In Eudora Welty’s famous short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Sister up and moves to the P.O. because of a family spat on the Fourth of July. That was in 1941, but I can relate because whenever I go to the post office, I feel like I’m about to take up residence there myself—and not because of a family feud but because the local P.O. can be slower than molasses in the middle of January.
Perhaps the following account may shed some light on the situation:
“There’s a dead bird hanging upside-down from a light post on my street,” a gray-haired lady in a hand-crocheted hat mildly asserts to a none-too-slim stack of red Christmas envelopes on the customer supply counter.
She may be talking to herself, but she is not the only one present at the P.O. that day in mid-January. I myself am there to finish up some late holiday mailing, having intentionally waited until a few weeks after the holidays to brave the post office, hoping to cut down on the time spent waiting in line.
After all, I’m no rookie correspondent and had learned from the mishaps of my previous dealings with the local P.O., which include but are not limited to…
- An attendant dropping all of my packages on the floor just after weighing them.
- Being hand-delivered a package with someone else’s name and address—then being grilled about why I would want to return it.
- Going to the P.O. in person to mail a package only to receive that same package on my own doorstep the next day.
Add to this list the spectacle of pulling up to my house one day to see in my driveway the feet of a delivery person dangling out of the side window the hatchback station wagon that is our local postal delivery vehicle, and it is apparent why I’m leery about the P.O.
And why I am seventh in line to mail Christmas gifts on a January day when I overhear the aforementioned gray-haired lady say,
“There’s a dead bird hanging upside-down from a light post on my street.”
“Oh yeah?” the lady-stranger directly in front of me flatly ejects after a brief silence that feels long.
“Yeah,” the gray-haired lady continues, “but when I called the maintenance man about it, he said, ‘Well, the guy who normally does that sort of thing is still in Florida.”
“Hunh,” says lady-stranger, who at this point knows she’s in it now.
“Yes, that what he said.” The gray-haired lady goes on addressing envelopes, never looking up. “So I said, ‘Well probably something should be done about it soon. It’s very disconcerting.’ He then says to me, ‘Well, how did it get there?’ As if I know!”
“Well, that’s not your problem,” says lady-stranger, embracing her role as conversational backboard.
“Don’t I know it!” says the gray-haired lady, who goes on to elucidate the timeline of the “normal” maintenance man’s return from Florida.
“Florida, huh?” offers a gruff voice from the front of the line. “That’s where the real wind is, in Florida.”
This line is put forward like Floridian wind is indisputably the main attraction of the Sunshine State.
Even the gray-haired lady, who’s been quite chatty up to this point, does not know how to respond to this bit of information.
After another brief-but-long silence, a man a couple places up from me shoulders the mantle of conversation.
“You know, I was down in Florida just a few weeks ago,” he offers, with no mention of the wind conditions at the time.
“Oh really?” responds lady-stranger.
“Yup. And I tell you what, people are crazy these days.”
“You know that’s right,” says lady-stranger with some enthusiasm now.
“Yes, ma’am,” says the man, emboldened by lady-stranger’s affirmation, “especially these kids you see runnin’ around everywhere. They don’t listen to nobody, and their parents sure can’t make ’em mind.”
“Ain’t it so,” encourages lady-stranger. “I worked twenty-five years in the public schools, and I seen first-hand how kids do. Now all they want to do is sit around and look at their phones. I feel sorry for teachers today.”
“Problem is,” continues the man, “is respect. When I was a kid, it was ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am” to the teacher, and if you got in trouble at school, you were in even more trouble at home. And it didn’t matter if it was momma or daddy or aunt or uncle—whoever was there when you got home, you got it from them first and then you got it again once momma or daddy found out about it.”
“Yes, sir, that’s how it was,” says lady-stranger, delivering her next statement with triumph:
“I was raised old-school: Anybody could whip me.”
Emphatic nods and murmurs of agreement ripple through the waiting line.
This entire time the woman behind me has been continuously whispering. At some point I am able to steal a glance over my shoulder, thinking perhaps she is on the phone, but no. The whispering is to herself. And although she is standing close—a little too close, actually—I am never able quite make out what she is saying, so I do not know if she has a nervous habit or is simply rehearsing what she will say when the postal clerk asks her about lithium batteries.
Because these days a person cannot go to the post office without being asked about lithium batteries.
Lithium batteries and perfume.
Specifically: Does this parcel contain anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous, including lithium batteries and perfume?
I am fascinated by so many aspects of this inquiry:
- That it discriminates between lithium and all other types of batteries.
- That a worker must utter this unwieldy spiel innumerable times of day.
- That the postal service believes the American public to be beset by the overpowering urge to ship these very specific items to friends and family across the land.
Is this, indeed, a problem of such a magnitude as to warrant this question necessary for every single shipping transaction?
Is the average American, upon walking through the spritz showers of any department store, suddenly besieged by the impulse to dispatch bottles of fragrance to his or her closest acquaintances? Are average citizens beleaguered by the compulsion to enter the nearest electronics store, painstakingly determine which batteries are lithium-based, package those batteries, and then wait in line to mail them?
For years I have wondered about this question—its necessity, its implications—and this fateful day, when it is finally my turn to step up to the service counter where the clerk engages in a surprisingly involved button-pushing process that makes initiating a nuclear launch look like child’s play, I muster up the gumption to make a query of my own.
Trying hard to sound casual and curiously nonchalant, I ask, “So do that many people really try to mail out lithium batteries and perfume?”
Without a hint of hesitation or humor, the clerk looks me straight in the eye and says:
“You’d be surprised.”
Why yes, yes, I would.
cover photograph courtesy of pxhere