My Ohio: Please Mr. Postman

A writer longs for the days when mail carriers were a part of the neighborhood.

“Please Mister Postman, look and see
If there’s a letter in your bag for me.”

— The Marvelettes, 1961

My father was a rural mail carrier. For more than 30 years, he delivered important letters — like the one the Marvelettes pined for in their ’60s hit — as well as honeybees, trees and baby chicks to the many farms along his route.

Daily, he checked on Nick, an elderly man who lived alone and didn’t drive. My dad hand-delivered Nick’s mail, brought him groceries and took care of his banking. Once, Dad saved his life: Nick had been robbed, beaten and left in the snow;  Dad found him and called an ambulance. Less heroic feats, such as chasing down cattle that had escaped their pastures, occurred with more regularity. Frankly, there’s no one more suited to a “neighborhood watch” than a mail carrier.

When my husband and I moved our family to a tree-lined street in the center of Wooster, it seemed fitting that one of the first people we met was Jim, our postman. In good weather, the kids and I would often be outside playing when Jim came by. He’d chat with us for a few minutes before walking to the next house to say hello there. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Jim, and Jim knew everyone.

Some days I’d envy him, getting exercise, out in the dazzle of mid-summer or walking under the vivid canopy of trees on a crisp, fall day. But I didn’t notice him in the driving sleet, or when the temperature dipped well below freezing or soared near 100. I was comfortably inside, while he labored alone in the elements.

I didn’t notice Jim had a problem with his knee until his limp was obvious. Our neighborhood is hilly, compounded by steep ascents up narrow sets of stairs to reach the mailboxes. Jim’s years of walking those hills had taken a toll. Knee surgery forced him to switch routes. On one of his last days in our neighborhood, he brought presents for my kids’ upcoming birthdays. He may not have saved their lives, but to my 4- and 6-year-old, present-giving is heroic.

After Jim left, we had a string of new carriers. The kids were disappointed they didn’t stop to say “hi.” The carriers couldn’t hear when the kids called to them; most had ear buds tucked firmly in place, the cords dangling down their striped, USPS-issued button-downs. Besides, they were walking too fast for conversation.

Jim had mentioned a new regulation requiring him to carry a bar code scanner to “check in” at various points along his route. It’s a way for the main office to keep tabs on a carrier’s productivity, which isn’t surprising, given the USPS’s financial trouble. A person can’t open the paper without reading threats of rural office closings, or the end of Saturday delivery. One article’s author wrote that it didn’t matter whether postal jobs got cut, since no one knows their mail carrier anymore.

It may be a hard task to humanize the monolithic postal service, but what if Jim was the friendly face of the USPS? I may not care if I get mail on Saturdays, but I’d care if Jim lost his job. Yet instead of personality, the postal service values speed, ironically, for people like my father. Now that he has more time on his hands, my dad sets his watch by his mail carrier, taking his daily walk to the box and expecting it to be full. If he needed more from his postman, like Nick needed from him so many years ago, he might be out of luck.

Dad admits that he would not thrive in today’s postal service. Instead of being rewarded for taking the extra time to help the needy along his route, he’d have his paycheck docked. Instead of delivering letters from wayward boyfriends and other important mail, he’d mostly be delivering material headed straight for the recycling bin.

Jim’s planning to retire soon. I ran into him once, on his new, no-hills route covering our main street businesses. My son was getting a haircut, and Jim entered with the barber’s mail. He could have stuck the letters in the box outside the door, but that’s not Jim’s way. He brought the mail in, surprised and happy to see us, and chatted for a few minutes with me, with my son, with the barber and with all the people waiting. Everyone in the shop knew Jim, and Jim knew everyone. I wished him well.

Marcy Campbell is a freelance writer based in Wooster and blogs as The Closet Creative: