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Adventures in the Postal Wilderness

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When you work a certain profession, you become acquainted with, and get to know, a lot of other industries. Policemen spend a great deal of time with paramedics, lawyers, and firemen. If you work in advertising, you probably meet plenty of graphic designers, printing companies, and artists. Farmers know the feedman, the blacksmith, and the vet.

For aspiring authors, we spend a tremendous amount of time in the company of postal employees.

A few years ago, I frequented a post office in the Northern Virginia area. Marking his territory in this particular post office was a tall, burly man, with a face like Teddy Ruxpin. Yeah, the old teddy bear toy your little sister had. Instead of a doll, imagine if those Chucky movies used a teddy bear and this was your guy. He was efficient, knew his job, and moved with amazing swiftness. But he lorded over his counter like the Soup Nazi. If you did something wrong, didn’t fill out the write label, it was back of the line and no commemorative Elvis stamps for you!

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He had been eyeballing me for some time. With my arms loaded down with manuscripts, envelopes that needed the postage twice (one for the postage to the magazine and one for the SASE so it could be returned from the magazine) I was probably the bane of his efficient life. I knew what I was doing so he couldn’t banish me to the back of the line, but dealing with all those envelopes clearly irritated his routine.

One day I go in there and all the postal employees are clearly on-edge. Cops are in the lobby and the line is long. This is, after all, a suburb of Washington, DC and the anthrax scares had just hit. I stand in line, hoping to get another window and not have to face Teddy Ruxpin, but like an unlucky lottery, I’m stuck at his window. I put down all my envelopes and he stares at me and says in this deep bass voice, “What are you doin’ in here all the time? What are you up to with all these envelopes?” Now, I know I could have stood my ground, called the ACLU and told him it was none of his business. But at the time, I just wanted to mail my crap and get out of there. So I said “I’m a writer. These are stories I’m sending out.” He sneered and picked up the first envelope on the pile. He gazed at the address and then looked at me and said “Oh, I see, you ain’t a terrorist. You just a perv.” The envelope he picked up happened to be the one addressed to the literary editor at Playboy. Clearly, he was unaware of all the Nobel Prize winners they’ve published.

Now, I go to a different post office in a different city. And this post office is on the cutting edge of technology. They have a machine in the lobby where you can weigh your item, insert your credit card, print your stamps, and be done. It’s a great idea and saves a lot of time. But it’s a little unwieldy for multiple packages and all the different envelopes and all that. So I usually prefer to stand in line and go up to the counter the old fashioned way.

Clearly proud of this new technology, the post office has stationed an employee there in the lobby to help people use this machine. If she wasn’t a civil servant, I would swear she’s working on commission. This woman hustles. By God, if you walk anywhere near the doorway to the post office, she’s going to ask you if you want to use this kiosk. Take a Wal-Mart greeter, throw in the fervor of a religious zealot, and toss in a little bit of someone who’s just started their 12 step program. That’s how aggressive and outgoing this woman is. She seems nice, a little overweight, with long, brittle black hair. She kind of looks like Witch Hazel from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Except her skin is normal colored, not green. And she’s not quite as ugly.

And damned if I don’t have to fight with her in order to stand in line and go up to the counter. Every time I go in there, she asks me if I want to use the kiosk. I used to always make excuses, “well, I need this weighed twice, for return postage” or “I’m using a debit card” or whatever dumb explanation I could come up with. Undeterred, she would argue with me for why I should use the kiosk. Now, I just say “I’m a curmudgeon and I want to get my postage at the counter” but she still doesn’t leave me alone. I make my way through the line with her clinging to my leg, like a child being abandoned at summer camp for the first time. I should just tell her to go to hell, leave me alone, and let me stand in line if I want. But she’s so dedicated and earnest that I can’t summon that much venom.

Today, I merely waited in the lobby until her back was turned. There was no line, but that wouldn’t have stopped her, she would have snared me anyway, so I darted straight up to the counter. The whole length of the post office I was afraid she’d turn around and catch me but finally I made it to the window, and exhaled a sigh of relief. But just like Ichabod Crane truly wasn’t safe when he crossed that bridge in Sleepy Hollow, the postal employees threw a pumpkin at me and knocked me completely out.

Right as I reached the window, Witch Hazel turned and saw me, fixed me in her gorgon gaze, and scowled. And the lady at the window, who I thought would help me said, “I’m sorry, I’m closed.” Witch Hazel grinned and I accepted my fate.

The technology of this kiosk is great. If you’re sending a mother’s day card or something. But I just mailed a ton of submissions off and I was using a debit card. The kiosk can only conduct one debit transaction at a time. You can’t total everything up and pay at the end. So now I have 13 debit receipts in my pocket. And I’m left with the thoughts of maybe finding a new post office.