A few years back, I posted a story about the pure hell of working for the US Post Office at Christmas. At this most blessed time of year when generosity flows so abundantly, it would be niggardly of me not to share it with you yet again. For first time readers, it is an early Christmas present from me to you.
So… here for your reading pleasure is a link to Christmas In Hell.
The Christmas blues of 1970 morphed into the January blues of 1971. I and my fellow “cultural casualties” of the 1960s having dropped out of college and dropped far too many psychedelics were facing the prospect of a lifetime of blue-collar work in the Post Office.
Yeah, yeah, it was a job-for-life with uniform and pension but not quite what we had envisioned for ourselves just a few years before. Back in college we were going to be actors, writers, musicians, poets, painters, philosophers even. But, the luster had faded from our Age of Aquarius fantasies as it had from the few sorry strands of Christmas tinsel that hung from atop the mail sorting coops.
We were a motley crew but not without our talents and charms. Alex was a half-assed genius and chess master. Mark was a poet and fluent in Latin. Murray was a killer wit and killer blues guitarist. Sandy was trying to decipher the hidden codes in Dylan’s lyrics. And, Charles, our only Black member, was trying to convert everyone at the Post Office to 7th Day Adventism and vegetarianism. We were all from working class families and had discovered to our shock and horror that unless something miraculous happened we would not escape the gravitational pull of our caste. So, we embraced our fate.
As if on cue and without any spoken agreement, we took to wearing plaid, flannel work shirts, tattered jeans, garrison belts and battered work boots. We cut our freakish hair back to a moderately radical length. Less Woodstock. More Workers of the World. We trimmed our facial hair to Lenin length. And, we embraced the Grateful Dead’s album Workingman’s Dead as if it were written only for us. After all, we were nothing if not workingmen.
One of the worst aspects of being a trainee mail-sorter was that we weren’t guaranteed hours. If the mail dried up we were sent home. And, this often happened shortly after we had clocked on for our graveyard shift. There we’d be in midtown Manhattan at Midnight having planned to be up all night and having ingested amphetamines to help us be up all night but suddenly with no reason to be up all night. Luckily, Alex lived in a nearby East Side tenement so we’d pick up some munchies and beer and head over to his pad, there to smoke hash and listen to Workingman’s Dead till dawn’s early light. Or, at least, till Alex’s neighbors banged on the walls. We named ourselves the Dead Workingmen. (Okay, not that clever but we needed all the help we could get.)
Suddenly, it became embarrassingly clear that Tony, one of our Supervisors, was madly in love with Sandy. I don’t think this burly Italian knew he was gay and he certainly wasn’t swishy in any way. But, goddamn, he was as queer as a three-dollar bill for Sandy. Lovesick Tony was eager to demonstrate to Sandy how powerful he was by how many favors he could do for him. One big problem. If he gave Sandy a break he had to give it to all of the Dead Workingmen or his cover would be blown. We teased Sandy mercilessly about his conquest but he still generously connived to use his charm over Tony to the group’s advantage i.e. without “coming across” for the Italian Stallion, Sandy kept him sweet on our behalf.
Some nights Sandy would persuade Tony to let us get lost for a few hours. We’d head over to Alex’s while still on the clock and then sneak back in at 8AM to punch out. Some nights at Sandy’s behest Tony would let us hide and sleep on the filthy mailbags piled out on the loading dock. Other nights he’d put us on parcel sorting duty – a welcome break from the din and dementia of the sorting coops.
We’d stand before rows of open mailbags and practice our basketball jump shots tossing boxes into the bags. Sometimes we even read the addresses and aimed for the right mail bag. Sometimes we even made a basket. But, truth to tell, we didn’t give a shit. We had come to hate the mail itself. Mark once tickled his throat until he vomited into the tray of mail he was sorting. (I know, I know, disgusting. But, you gotta understand that 99.999999% of the mail we were sorting was junk mail. And, the rest was going to Reverend Ike!)
