My weary hand grabs the first piece of mail for the day. I open the big brass box to begin stuffing the day’s mail into the individual slots when the familiar sound buzzes over my gray, balding noggin. I don’t need to look up to know what it is, but I do anyway. The first APD of the day – automated postal drone – zooms 30 feet overhead to observe my work ethic. I want to extend my bird to this electronic avian, but I resist. As they say in this time and place, just be happy you have a job.
I have been doing this gig for 50 years. I started at the nubile age of 28. I loved this job when I began my career as a letter carrier. In 1997 I delivered my first piece of mail to the American public. I knew right away that this profession was my calling. It was a union job with decent pay and benefits. If I gave a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, I could earn a good living and a respectable retirement. I would be able to raise a family and maybe send a kid or two off to college. This is what I signed up for. I give 30 years of my most productive working days to the Postal Service, and in return I get some catching up time in my senior years. It seemed to be a civilized and reasonable arrangement. Fifty years later, folks tell me it was a silly thing to believe in. As they say, just be happy you have a job.
Everything for we letter carriers was great for the first 10 years of my employment. Mail volume hit record levels and the Postal Service was riding the proverbial Wavy Gravy train. The folks at postal headquarters never even flinched when Congress hoisted an unprecedented $56 billion retirees’ health care prefunding mandate upon our backs. Just like the stock market at the time, the only future the Postal Service saw was filled with eternal optimism and growth. Light my big, fat cigar and fill my bottomless glass with champagne, old boy! The Great Recession of 2009 popped that bubble. As the economy went into the tank, our unending piles of U.S. mail sank. It was at this time my career as a letter carrier began to unwind. My chosen profession would soon become a job. The distinction became clear over the next few years. Very clear.
A new Postmaster General was appointed; Patrick Donahoe. As the postal unions attempted to find innovative ways to survive those most trying times by expanding products and services to the American public, this guy seemed hell bent on destroying the Postal Service. His remedy was to cut and downsize every aspect of our great institution. And with the help of Congress, he got his wish.
First, half of all facilities and post offices were closed across this land. Then, Saturday delivery and door-to-door delivery were eliminated. By the time he and his minions in Congress were done, the Postal Service delivered only three days a week and hundreds of thousands of good jobs were gone. This all happened by the end of my second decade as a letter carrier, 2017. At the middle age of 48, I had just enough seniority to keep my position. That was the first time I heard a supervisor tell me: Just be happy you have a job.
The next year, the once proud United States Postal Service was privatized, and we found out what a shill this Donahoe character was. The public had enough of the shoddy and lackluster performance standards of every-other-day delivery. We were sold off to a multinational conglomerate called AmeriPost, and our Postmaster General became its CEO. All contracts with unions were abolished and all career employees were given this choice; clear your locker and never come back, or sign on as a new employee of AmeriPost. The pay was half of what we were making, and there were almost no benefits. I stayed on. It was the only job I knew. By the way, unemployment in 2018 was near 20 percent. The elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016 had not gone well for us working folks. One phrase just kept running through my head: Just be happy you have a job.
The following decades saw the end of the American Dream. Along with the Post Office being privatized so were all the public schools, libraries, prisons, Social Security, public works, and national and state parks. The economic power was being concentrated completely into the hands of what us old-timers called the One Percent.
I often wonder how this could have happened to this once great nation. Sometimes you can see things more clearly when they’re not there. Most of the great books about human freedom, for instance, were written in prison. It’s like the people who see a tsunami coming; by the time you see it, it’s too late. Or like my old man used to say about love; by the time she talks about leaving, she’s already gone. I wish I would have done more 30 years ago to fight for my job and my way of life. I wish I would have done more to fight for my neighbors’ as well. If we all stood together and fought together could we have changed American history? Now, we’ll never now.
Some say our democracy was stolen from us. I believe we, as a nation of working folks, gave it away. And I include myself in that equation. I firmly adhere to the notion that when you point a finger at someone, there are three more pointing back at you. I was too busy to get involved in all that activism nonsense. Hell, I had bowling on Thursdays and “Dancing with the Stars” playing on my boobtube every Tuesday. Why would I call a congressman or care about another stupid election. Between the sports channels, my motorcycle, and taking the kids to soccer practice, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about politics as long as my paycheck showed up every two weeks. Even when I saw my neighbors losing their homes and my friends losing their decent union jobs, I did not think it would ever happen to me. Consumerism and entertainment seduced and deluded me in a way that no Siren wailing from a sea rock ever could.
So here I stand now still stuffing mail into the boxes at the end of a street. At the age of 78, in the year 2047, I have a route with 4,000 stops. After the Second Great Depression of ’39 I lost all my retirement savings in the privatized American Security System. I fear death will be my only retirement, and I no longer fear the grasp of the Grim Reaper. On many days I long for it. As the second automated postal drone of the day zooms overhead, I remind myself to pick up the pace, only 3,000 more boxes to fill. And I also remind myself: Just be happy you have a job.
Photo: Lockheed D-21 Drone for Blackbird program. CC BY-NC 2.0