I’ve spent a lot of times in post offices since moving to the States, post offices in Southern California, Northern Florida, rural Kentucky, and Virginia. When I send things internationally, back to Canada, there’s a lot of extra paperwork to fill out, a lot of extra postage to pay. Usually, I’m mailing back things that I’ve brought with me from city to city, objects that will be of more use to my mom or my brother, or the friends who share my memories of these objects. These things are, if not of high monetary value, of great personal value. (I also end up mailing along things like designer brands or things from exclusively American stores that won’t ship to Canada, at least not at massive markup.) The mail clerk asks me if I want to purchase insurance. How can I put a price on tokens of my love? I make up values for the goods I send because I worry about duties and inspection and I don’t want anything to get stolen in transit.
I’ve come to rely on the post office. Every time we move, we put in a change-of-address with the post office, trusting that whatever still gets sent by mail will find us wherever we end up. We hope that our endless Amazon packages find us, that our car insurance cards find us, that our—what else do we still get in the mail, really? Bills are sent electronically. Checks are directly deposited. Emails have replaced letters. Car registration? My passport, when it gets renewed? Holiday cards?
I stand in line and overhear why people have come to the post office. One elderly woman who has recently moved isn’t getting her mail and no one can tell her why. There is desperation in her voice. She explains that there is a check coming, and she needs to know that it will reach her on time. Someone else is shipping away parts of his beloved vinyl collection, because he needs the money. Yet another is trying to send gifts home, debating how much insurance they can afford, how quickly they can afford to get it to its destination.
When I stand in line at the post office, I realize how much of a privilege it is not to have to go to the post office. To have consistent internet access. To have a bank. To not need to worry about a physical check showing up at the right place at the right time. To not have to rely on selling things online and then physically bringing it all over to the post office in order to ship it. To live in one place long enough, to not have to move all the time, to be stable instead of transient.
One year, people were stealing packages from our front entry, so we put a hold on them and went to the post office every weekend to pick everything up. Hours on Saturday were limited and we had to find the time, with two small kids, between errands, to get them. Often, packages would be lost or misplaced in the mailroom; a postal worker would take twenty or thirty minutes wandering around the mailroom, looking for our package. I would try to maintain my patience while my kids got increasingly bored and belligerent.
Almost no one is at the post office because they want to be. If you are waiting in line, it’s because you don’t have a system at home for printing postage, for shipping, for receiving mail safely. You are there because your mail has been lost, misplaced, or damaged. If you are lucky, like I have been, the annoyances are comparatively minor. I am a middle-class English-speaking white woman who people will usually go above and beyond to help, and I am rarely questioned. With a PhD, I have the language and authority to get refunds, speak to managers, fix what is broken. I have a white, PhD-educated husband, so can call on masculine authority if my efforts fall short. I notice how differently I am treated than those who are black or brown, or for whom English is not their first language. I notice how well I am treated.
These observations are not new, and they apply to any government service. So many citizens, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, rely on the post office and need the service to work. FedEx and UPS and other private shipping companies are out of reach, price-wise, to those who most need an alternative. While no one wants to be at the post office, we need the post office.
And so I keep going, usually once a month, to wait in line, to send something home. I am often the youngest, whitest face waiting. I try not to get overwhelmed filling out paperwork, making sure things are properly packed, double-checking the addresses so each package reaches its destination because I know that I am in a privileged position. I am here, doing my thing with my packages, which is a pain in the ass for anyone, but it will probably end there for me, and I will go home and my package will go elsewhere. Others will simply keep going. I listen and I intervene if I can be helpful.
“Is this a gift?” It’s always a gift, because I can put something in the mail for a little money and it will reliably show up where it needs to be, and someone, somewhere else can do the same. The postal service is far from perfect, but it is a public good, a public service, and it is still there. If the system is going to be fixed, it will be fixed for people like me, so I’ve got to show my face and vote for the post office with my stamps. Yes, this is a gift.