April 08, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fed Ex, United Parcel Service, and you other modern corporate giants of swift delivery beware Florence King loves the United States Postal Service. When America's reigning misanthrope gets all warm and fuzzy about something, especially about something as disdained as the USPS as she in this July 26, 1999 curmudgeonly classic all had better take note. Rest assured, you will find this product of Miss King's unique perspective (and immense literary talents) a sheer delight!
Are you sitting down? I ask because I'm getting ready to say something nice and I don't want you to sustain any injuries from crashing suddenly to the floor.
To get right to it, I love the post office. You heard me. The post office, officially known as the U.S. Postal Service, a name that has never caught on because "post office" triggers more positive associations than we know we have until we sit down and think about it. That's what I did recently when I got up at 4 a.m. and sat at the table drinking coffee, smoking, and staring into space. Writers are constantly asked "Where do you get your ideas?" and this is the answer: letting your mind roam free in the middle of the night until it brushes up against an unlikely subject.
As with any exercise in nostalgia, good post-office associations are usually found in those of a certain age, though this one holds out a possible exception: Children still seem to go through a stamp-collecting phase. Whether it will be enough to form a rich marrow of memory remains to be seen. Today's plethora of stamps, first-day covers, and gift shops in main branches may reduce the post office to just another mini-mall. That would be a tragedy because your true post-office aficionado is in the grip of a mystique.
The post office of my childhood was a Greek temple with institutional floors of a speckled black-and-brown pattern and high ceilings that drew heat and captured rising sounds, sending them back as a steady hum of humanity reminiscent of the bustling excitement of a train station.
The first thing you saw, whether you wanted to or not, was the New Deal mural painted by an unemployed artist under the Works Progress Administration. A huge panorama of workers and farmers with bulging muscles and noble brows, the mural was said to contain cryptic socialist messages passed to the artist by Eleanor Roosevelt, a rumor that gave Southern dowagers something to do while standing in line and led to cryptic stamp orders when they got up to the window and barked, "Twelve hammers and seven sickles!"
Another famous sight was the Rogues' Gallery of the FBI's most-wanted criminals. Post offices still display them but they stir no excitement in the era of Unsolved Mysteries and live interviews with the latest beneficiary of jury nullification. We pored over them because they were our only close-up look at big-time criminals, and they gave sweet little old ladies who wouldn't hurt a fly a golden opportunity to practice their favorite science: eugenics.
"You can see they don't have good blood," said Granny. "Look at those weak chins. Short necks, too that's always a bad sign. And shifty eyes! Remember, always look people straight in the eye so they'll know you're honest. Except men, when you get older. Then it means something else. That's how they can tell."
The post office of yore imparted a feeling of security that made no sense, but then feelings of security rarely do. Few today remember Postal Savings Accounts but to the Depression generation they were the one bank that could never fail. Many people, including my father, clung to them well into the Fifties because "The post office will always be there." Others, more bold, put most of their money in the bank but kept about $300 in Postal Savings "just in case."
The certificates added to the aura of substantiality by being bigger and fancier than paper money, which appealed to that squirrely instinct of children to have something they can take out and look at. I had my own little account, and would have one now if they still existed because, you see, Banks Are Bad But The Post Office Is Good. This is the sort of New Deal-planted idée fixe that small-government conservatives keep running up against, but even the gruffest of them make an exception for the post office in their favorite maxim: "The federal government has only three duties: print the money, deliver the mail, and declare war."
It is no accident that the title character in Kevin Costner's The Postman is the allegorical savior of a ravaged, post-revolutionary America. The movie flopped because it was confused and poorly written but the concept was on target. We harbor a subconscious postal patriotism that is tied up with Ben Franklin, the Pony Express, and the idealistic good-guyness contained in the motto: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." That these words were written by Herodotus in the fifth century b.c. makes the post office more of a "traditional value" than much else that we have.
The postman and the FBI agent are the only two government employees to figure regularly in movies, but while the G-man is the admirable star, the postman is the lovable bit player-the comic relief, the separated lovers' Cupid, the sympathetic messenger of the gods bearing the letter edged in black, a bit of human contact for lonely Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba. And if the movie is very old he sports a badge of office certain to set off a childhood obsession. Kids still crave the fireman's hat and the cop's billy but in my day we also would have killed for the postman's leather shoulder bag.
The place of the post office in American psychology is what lies behind the Luddite hatred of faxes and e-mail, which, we are told, "will never replace the letter." That's nonsense; I save my faxes and print out my e-mail because they are letters. The loss mourned by the Luddites, who are often right-wing anarchists, is the still-powerful concept of "the U.S. mail." The phrase was too long a symbol of stability to be completely powerless now; sending obscenity through "the mail" or using "the mail" to defraud was worse than doing it in person, and on a subconscious level we still think so.
We may succeed in privatizing Social Security, but I predict that any attempt to privatize the post office will rouse American ire as neither Whitewater, nor Chinagate, nor Kosovo, nor Monica by night had the power to do.