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.
And, people wonder why Merry Mailmen go postal.