Pit Bulls and Other Postal Priorities

I wrote this essay in November of 1996. I’m publishing it on here on what would have been my dad’s 72nd birthday.

Pit Bulls and Other Postal Priorities

Faster than a speeding mail truck…more powerful than a stamp vending machine…able to leap small poodles in a single bound!  It’s dedicated!  It’s surprisingly non-disgruntled!  Yes…IT’S A MAILMAN!

My mother once said that my father has more faith in the Yankees and mailmen than he does in God.  I never questioned his passion concerning baseball; after all, the Yankees are the best team in the universe.  But being a sane person, I would often wonder why he loved the Postal Service so much.  So, I asked him about it.  He was more than willing to share information, due to his firsthand experience.  My father, Edward Slavin, has been a letter carrier for nearly thirty years.  His enthusiasm for his job increases annually.  And no, he’s never packed an Uzi. 

The number of negative connotations concerning “fanatical” Postal workers is disturbing.  After all, a mailman possesses many characteristics of an average superhero.  At first glance he appears a mild-mannered employee of the United States government.  Upon closer examination, one sees that such a man is invaluable to the operation of a nation.  Indeed, he displays much loyalty toward his country and fellow man.  Nothing can deter him from his delivering duties; he must brave hazards (such as papercuts) on a daily basis.  The macho mailman can scale an office building in seconds, though he often has to use the stairs.  The letter carrier zips around in his sporty mailmobile all day, bringing joy to an endless number of civilians.  Yet instead of brightly colored spandex and a cape, the mailman is forced to wear a nondescript uniform.  And let’s face it: not even Superman or Spiderman are brave enough to wear hiked-up socks and safari hats in public.

“Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night shall stay these carriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  Indeed, bad weather and other dangers have not prevented Ed Slavin from doing his job since June of 1966.  As a child, my father wanted to be a professional baseball player or a “teacher of mathematics.”  After dropping out of college, he worked briefly as an “engineer of sanitation.”  Seeking a more rewarding profession, he turned to the Postal Service.  My father wanted to quit “when [he first started…[he] didn’t like it.”  He was only earning seventy cents above minimum wage.  For a young man attempting to earn a living in Irvington, New York, two dollars and seventy cents was hardly enough.  Yet he grew to love the work within six months and has had no desire to change professions since. 

Numerous sources claim that “Superman never made any money.”  However, the modern mailman makes quite a bit.  Fortunately, the Postal Service went on strike in 1970.  Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act, and the wage for Postal workers was raised to over five dollars and hour.  It has been rising steadily over the years.  When I asked my father how much money he makes, a look of terror crossed his face and he replied, “I don’t know.”  When I assured him that this information would in no way increase my shopping habits, he confessed.  He earns about seventeen dollars an hour.  Working over eight hours is considered overtime; he then earns twenty-six dollars, or “time and a half.”  After ten hours he earns the “double time” wage of thirty-five dollars per hour.  When working over twelve hours, he receives a whopping forty four dollars an hour!  I immediately changed my mind about the shopping comment. 

The Post Office ranks its employees according to the experience of the worker.  For example, those with low or no seniority are used as substitutes for ill co-workers.  After a year or two, these workers can put in a bid for a “regular” route.  The individual offices label employees with numbers in accordance to their seniority.  Seven years ago, my family moved from New York to Idaho.  My father had to request a transfer, for he had no intentions of leaving the Post Office.  A small tragedy ensued.  My father accumulated twenty-two years of seniority in Irvington; after the move, he had to start all over again.  After moving up several hundred notches to number five on the revered list of seniority, he moved clear across the country.  Consequently, he received a rank of one hundred and eighty-nine on the Boise list.  Yet he has quickly climbed the charts.  In seven years, he has moved up fifty-four notches to number one-thirty-nine.  As Kasey Kasem might conclude, “now, on with the countdown!”

My father’s alarm clock sometimes goes off at four-thirty in the morning.  On the day after a holiday, he punches in at five or six a.m.  He arrives at seven in the morning on an average day.  The well-being of a mailmobile remains a top priority; my father inspects his faithful vehicle immediately every morning.  “Half asleep,” he then sorts mail for about three hours.  The first hour of sorting is dubbed “the golden hour,” when the letter carriers “are not supposed to talk.”  This silent ceremony supposedly encourages efficiency.  Ed “case[s} letters into a flat case in delivery sequence.”  He then ties the mail in bundles, loads them into his truck, and drives into the brightening sun.  He delivers mail to the crime-ridden metropolis of downtown Boise.

My father has received two “special achievement” awards for efficiency and a certificate extolling him for unused sick leave.  Obviously, he takes great pride in his work.  He enjoys working outdoors and appreciates the exercise.  Interaction with the public is also important to him, and he talks to many of his customers on a regular basis.

However, many unpleasant occurrences can darken the day for any father.  The randomly closed streets of downtown Boise present constant irritation.  Most customers on my father’s route are “nice”; however, he admits that “there’s one lady on my route who’s pretty bitchy.”  Those who complain of the high cost of service are also annoying.  “Go to a different country and it will cost you more,” he remarked.  “It costs more to send a letter in Germany, which is about the size of Texas.”