Time Clock Confidential
I don’t know if anyone actually punches a time clock anymore. But when I first joined the world-of-work as a teenager, I was angered by the demeaning nature of this act. I was even more angered by the grown-ups who loitered by the time clock waiting for it to tick to a specific second so they could get a few paltry shekels more in their meagre pay envelopes. I was embarrassed for them and hated how they compared stories of time clock victories and defeats and of famous “time clock jockeys” of yesteryear. ThePost Office was full of these lifers who stared in amazement and clucked with disdain as I strode past them and punched out without even looking at the hour hand. Wage slaves. Not me.
Meanwhile back at the Tony-Sandy love affair things became waaaay too strange and sad for this trainee mail-sorter. It happened one night when members of the Dead Workingmen were surreptitiously tapped on the shoulder and told to report to Tony’s office. There we discovered the other invited guests were the usually unfriendly Supervisors. Tony had set up a movie projector and hung a sheet on the wall. He greeted us conspiratorially then locked the door, turned off the lights and showed us a stag movie i.e. the type of fuck-film that was usually confiscated if sent in the U.S Mail. I wondered if this film had been caught by an eagle-eyed postal dick and turned over to Tony.
As the silent, grainy, 8MM black and white film unspooled on the stained sheet, the air in the room became noxious with nervous laughter, unfunny quips and cigar smoke. We’d been invited to a classic “smoker.” The film showed a singularly unattractive couple reclining on a singularly uncomfortable table and fucking in a singularly unenthusiastic manner. Watching their coitus was as erotic as watching the piston action on a Ford V8. But, I sensed that a bizarre male-bonding ritual was at play. The Supers wanted to show us that they weren’t such bad guys after all. Hey, they were like our fathers and uncles – just a bunch of older working-class fellas who liked watching fuck-films with a bunch of younger working-class fellas. This secret screening was an olive branch extended across the generations and a sort of test.
Would we make the grade and join their ranks of Merry (albeit horny) Mailmen?
Also, except for Charles, we were all White as were the Supers. I sensed they wanted to find racial solidarity with us since they spent so much time with obese Black women with whom they shared little cultural interest. Least of all watching fuck-films.
I’m sure that shrinks would highlight what they’d claim was clear homo-eroticism in this sweat-lodge soiree. But, I don’t think that was what was going on with the Supers. Except for Tony. He turned on the projector, pushed me aside and sat next to Sandy. As the couple built to their inevitable climax we all watched in silence. Except for Tony. He giggled and elbowed Sandy while peppering him with questions in hushed rabid whisper.
“You believe the size of the cock on that guy?”
“Wait. Wait. She swallows the whole thing.”
“Look at that bush. You like hairy twat, Sandy?”
“Hey, Sandy, you ever put it in a girl’s ass?”
Then, after the “money shot” in which the on-screen stud splashed his semen all over his fair maiden’s belly Tony gushed – “Yeah, that’s the good part, right, Sandy?”
The Supers must have overheard Tony’s pillow talk but they didn’t react. Meanwhile, the Dead Workingmen shared looks of amused horror. Mainly horror. Then the lunch horn barked, the lights came on and with eyes cast downward we bolted out of there muttering, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?!”
Shortly after that night I was fired for telling an especially sadistic Supervisor to go fuck himself. The union jumped to my defense assuming that I wanted to keep my job. At the mediation meeting the union rep was dumbstruck when I told all present that the United States Postal Service could sort my job where the sun don’t shine. I thought about throwing the porn party in their faces but didn’t coz I knew that would make big trouble for Tony and the Dead Workingmen I was leaving behind.
Ten years later while walking in the middle of nowhere on Staten Island, I ran into Murray. (What are the odds?) We recognized each other even though he was now as obese as his female Black co-workers. Yes, he was still at the Grand Central P.O. but he was now a Junior Supervisor. No, he wasn’t playing guitar anymore.
It was an awkward encounter and a painful one for him. Murray and I had come from similar working-class backgrounds, two Brooklyn boys who had arrived at the same point via similar paths. Then our paths diverged. I had followed my dream of being an actor. He had buried his of being a musician. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to get together. We never did.
