I got a job carrying mail the summer I turned 21 (a “casual,” the official designation for 90-day employees prior at the time), by way of my father Barry, who had been carrying mail for half a decade. He wasn’t a career carrier, instead finding an opportunity as a postman after he lost his financial insurance job in the mini-recession after 9/11. He had spent two years without work — too experienced for an entry-level position, too old for a sales position. After odd jobs and close brushes with foreclosure, he got a job carrying mail in Coatesville, Pennsylvania as a casual before a full-time position opened up in West Chester, a few miles down the road.
“It was the first job I ever actually liked,” he says. “I was good at my other job, but I worked with pricks. There’s a weird sense of community at the post office that you don’t get other places.”
For me, the job was temporary — a way to take advantage of my young, yet-to-be-aching bones for $15 an hour and enough daily exercise to sustain a penchant for drinking like Hank Williams without gaining weight. For my father, though, it represented security that he’d taken for granted prior to losing his insurance job. We celebrated the night he finished his probationary period as a full-time letter carrier, officially entering the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) with more than 250,000 other laborers across the country. He’d spent his first 90 days walking his route on eggshells, knowing that the slightest infraction would send him spiraling back toward financial implosion for our family. Once probation ended and he was a union man, anything short of a felony would result in nothing more than a write-up and scolding from the postmaster (i.e., the head of his specific post office).
That type of security was crucial to us. For families that don’t come from means, the only way to create any semblance of long-term stability is to luck into a job that you can count on to exist a decade in the future, of which there are fewer and fewer as massive companies find new ways to decrease overhead by exploiting legal loopholes so that they can provide diminishing guarantees for those who make them wealthy.
My father’s union gave him that, and the spirit of solidarity went beyond union dues. Tenured carriers would provide an assist to those in probationary periods, such as the time in West Chester when a 22-year-old carrier knocked off one of his truck’s mirrors during his first 90 days, shattering it in the process. Damage to a truck is an immediately fireable offense (without union protection, of course), so a carrier with 25 years of service time arrived on the scene holding a wrench. According to the carrier who damaged the truck, the NALC veteran told him that he had “two mirrors on his truck and was going to get a coffee, and when he finished his coffee, I had better have taken one of them.” The carrier cleared his 90 days and has continued at USPS for over 10 years.
Generally speaking, the USPS is a safe haven for misfits and fuck-ups, people who never knew where they wanted to go until they got to the post office and realized it was a place where they could flourish and earn enough money to provide for a family of four. “You don’t dream of being a mailman when you’re 10 years old, and you definitely don’t dream of it when you’re 18,” explains Jim Argondezzi, a carrier of nearly 20 years in West Chester. “If you’re in the post office, you fucked up to get there, and everyone there feels that to some extent. There’s solidarity in failure.”
Argondezzi had dropped out of college and, in his view, was headed nowhere. His paychecks at Kohl’s were $200 every two weeks, which he spent on beer or Timberlands. His mother encouraged him to take the postal exam (now abandoned as the primary method of hiring carriers), and he sat in a hotel conference room with 500 other people to take the test. He passed, and two months later, he got a letter in the mail telling him that he was hired. Even then, he thought it was going to be another short-term gig, which changed once he got his first ever four-digit paycheck. “Sometimes I’m still like, ‘Wow, I really make a good living just walking around and talking to people,’” he tells me.
My father is retired now, having moved to Pittsburgh after going on disability. He needed numerous arthroscopic surgeries after slipping and falling while delivering a walking route through an ice storm. Still, he has no regrets. The post office got my family through what it needed to.
During the two summers I spent at the post office, I saw at least a dozen carriers go out on disability. The majority were smaller on-the-job breaks or sprains, but others were more enduring. A common injury for an older letter carrier is permanent damage to the ligaments and nerves in the hand from years of holding and squeezing bundles of mail (while sorting, walking or organizing). The fingers begin to curl and look like a corpse entering rigor mortis.
Life is very different inside the post office, though. The postmaster is barely visible, needing to only work about 20 hours per week in order to maintain their full salary. They’re bonused based on individual metrics they choose in advance (customer satisfaction, mail volume, overall efficiency, etc.), and they send their direct subordinates (i.e., supervisors) to do their bidding. Each morning, at each stall, a supervisor comes around with a clipboard to harass various mail carriers about how long their routes were taking, what they needed to achieve that day or why they fucked up the previous day.
Most of the supervisors are failed carriers who couldn’t handle the grueling physical pace of the mail. They have no additional qualifications (a degree, different skill set) that would otherwise distinguish them from a carrier, besides the fact that they wear golf shirts to the office.
But despite making more money and doing less work, they’re considerably less happy, likely because they’re constantly arguing with carriers about what is or isn’t achievable in order to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for rigorous efficiency. And so, when a supervisor successfully gets a carrier to follow their direction, it’s more punishment than praise. Because they have to do the same thing again the next day, only more ruthlessly. The postmaster doesn’t rest after one day of efficiency, they only demand more and more and more. (If this push for efficiency sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve heard it echoed in endless calls for the death of the USPS over the decades; and now, with a pandemic-fueled economic crisis nipping at nearly industry, libertarian privatization fetishists have immediately gotten to work calculating why the postal service is a drain on the American taxpayer — despite the fact that the USPS hasn’t received federal tax subsidies in over 30 years.)
At happy hour, letter carriers roundly mocked the supervisors (with the supervisors, of course, safely out of view). They, though, never really got it, still showing up every day hoping to please the same postmaster who would discard them in an instant, constantly in pursuit of some sort of acceptance. Carriers have no such hang-ups. They’ve come to terms with the fact that they’ve fucked up enough that they’re letter carriers. They also find deep solace and serenity in the work, which hopefully will remain as steady and reliable as it’s been for more than a century.
“You load up your truck, it’s full of shit, but at the end of the day, it’s empty and there’s nothing to do,” says Argondezzi. “And you can physically see like, ‘Wow, I did a lot of work today!’ That’s really satisfying.” He pauses and gets bashful about being so sincere, letting out a giggle. “But maybe I’m an idiot, because every day, no matter what, the fucking mail comes back.”