A Year at the Post Office
Posted on September 24, 2012 by Lou
Scooting around town in a postal service jeep collecting mail in rural New England was one of the best jobs I ever had and stabilized me at a pivotal time in my life. But was I just borrowing a working-class persona to bolster my fragile identity?
As a nonunion postal clerk in Brattleboro, Vermont, I earned the starting hourly pay of a regular employee but without benefits or representation rights. Hired by the local postmaster to staff a new plan to consolidate and then automate mail sorting, I was brought on with other “casuals” straight from the unemployment lines.
Though the civil service process was bypassed, we were paid nearly triple the minimum wage. This would supposedly inhibit postal service management from filling full-time permanent positions with guys off the street.
To be clear, I was not a scab. There was no labor dispute or picket line. The union didn’t like local postmaster hiring, but the system allowed it.
These jobs were mostly being doled out “patronage” style to families who’d been around Southern Vermont and New Hampshire for generations. When I learned about the work, I tracked down Brattleboro postmaster Harvey Dix and stopped by his office every day for a week until he told me to report the next afternoon.
I was 26 and had lived in Southern Vermont for nearly five years. But I had been less than successful in my recent career as a “helping professional.” A counselor at a group home for delinquent teenage boys, I couldn’t project enough authority to keep these kids in line. I recall spending much of my time and energy rounding them up for meals and bedtime. Therapy, such that it was, consisted largely in teaching and modeling “impulse control,” which – at the time – was not among my strengths.
I just didn’t have the chops to control troubled 16 and 17-year-olds with criminal records (mostly breaking and entering, auto theft and/or drug possession). There was an “incident” one night with a few of them sneaking off to steal a car. I left the job after eight months and was washing dishes at a motel restaurant when I joined the P.O.
What could be better than sorting mail by hand in Brattleboro,Vermont in 1977 for $6.50 an hour plus overtime?
Under the rules, I was allowed two 89-day shifts per calendar year. The job would last nearly 12 months and consisted mostly of sitting on a stool facing a slotted cabinet, sorting tray after tray of of letters. The primary tool of the trade was a rubber finger tip for my right thumb. Before long I would learn the zips for many of Vermont’s 246 towns and cities from White River Junction 05001 to Norton 05907.
I had moved to Vermont in September, 1971 – sight unseen – to attend Windham College in Putney. I didn’t even know what fall foliage was. (I’d only been north of New York City during summer months: in the mid 1960s for six week sessions at Jewish “sleep-away” camp and when I hitchhiked to Canada after I graduated high school). Noticing that the mountains all around seemed to be lighting up, I asked somebody what was going on. I learned for the first time that leaves in New England change color this time of year.
Twenty miles north of the Massachusetts border, Putney fit the bill as a cute rural New England town but what I didn’t expect – and what I would come to love about Vermont– was its curious mix of parochial and cosmopolitan culture.
In the middle of the village was the Putney Paper Mill which had been manufacturing paper products – napkins, towels and wrap – for generations. Nearby was Basketville, a throwback tourist destination and showcase for hand-woven products once used by local farm families for harvesting, hauling and storing. Basketville continued to do a nice business in the modern era selling laundry and picnic baskets of all shapes and sizes.
But this was no backwater region and Putney showed its other face on the outskirts of town: the Experiment in International Living, a pioneer in cross-cultural education; the Putney School, accommodating the sons and daughters of the well-to-do from coast-to-coast; and Windham College where students like me could bond with a highly-qualified faculty.
With the completion of Interstate 91 in the early 1960s, Southern Vermont had become more accessible and attractive to out-of-staters. Just two hours from Boston and four from New York City, investors and builders were enticing farmers to sell-off dairy land to commercial strip developers. But for a variety of reasons – including aggressive statewide land-use protections – Southern Vermont would not go the way of Connecticut and New Hampshire. The quaint towns and villages clustered around Brattleboro – Putney, New Fane, Guildford, Dummerston, Marlboro, Westminster– had too much cache. There was a “way of life” at stake.