Hallelujah! I passed the Post Office test with a gold star and was told to report to the massive Grand Central Station sorting office hidden behind the even more massive Grand Central Station. I quickly learned that working there was noisy, numbing, mindless, repetitive, soul-destroying drudgery. A shift was eight endless hours in a sweatshop under the blare of metal machinery, the glare of fluorescent lights and the stares of angry bosses and suspicious Black women who weren’t best pleased that a White-boy was on their patch. A White-boy who had passed the Post Office test first time. And, without special tutoring!
I was shown to my letter sorting station where I sat perched on a scoliosis-inducing high stool facing pigeon coops labeled with Zip Codes – 11213, 10751, 10001 etc. Like a touch typist, I was expected to know the Zip Code coop positions by heart, grab letters from the mail trays before me and deftly flick them into the correct coops without looking. Meanwhile, the slave drivers… er, I mean… shift-bosses strode up and down the aisle shouting at me to work faster. I noticed that they never shouted at the obese Black women perched precariously on their high stools with one hand in a mail tray and the other in a bag of potato chips gossiping with the obese Black women on either side. These union-job-for-lifers occasionally tossed a piece of mail in the general direction of the coops.
Trainees had to raise their hands and request permission to pee and then had to sign in and out of the toilet room. After a few weeks on the job, I was threatened with unpaid suspension for taking too many pee breaks. But, I wasn’t going to pee or to do a line of coke. I was going to splash water on my face to stay awake. I was working the “graveyard shift” – Midnight to 8AM. And, it was pure hell.
I would finish acting in a play downtown at 10PM then have two hours to kill before punching in at Midnight uptown. So, I’d join the other actors for a few beers and then head to work. I was never drunk but the hour and the alcohol conspired to make staying awake until 8AM a muthafucka. Round about 3AM, I would start fading and start my regular treks to the toilet.
Meanwhile back at the pigeon coops… one coop didn’t have a Zip Code. It had a name. That name was Reverend Ike – a Black televangelist who had become very popular in the early 1970s. And, no foolin’, the Good Reverend got so much mail he needed his own Zip Code!
Ike sported the processed hair and wardrobe of a pimp. And, like a pimp, he was all about money. But, he was also intelligent, articulate, witty and (I still believe) genuine. (As an actor, I admire all good public speakers and Ike was one of the best. You can catch his act and his suits on Youtube. Forget Creflo Dollar and all of today’s exponents of the “Gospel of Greed” coz Ike had ’em beat.)
Ike’s God wasn’t no welfare God. Ike’s God was a Maserati, mink coat and motorboat God. Ike’s God was The God of Bling.
I liked Ike.
I liked him coz he wasn’t a hypocrite. He wasn’t preaching sack cloth and ashes while wearing Armani. He wanted his congregation to wear Armani, too. (Jim and Tammy Bakker later practiced and preached this same holy excess. And, Joel Osteen has become America’s top televangelist with a white bread version of Ike’s message.) But, Ike’s theology wasn’t original. It was a mish-mash of Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill with a dash of the uber-pimp Iceberg Slim thrown in for good measure!
Ike had his congregation hold up and wave dollar bills while intoning, “I want money. I love money. Money is my friend.” He closed his broadcasts with a call for Love Gifts. Those were to be sent in an envelope simply addressed to –
Grand Central Station
New York , New York
The envelopes that I sorted into Ike’s coop (and I sorted lots every night!) were written in pencil, in shaky little-old-lady handwriting with many words misspelled and with backward letters. We mail sorters passed around the funnier versions. I envisioned Black little-old-ladies all over America waving their dollar bills at their TVs while intoning “I love money” then sticking the bills in an envelope addressed to “that nice young man” – Rev. Ike.
Some envelopes held nothing but coins but others held very large bills. (We held the envelopes up to the light and called out the denominations.) The bigger the bill you gave, the bigger the boat you got. Or, at least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. If your ship never came in then maybe you just weren’t gifting enough. (Okay, so Ike was a conman but he was a genuine conman – a very common character in American social, religious and political history.)
One night I was being lectured about Aesthetic Realism by the paunchy, prematurely balding Jewish guy to my right. He was working on a masters in Philosophy at Columbia. (There were a surprising number of screwy-scholars working at the P.O. and they all had theories about everything from Bauhaus to blintzes.) This particular genius was also a homosexual and he wasn’t happy about it. He explained to me how Aesthetic Realism would cure him of his compulsion to fist anonymous members of the public in public restrooms.
