill out on the back of a package, a purse, a thigh. Maybe it was just the heat, but one woman looked as if she were about to cry. She shot a furtive, timid glance over at a squat, solidly built woman in a postal uniform standing resolutely between the line and the windows.

“Does everyone have the right form now!?!” the postal worker roared in a nasal bellow.

“DOES EVERYONE HAVE THE RIGHT FORM?!?”

The crowd nodded meekly. I had taken my place in line behind the woman who looked as if she were about to cry.

Postal workers are like electrons: You can gauge a postal worker’s speed or his position, but not at the same time.Please…” she leaned in and whispered intently to the man ahead of her, “Please can I use your pen. I’ll give it right back, I promise.” She peered over her shoulder at the postal worker, who now prowled the periphery of the ropes, craning her head in now and then to see what the form situation was. (“You want return receipt with that? That’s not the right form.”) She stopped by me for a second, looked at my package. I wanted to say, “I just need to mail some pornography,” but she snorted and moved on. The man had given Crybaby a pen and then resumed monitoring the service windows, letting whoever was at the front of the line know the exact moment the next one was free:

“Excuse me…Excuse me, the window is open.”
“There’s a window open.”
“There’s a window.”
“Window 3.”

Ten minutes of constant vigilance later, and he himself was at a window, Crybaby a minute or so afterward. I was at the front of the line. I figured when I got to the window I’d ask the different rates for sending the package to Europe, even though I knew I’d end up just using regular airmail. But sometimes it’s fun to hear how expensive something could get.

A woman in a yellow sundress at Window 5 scooped up her stamps and change, said a smiley goodbye, and left. The window clerk waved me over with a flick of his hand. At first I thought the package—just a fairly thin book mailer—might make it through the regular window slot, but when I tried to do it, the clerk snapped, “No! Don’t do that!”—and a second later: “Don’t ever do that.”—and slid the metal bar on the transfer chamber. (Looking back, I realize the “Don’t ever do that” was a warning flag, but at the time I just thought he was enthusiastic.) I pulled up the security glass and put the packet in the chamber, which always makes me feel like I’m sending an isotope. He took it from the chamber and put it on the scale.

“Could you tell me the differ—”

“I WAS SUPPOSED TO GO TO LUNCH AT 2:15!”

I looked up at him. He was twisted away from me, leaning his face toward a woman a few feet behind him. I hadn’t really looked at him when I first stepped up to the window. I saw now that he had a mole-like quality. For that matter, the woman did as well. Everyone back there did. The lighting was awful, something gray-yellow and brown, something worse than fluorescence, worse even than those curly eco-light bulbs (I mean: Who cares that the earth is beautiful if our lighting makes us look like shit?). It was in fact so awful that I thought it might be an experiment, some Department of Defense thing about bad lighting, and they were using the postal workers as guinea pigs. It makes sense. Postal workers make interesting test subjects. They’re not like the rest of us. Postal workers are like electrons: You can gauge a postal worker’s speed or his position, but not at the same time.

“That’s not my—”

“IT’S NOW AFTER 3:00!”

“—problem.” Her eyes told him to lower his voice.

He wasn’t reading her eyes.

“I WAS SUPPOSED TO GO AT 2:15. I WAS TOLD 2:15, YOU SAID 2:15, AND NOW IT’S 3:00. AFTER 3:00.”

“When Mike gets back—”

“AND I’M NOT RATTING ON ANYONE, I’M NOT RATTING ANYONE OUT”—[In June the body of a 61-year-old postal worker was found in a dumpster in California.]—“I’M NOT SAYING ANYTHING ABOUT ANYONE. I’M JUST SAYING—”

“Tell Mike—”

“NO, NO, I’M NOT TELLING MIKE ANYTHING. OR: YEAH, YEAH, SURE, OK, YEAH: I’LL TELL MIKE. I DON’T CARE. I’M HUNGRY. I’M STARVING. I JUST WANNA EAT. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE 2:15…”

I thought, “Oh my god, he’s…going postal!”

Like millions of other Americans in this economy who have placed their last, threadbare hope on getting a reality TV show, I start checking the camera angles on just about anything even mildly interesting that happens to me. Postal work became synonymous with sudden (mass-)murderous impulses back in the ’80s. Between 1986 and 1997 more than 40 people were gunned down by postal workers in incidents of workplace rage. While the post office garners a good deal of publicity for its homicide rate, it’s not the most likely place to get killed by a disgruntled coworker. The highest rate of workplace killings is in retail. The next highest, public administration. So you’re more likely to be killed by the greeter at the Gap or the caseworker at the food stamp office than you are to be offed for being at the wrong window at the wrong time.

Not all postal workers are spree killers, of course. Some of them are thieves. Late last month a postal worker in Fairbanks, Alaska, was convicted of stealing $100 worth of Walmart gift cards from a customer on her route. A couple weeks earlier a Washington, D.C., postal worker was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to repay over $132,000 in U.S. and District treasury checks that she stole from customers. Back in May, 20,000 pieces of mail were found in a Philadelphia postal carrier’s garage, the same month a Houston postal worker was busted for stealing Netflix movies. In June, seven postal workers in New Orleans were charged with a range of federal crimes, including stealing mail or simply throwing it away.

As the encounter escalated—Mike had come back, apparently from lunch—I reassured myself that the security glass was probably bulletproof. I didn’t know how far things might go, but, like millions of other Americans in this economy who have placed their last, threadbare hope on getting a reality TV show, I start checking the camera angles on just about anything even mildly interesting that happens to me. Being the last customer a disgruntled postal worker served before picking up the Uzi could be my springboard into something kicky and fun on Bravo. I had one idea for a show called Disgruntled, where they get me a job in a post office to see if I go berserk. (I’m pretty good when I go berserk. I think people would watch.) Or I also thought it might be fun if I went and lived with the disgruntled postal worker’s mother.

The disgruntlement raged and roiled—my guy in full rant, Mike responding in a calm yell, the manager tossing in disclaimers—while he stamped, stickered, and tagged my package, jabbing information into the keyboard. Then, right at me:

“$7.32!”

It was nearly a cry.

I gave him a 10. He slammed my change into the slot and turned to the huddled masses in the ropes.

“NEXXXXXXT!!!”

An elderly woman approached, head lowered.

As I left, there was a man standing off by himself in an empty part of the lobby near the parcel pickup. The sun came a little muddier through the windows there, and he stood looking grimy and dull in the orange light. He was there when I came in, had been apparently for some time. I heard him telling the form lady that he was waiting to see the manager. They had messed up his change of address. She looked at him funny, unbelieving.

“They told you he was gonna come see you?”

“Yes,” he said.

She shrugged and walked away.

He was still there now, still waiting. He wasn’t talking anymore, wasn’t really moving. He just stood there, staring at the display of packing materials: the bubble wrap, the styrofoam peanuts. They say you should talk to people who are in a coma, so I went up to him, took his hand, told him, you know, just little things: how my day had gone, what I was making for dinner, what I was going to watch on TV.