To be “neighborly” in Vermont was not just cliché. Despite a rural New England stoicism and reserve, people in these towns tended to be very respectful of each other in everyday situations. I was not only impressed by the common decency among grocery clerks, bank tellers and others but by how Vermonters of that era tolerated what at times seemed like a counter-cultural invasion.
It wasn’t just the scenic country roads, covered bridges and hillside farmhouses which attracted young Americans from the northeast and elsewhere. Stirring up the hopes of many social change activists was the state’s political atmosphere rooted in community democracy. The Brattleboro area in particular was gaining traction as an urban refugee hot spot where you could live modestly, renounce materialism, attend town meetings, and build your own house.
(This is not to deny or conceal Vermont’s problems. It was and remains a relatively poor state afflicted with – among other things – alcoholism, family violence and bad teeth).
By working at the Post Office on Main Street, I was taking a big step toward assimilating into the mainstream community; joining about 50 diligent postal clerks on 24/7 shifts breaking their backs to convert the Brattleboro branch into a “sorting center.” Engaged in mostly repetitious and tedious assembly-line style tasks, the working atmosphere was characteristically friendly and restrained, with lots of harmless local gossip, tasteful humor and an occasional Red Sox game on the radio to pass the time.
To get through long shifts and tiresome routine, some of my co-workers at the P.O. would, every now and then, wander out to the parking lot to “check their tires” and return to their sorting stations a little fortified. Management tolerated this behavior and, in fact, the night shift supervisor – George – was particularly susceptible.
Though I was finding my groove sorting mail, cancelling stamps, tossing bundles of letters into sacks, I didn’t quite match the output of the regulars. One night, a particularly irritated and agitated George spotted me loafing and warned me that I’d better pick up the pace.
Unionized full-timers could mostly ignore him, but as a casual I was easy prey. Afraid that George had it in for me, I worried that my lucrative postal career would be coming to an early end.
The next day he called me up to his desk.
“You got a license,” he asked.
“What kind of license,” I answered stupidly.
“A drivers’ license,” he said.
“Starting tomorrow,” George said, “you’ll do collections.”
I never figured out why George chose me over other casuals to scoot around town in a postal service jeep collecting outgoing mail. But for about an hour each day before sorting letters, I would drive and walk through Brattleboro with my canvas and leather collection bag and a U.S. Mail Box key chain swinging from my belt. This daily routine not only relieved some of the the stress from the repetitive indoor work, it gave a boost to my developing identity as a Vermonter.
No longer just an interloper in this region, I had become a “mail man.” Connecting with my Brooklyn roots, I had earned my way into the adult American working class. Here in idyllic and idealized Vermont (notwithstanding the social problems and hardscrabble life) I was proud to be a blue-collar federal employee; even if I was just borrowing a working-class persona to survive a volatile and pivotal phase in my life.
Of course, casuals weren’t really postal workers. Though a few of the 15 or so temporary employees would go through civil service to land permanent – unionized – positions, I wasn’t interested in a career at the post office. I needed the money, appreciated the camaraderie and recognized – then and now – how the P.O. matured me and gave focus and direction to my future.
Turns out that working the night shift helped cut my career path in journalism. My curiosity about the state – its people, culture, history, values and government – motivated me to look for local freelance writing gigs. Vermont, I knew, was a good story. A state with a long tradition was changing fast and there were some particular characteristics – conservationism rooted in conservatism, the last vestiges of liberal Republicanism – which were worth covering.
My break came when I wrestled an assignment from a weekly alternative newspaper based in Western Massachusetts on the demographic trends transforming the town.
The Valley Advocate was a free distribution alternative weekly, one of many regional spin-offs of “left” press publications such as New York’s Village Voice and San Francisco’s Bay Guardian (The L.A. Weekly would launch the following year).