Aesthetic Realism was a psychobabble micro-cult founded by the Jewish poet Eli Siegel, who claimed that he could cure queerness. Aesthetic Realism enjoyed a Nano-second of popularity in the pretentious arty-academic circles of Manhattan in the early 1970s. But, I don’t think it ever made it across the Hudson. And, it was soon surpassed by the psychobabble sensation called est which was concocted by another Jew – John Rosenberg… er, I mean… Werner Erhard. He was a conman and not a genuine one. (What is it with these Jewish conmen and their psycho-cults already? But, enough about Sigmund Freud.)
So… anyway… I was half-listening to my conflicted colleague while planning my next trip to the toilet and praying he didn’t follow me in when… WHAM! Mr. Aesthetic Realism was pulled off his perch, handcuffed and dragged away kicking and screaming by a pair of plain-clothes postal cops. They’d been watching him for some time and caught him sorting mail meant for Rev. Ike into his own pocket.
There was no loudspeaker announcement acknowledging what had just happened. The guy was simply disappeared like a Soviet dissident. At the next coffee break the Post Office grapevine passed the news that not only were we being watched from above like gamblers in a casino but there were spies working among us posing as trainees and lifers. We were slaving in the Grand Central Gulag.
As the psychedelic sixties deflated into the sinister seventies, America was suddenly full of draft-dodgers, drug-burnouts and college-dropouts. They had few prospects and fewer skills. I was among their number. We “cultural casualties” wore the facial expression seen on the faces of people whose home has just been sucked away by a cyclone. It asked, “What the fuck just happened?” It asked the more terrifying question, “What am I gonna do now?”
The answer for many of was, “Take the Post Office test.”
I was among their number.
The Post Office was a union job, a job for life, a job with a uniform and a good pension and… and… “Jesus Christ,” I thought, “how the fuck did I get here? I’m an actor. I’m supposed to be a Broadway star. I supposed to play a mailman not be one.”
And, in fact, I was then starring off-off-off Broadway in a roach-infested basement in Manhattan. But, I figured I could get a graveyard shift at the P.O. that would pay my rent and leave my days free for auditions, lunches at the Four Seasons with movie stars and eight shows a week on the Great White Way. I might need this back-up job for a month or two. Tops.
Plus, like all baby-boomers I’d grown up watching The Merry Mailman on TV so I had a special affection for all things postal.
The test was held in a grubby room in an even grubbier West Side mail sorting office. As we applicants milled around outside the building waiting for the start time, I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only person there who was not Black, female and the size of a sumo wrestler.
While these large ladies nervously ate and smoked, I nervously scanned the crowd for a friendly freaky face. Finding none, I assumed this intake of recruits was a demographic anomaly.
Remember the first tests you ever took in school? The tests that used pictures rather than words? Brightly colored pictures? And, the few words on the page were in big size type? That’s what the test was like to gain a life-long union job with uniform and pension in the United States Postal Service.
Which of these three things does not belong with the other two?
Picture of Horse
Picture of Cow
Picture of Banana
John Q. Public plans to sail to Bermuda. Which of these will he use to make the trip?
Picture of Horse
Picture of Cow
Picture of Sail Boat
I am not now and was not then a brain box. Honest. I possess very modest IQ and SAT scores. But, I aced this no-brainer test in no-time and sat there twiddling my thumbs. Suddenly, the not-so Merry Mailman running the test banged his gavel and ordered us to put our pencils down immediately. This African-American gentleman then explained in grave tones that if any of us found this test too difficult we could choose to re-take it. In fact, the Post Office had specially trained tutors who would work with worried applicants to help them pass this stringent test in a month’s time.
Unison sigh of relief. Laughter. Test papers tossed into air. And, Whoosh! I was almost sucked out of the room in the wake of the departing Black multitude.
Stay tuned for the next exciting instalment of Blog Outa Brooklyn – POSTAL REALISM. You’ll thrill as this reporter goes undercover as a mail-sorter trainee in the Grand Central Station Post Office. New York, N.Y. 10017