“Certain supervisors” and the Postmaster General often do not acknowledge the fact that letter carriers are human beings.  Marvin Runyon, the current Postmaster General, is a “crotchety old guy…[who] makes all the major decisions for the Post Office.”  Yet Runyon concerns himself only with the financial aspects of the Postal Service.  Sighing sadly, my father remarked, to them, we are just numbers, numbers, numbers.”

And then there is the issue of dogs.  Mailmen must immediately file reports and receive medical attention for canine-inflicted wounds.  The Postal Service loses three million dollars in productivity per year due to dog attacks.  Canines across America snack on mailmen.  Consider the following example:

It is a quiet summer’s day in Irvington.  A certain German Shepherd (we’ll call him “Rocco” to conceal his identity) sat by the storm window, deep in reverie.  He had just watched the movie “Cujo” with his master, and the film was highly inspirational.  How Rocco longed to become a star; hell, he’d even settle for one of those Alpo commercials.  Just outside the window, something moves.  Rocco’s ears perk: this is just the opportunity he needs to display his star potential!  This could land him the role of Lassie’s abusive boyfriend!  “A mailman!” He thinks.  “Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.”  Without further thought, he perfects his growl and leaps right through the glass window. 

Ed Slavin may seem superhuman, but he is not immune to injury and has a healthy sense of self-preservation.  After hearing and seeing Rocco blast through a window, my dad yelped.  The dog bounded closer; yet quick thinking and a can of mace prevented potential gore.

“I don’t understand!”  Whined Rocco’s owner.  “He’s a friendly dog!  See, look!  He’s wagging his tail!”  Rocco, however, remaining loyal to the art of theatre, continued to shake his head vigorously and produce shaving cream with his lips.  My father then decided it was time to “wag [his] tail outta there!”

Another time.  Another place.  Another dog.  “Fufu” is hungry.  The Sheltie mix hasn’t eaten in an hour.  The dry heat of Boise is growing unbearable.  But just his luck!  Along strolls a citizen, one who is getting too close for comfort.  Ah, and not just an ordinary citizen, either!  Fufu waits until the left pointer finger is within range.  Chomp!  Mmmmm, delectable!  Mailman with just a touch of Brut!

Harmless little Fufu bit right through my father’s finger.  It was my father’s first week on his “regular” route. 

Yet there exists an organization which can sometimes defend mailmen from dogs and lawsuits.  The National Association of Letter Carriers is the union of the Postal Service.  It was this organization which won the right to negotiate with Congress for the contracts of Postal employees in 1970.  The NALC shields employees from managerial abuses of power and protects each worker’s rights under the contract.  Unfortunately, one is not required to be a member; my father was visibly upset by this fact.  “Non-members get all the benefits without paying…if the union has to defend them if they get fired, they should have to pay the costs.”

The threat of Postal privatization also looms.  Privatization would “do away with the USPS monopoly on first class mail and let other companies compete” in delivery services.  This idea greatly angers my father.  “They [the government] will sell it off in bits and pieces…they’ll deliver to highly profitable areas and leave rural areas to the Postal Service,” he suggests.  He believes a privatized system would cater to only private companies and the wealthy.  Massive layoffs would also occur.

Hoping to spark some semblance of competitive spirit, I asked my father what he thought of the United Parcel Service.  “Do you know what UPS stands for?”  he asked.  “Under Prickly Shrub.  That’s where they leave the packages.  They hide ‘em.  We leave notices,” he added haughtily.

If my father is an average mailman, most mailmen don’t mind the stereotypes surrounding such a profession.  The Postal Service employs over eighty thousand people.  “Other big corporations have problems, too,” he claims.  He feels “disgruntled” incidents are bound to occur; he also feels that the way managers treat employees instigates most violent incidents.  For example, the Postmaster General recently eliminated the “Employee Involvement Program” because it wasn’t cost effective.  My father sometimes worries about ex-employees that might “go off the deep end” and pay the local offices a visit. 

Other stereotypes are a source of amusement for my father.  “I think Cliff Clavin [from “Cheers”] is funny,” he chuckled.  He then told me about an episode where Cliff is going through the hall of a business delivering mail.  After Cliff leaves, the businessmen all open their doors and hand each other the correct mail.  Due to appearance or rhyming last names, my father is often called “Cliff” by certain customers.  The world sometimes operates in reverse: Cliff Clavins hide in the clothing of civilians.  My father told me a true story about an oblivious customer.  A clerk asked her what kind of stamps she would like.  “Anything but the self-adhesive kind,” she remarked.  “They taste terrible!”

My father will retire from the Postal Service in about five years.  When I asked what benefits he would receive, he responded: “A monthly annuity.  That’s about it.”  Yet I know he will always cherish the memories of his job.  I feel better knowing he will never be disgruntled.  When I asked who he would recommend his job to, he pulled a very somber face and said, “Ex-convicts.”

“Just kidding!”

But has our story ended?  Will the increase of e-mail eliminate the need for our hero?  Will a rabid dog cripple him long before his retirement?  Tune in next century to find out!  Until next time, remember to hug your mailman.  And if you see Fufu, run!!!

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