Ad-driven commercial enterprises, these news, arts and culture publications showcased personal liberation and radical politics. Expanding circulation was important to the business model, while building the movement – women’s and gay rights, environmental and consumer protection – was central to the editorial mission.
The distribution core of the Valley Advocate was Amherst, Northampton, Mount Holyoke and Greenfield Mass but the publisher was expanding circulation north of the border. For weeks, before clocking in at the P.O., I would interview local residents – oldtimers, newcomers, town officials and civic leaders – for a cover story on the mid-70s “lifestyle” makeover reshaping southeastern Vermont.
Here was my lead:
The New Age arrived in Brattleboro and Putney with packs on their back, in old Volkswagons, just passing through, to sleep in the woods. They came here to go to college, to get away from college, to get a job, to avoid one, to take acid, to visit their friends. There was plenty of room to be yourself and it was a nice place to stay and watch the season’s pass. The searchers, the ones trying to figure out how to live where the air wasn’t poisoned and the people weren’t paranoid, had discovered Vermont.
They weren’t the first.
Not too bad. Looking back 35 years, I appreciate the effort even if it now seems a little overwrought. I go on to outline a bit of the state’s history, its tradition of “independence, tolerance and equality” and then pose these questions:
Are Vermonters still free to conduct their own lives? And does the Southern Vermont area stand a chance to protect itself from the kind of commercial and industrial development that has homogenized so much of America?
Next, I profile the town manager and discuss issues of growth, architectural standards, tourism and crime. Then I get to the best part. I feature a long-time resident willing to talk about what it felt like when the “draft dodgers and potheads” started showing up in town. The guy was pragmatic:
There were some fights and some hard feelings, he remembers, but things calmed down pretty quickly.
A lot of the community said this is the way it’s gonna be, we may as well make the best of it. Then they found out that a lot of the hippies had money. After they got settled, they started spending it.
I finished the piece by profiling “Fritz”, the manager of the Common Ground, an archetypal, worker-owned natural food restaurant which would close forever in 2007.
I went there for lunch the day the story came out and was immediately rebuked by Fritz for mischaracterizing him in the piece as a “committed Marxist.” On my way home after the scolding, I was bitten by a small neighborhood dog. Though it was just a nip, my skin was punctured and I thought it wise to stop by the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Emergency room. I didn’t need rabies shots but this was not a good day.
Was there a lesson in humility I was supposed to be learning?
My journalism career, however, was in gear and for the next three years I would cover local and state politics, economics and culture for many different media, including a Vermont-based weekly called the Vanguard Press.
After my year at the post office, I moved a hundred miles north to Montpelier, Vermont – the nation’s second smallest state capital with 8,000 residents – to focus on state government and politics and to cover a region which was (and probably still is) somewhat less trendy than Brattleboro / Putney.
Vermont was continuing to shift toward what we would soon call progressive and I fashioned myself as a chronicler of this movement. Having carved out a nice niche, perhaps I could have settled comfortably on a dirt road in a small town and spent my 30s and beyond with a goat in my backyard, shoveling snow and watching my small state lead the way in green energy, gay marriage, universal health care and the election of a socialist to the U.S. Senate.
Instead, I watched from a distance.
Very specific circumstances – the end of a relationship, the death of a parent – triggered my migration 3000 miles west in 1981.
Trading inclusiveness for alienation, I left the cozy land-locked state for the sprawl and anonymity of L.A., a city on the edge.
I still feel some remorse when I think about deserting my Vermont compatriots who carried out the mission. Maybe I cared too much about Vermont, was being smothered by my attachment and wanted to escape before I became disillusioned with my idealized object?
In Los Angeles, I would fulfill my primal need to “belong” by reaffirming my affinity with the American working class and in the camaraderie of the labor movement. In other words, I abandoned Vermont because I needed to craft a self-identity more consistent with my familial roots. I could even argue that labor activism is my redemption for working nonunion at the Brattleboro Post Office.
But that would be a stretch.