It was stinking hot walking from the 40th Street transit stop on University Avenue to the City Heights Post Office four blocks away. Cumulus clouds, a sure sign of summer rain everywhere else I have ever lived, were piled up in the sky directly above me. They deflated before my eyes, as if whatever rain they held had been sucked right out of them in one thirsty gulp. There would be no sudden refreshing rain shower.
A rain shower would not have been well received by the fifty or so adults sitting on the low wall outside of the Church of the Nazarene, or standing on the sidewalk and leaning against the wall of the building in the adjacent alley. It wasn’t 2:30 yet and the church would not begin its weekly food distribution for another half hour. Most of the people were elderly. A long line of their collapsible walkers with a seat and basket awaited the box of food that would be forthcoming.
The church takes up the whole block so I had time to smile or nod my head in greeting as I took it all in. The crowd was culturally and racially diverse, comprised of mostly older women. Some gathered in small groups laughing and talking. Others sat immobile, staring off into space, waiting in the way that stones wait. The children among them were showing signs of impatience, jiggling their legs or looking bored.
I was trying to pump myself up for the real object of my walk– mailing a package. It was still close enough to the beginning of the month that I imagined a line out to the street and a very long wait. It was eerie walking inside to find only one other person in front of me. The three clerks at the counter were helping other customers. In a few minutes a clerk was available to help the man in front of me who had lost his post office box key.
This was an incredibly tame post office scene. I have been there when a conversation ricocheted among a crowd of twenty customers and the clerk on the topic of how many envelopes and stamps can be sent to someone in prison. The shy elderly Vietnamese woman holding a box of envelopes and the young man helping her with the English posed the question initially to the clerk and it was repeated in Spanish and responded to in a number of languages.
In this version of crowdsourcing, City Height style, a sufficient number of people agreed on the number–I believe it was twenty envelopes and a book of stamps, and the clerk counted out the right number of envelopes from the box and put everything into the designated envelope and that was that. It was not a quick process, but it ended quite satisfactorily. All the customers were now in a good mood and smiling at each other and some of the guys were swapping mail in prison stories.
The visuals in the post office can also be riveting. My neighbors receive packages from the homes they left, not just states away but whole continents away. The packages are often in such poor condition that it is hard to identify them as packages. Iranian friends, who came here before the fall of the Shah, would get packages of a popular snack food that contained marijuana seeds. The split packages would leave a faint trail of snack food on the floor. I’ve heard stories of the balut that didn’t withstand the long journey from the Philippines. Nobody wants to claim balut gone bad.
My neighbors also mail packages “home.” I get a sense that clothes, blankets and shoes are well received. One young woman hauled a bulging black gym bag onto the counter top. The bag was covered with varying sizes of pockets with zippers, snaps and of course there were the long looped handles. The clerk shook her head and said the bag wouldn’t make the six to eight week trip to Africa intact.
They young woman seemed surprised by the pronouncement and in her limited English asked what she could do. There was no box with the right dimensions and the young woman was visibly distraught. The clerk grabbed a roll of regulation post office strapping tape and began encasing the whole bag in tape, first around the girth then with long bands from end to end. The duffel bag now looked like a mummy. An address label was affixed, money exchanged hands and the package was on its way. This transaction also took awhile, actually a long while, but the young woman was extremely attractive and there were audible sighs when she finally exited the building.
International politics impose specific postal requirements. Mail and packages to Cuba go through a third country because of the US embargo. Our drug policies have probably put an end to snacks with marijuana seeds. The clerks at the City Heights Post Office patiently explain laws, postal procedures and mailing options. They explain in a number of languages beside English. They repeat what they explained. When all else fails, strapping tape is applied.
When I went to the post office I was hoping that if the line were indeed a long one, I would have a chance to ask people what they thought about a Senate bill that what was recently proposed to yet again make English our official language. I also wanted to know what they thought about Congress getting out of town for summer recess without authorizing funds to keep our postal service solvent.
It is an abject failure of our democracy that the US Postal Service crisis, manufactured by Congress at the behest of well placed lobbyists has received so little public examination and public debate. The postal service is on the verge of fiscal collapse solely because unlike every other governmental agency, the postal service is required to fund 75 years of retiree health benefits over just a 10-year span. The crisis is not because demand has dropped, although it has, and is anticipated to continue to do so. The crisis is a gratuitous destructive Republican effort which critics see as having the ultimate goal of privatization.
Our postal services at the City Heights post office as well as the residential and businesses service provided by our local mail carriers are vital to this community. They fulfill legitimate public needs, and they employ my neighbors in those few remaining jobs that still enable a middle class life. North Park lost their heavily used post office a few years ago. Will City Heights be next? Or will all of those pension funding requirements disappear along with the pensions and health care benefits when the postal service is turned over to some corporate entity bloated by its monopoly status and assurance of a continuous stream of public funds? Will we have a City Heights McPostOffice™?
If the Postal Service is a Republican ticking time bomb, the English Language Unity Act, which declares English as the official language of the United States is a Republican stink bomb. It was brought up in the Senate last week as one more diversion from creating jobs and stimulating the economy. It didn’t go anywhere, but it did feed the unhinged fringe of the conservative base that knows in their good Christian hearts that we are simply not acting Amurrican enough.
One section of the bill (163) is titled “Official functions of Government to be conducted in English.” The practical effect of this section is that “it shall apply to all laws, public proceedings (emphasis mine) , regulations, publications, orders, actions, programs and policies…” How does this apply to the City Heights Post Office?
Interpretation of the words “public proceedings” includes the language used between a postal clerk and a customer. No more speaking Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Tagalog, etc to your public customers. I asked the clerk at the post office what he thought about the bill. He just laughed and said “It’ll never happen. Not here in City Heights.”
Our Congress doesn’t know squat about our City Heights Post Office. Nada. Zip. Zero. Bupkis. Ignorance is a curable disease, so their state of ignorance doesn’t leave me without hope. The fact that they do not care about the City Heights Post Office, or the elderly women patiently waiting for a food package at the Church of the Nazarene, or Bill, my postal carrier who proudly announced that his son was accepted at Stanford, or all of those among us who struggle in large and small ways to become a part of this quintessentially American community–that indifference is something different.
Indifference is not an option for City Heights.