I've been spending some time standing in line at the post offices in Philadelphia. Everything is relative. When I was in Athens, Greece, just over 10 years ago, the service was so slow that postal customers would bring folding chairs with them and prepare to spend the day -- glaring at newcomers in that particular kind of Greek way that says, tourists, go away. Things aren't quite that bad in Philadelphia. But the lines are out the door and the people standing at the ends of them are leaving.
One day, I was with my long-term partner, who my mother referred to as "my unexpected daughter-in-law," in the neighborhood post office where she had been a clerk -- until just recently. After 29 years with the postal system, her job was abolished. In the postal system, people are not laid off. Their jobs are abolished (the postal version of corporate restructuring) and they are forced to bid on other positions. The positions that were available to her either started early in the morning (3 a.m.) or were part-time. She is 61 and is partially disabled due to an ankle injury. "They didn't give me much to choose from," she told two of her former customers -- a middle-aged African-American woman and a younger African-American man -- as we stood in the end of the line with them. They were surprised to see her on the other side of the window.
It wasn't her decision (she had planned on waiting another year), but retirement agrees with her. She is positively glowing and looks at least 10 years younger. Recently, I was doing a reading from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books), when I came across the passage that describes my partner as having a "stable government job with the post office..." compared to my own choice of being a freelance writer, which at the time prompted my mother to say, "It looks to me like she wants to be rich and you want to be famous."
I stopped during the reading, laughed at the part about "the stable government job" and remarked that I'd have to write another book about that. I was joking -- but it is tempting. I've heard some amazing stories over the years. Charles Bukowski's 1971 novel Post Office could use some updating. Although when my partner read it years ago, she did comment that it was so real that it was scary.
The customers at the end of the line in our neighborhood post office were laughing at the sign that tells them to call a special customer service number if they are not waited on in five minutes. Somehow the conversation turned to the salaries of top postal executives. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the postmaster general of the United States earns $384,229 -- almost as much as the president of the United States. He is joined by an inner circle of top postal executives who earn six figures and countless lower-level managers who are always around -- driving from post office to post office in their flashy cars -- but are never seen behind the window.
The news reports about the post office never seem to mention executive compensation. Recently, the local public radio station had a show about the post office -- with several academics and a postal "consultant" as guests. During the call-in segment of the show, a man named Earl, a mail carrier from West Philadelphia, called in and mentioned that the post office's problems stem from management. The two guests changed the topic so quickly that it was if Earl had never spoken.
Standing in the end of the line at the post office, we were talking and laughing, shaking our heads. The post office we were in had recently stopped using its contract cleaners and it showed. The floor was littered with remnants of packing tape and the ends of cardboard boxes. This post office is in an African-American neighborhood. Many customers come to mail packages to their adult children who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some mail packages to their adult children who are in jail. They deserve to have a clean post office.
My partner changed the conversation to her recently political theory -- based on her use of her smartphone. "I found out that Barack Obama was born on a Friday. Friday's child is loving and giving. And then I did the same for Mitt Romney. He was born on a Wednesday, and" -- she paused for emphasis -- "Wednesday's child is full of woe."
There was a pause in the conversation as we all stopped to consider what she said. Obama isn't perfect by any measure -- arguments can be made against his hawkishness and his overwhelming tendency to try to "compromise" with Republicans who have not done much, if anything, to disguise their loathing for him. However, I have always liked him -- ever since I saw him give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech that catapulted him onto the national stage.
Still, Obama was not my first choice for president four years ago. I went for the immediate gratification of voting for a woman -- even if I didn't agree with her politics completely (especially her insistence on the importance of a military buildup in Afghanistan). I didn't know when I would have the chance to cast my vote for a woman presidential candidate again. I also thought that Hillary did not possess the same character flaw that Obama has -- that of wanting to be liked. As a lesbian who has lived through much homophobia (including having rocks thrown into my windows), I have come to the conclusion that some people will never like me and, frankly, I don't care. I am happy if they simply leave me alone. Most of my friends, however, fervently supported Barack Obama in 2008 and, while they recognize the importance of voting for him, they are disappointed.
Even though I was not one of the people who thought he walked on water, I do recognize something caring (loving and giving) about President Obama. He expresses concern for the working people of America -- all of us, in all of our diversity. He believes that we all deserve health care that is affordable and safe. Romney, on the other hand, the "go ask your parents for money" candidate, only pretends to care about the American people. His comment about the 47 percent of Americans who are "takers" is tantamount to telling nearly half of the population that they can go jump in a lake -- while his billionaire friends get tax breaks. He is truly full of woe.
Standing in line at the post office, the young man my partner was talking to nodded thoughtfully after she told him about her political theory, based on the "Monday's Child" nursery rhyme.
"I think you're on to something," he said.
Then, referring to her job being abolished, he asked her if she was going to be all right.
"Things will be tight," she said, "but we'll get through."
Eventually, the conversation broke up as we looked around and realized that a good half hour had passed and the line hadn't budged. All of us wandered back out onto the avenue. The mail could wait. As my partner and I walked down the street, a mail carrier she knows from a different post office slowed down in his postal vehicle and yelled, "CONGRATULATIONS!" And then, an afterthought, he yelled, "NO FAIR, NO FAIR!"
"We all thought he was going to retire next," said my partner, with wonder in her voice. It was her moment.
We were walking to the nearby Obama headquarters. Federal employees are not allowed to wear political buttons at work or to staff the polls. For my partner, this has meant that for the past 29 years, she has not been able to wear a political button at work. She takes pleasure in the simple things in life and has encouraged me to slow down and do the same. As we approached the Obama office, her step quickened. "Maybe I can get a button," she said, and the years fell away.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters here.