Monday, April 9, 2012

Going Postal

Monday morning, 10 a.m., I am in line with a half-dozen others at my local Post Office. There are four clerks, three of them women—two Vietnamese and an African-American supervisor—and one man, Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh is a Sikh, and today he looks as if he is in great gastrointestinal pain.  Every movement elicits a furrowed brow, a hissing sigh through clenched teeth. He is a large brown man with a large hooked nose, a worker whose movements are so slow and lumbering that whenever he retrieves a package from the rear of the PO, he is gone long enough to make his clients think he is on a chai break. I have known Mr. Singh close to a decade now, and we pretend not to recognize each other.

At the station next to him, USPS employee Ahn Nguyen, a petite woman from Saigon who came here after the war, attempts to serve the needs of an American matron. The lady is on the phone to the garage where, it appears, she dropped her car off earlier. She is also talking to Ms. Nguyen. Her attempts at multitasking are failing horribly.  Ms. Nguyen’s features have taken on an air of Buddhist tranquility, even though I know she is a devout Christian whose three children attend the local Catholic school.

Says the woman, “I don’t understand why I need new brake pads! My husband said the brakes are in perfect condition and he should know, he’s Navy captain serving in Afghanistan…” There is a pause during which she adds, “I need a book of stamps, the ones with the musicians. How much will the pads cost? That much? Oh my God, that’s just too expensive, and this letter has to get to California by tomorrow afternoon.”

On the other end of the phone, I sense tempers are flaring. The woman raises her voice, as if talking to a deaf person or someone whose command of English falls short of basic. “No, no! It must pass inspection. My husband said it would, and you’re trying to take advantage of me!” Phone cradled between head and shoulder, she is trying to extricate three large envelopes from a Trader Joe shopping bag. The envelopes are getting snagged on the bag’s handles. She shouts, “Just a minute!” and, using both hands, rips the bag open, hands the manila envelopes to Ms. Nguyen and says, “Media mail, please!”

Mr. Singh has put his This Station Closed sign on the counter and is watching Ms. Nguyen’s developing situation with interest. The African-American supervisor is no longer in sight and the number of people waiting is now an even dozen, including a mother pushing twin toddlers in attached prams. Ahn Nguyen has taken a step back, like someone forced to deal with a crazy person.

“There’s no need to raise your voice,” says the woman into the phone, her voice rising. “Yes, I know the inspection is a month overdue, but that’s no reason for you to try to rip me off. Also, I need to exchange the stamps, please. I told my five-year-old daughter I’d get the ones with cats on them. Do you have those? The cat ones? No. No, don’t do any repairs. I’ll pick up the car this afternoon. What? Let me speak to your supervisor!”

At this precise moment, the African-American USPS supervisor comes in from the back room, hears the word ‘supervisor’ and hurries forward. “Is there something wrong, ma’am?”

The woman with the phone says, “I told them not to make any repairs!”

Ms. Nguyen’s small and toothy smile is frozen, and Mr. Singh leans forward. “Quite right, madam! You should not allow yourself to be bullied! Put up a good fight, I say!” Having contributed to the situation, he checks his watch and shambles off painfully.

I am now next in line. I have a package to pick up, three to drop off, and I, too, need stamps. The woman is still cradling her phone between head and shoulder though she’s no longer speaking. Her eyes fall on the twin toddlers. She grins, takes the change Mrs. Nguyen has left on the counter. The woman smiles, counts the nickels, quarters and pennies, drops them into her purse and tells the supervisor, “Now I need to get some broccoli.”

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