Fun_People Archive
10 Mar
Going Postal

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 10 Mar 98 13:50:45 -0800
To: Fun_People
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Subject: Going Postal

Forwarded-by: Steven McGeady <>
Forwarded-by: Adam Luedtke <>

I'm sure you've always wondered what it's like to work for the nation's
largest employer--that is, the U.S. Postal Service.  So, without further
ado, I'll hitcha wit' my description of my brief tenure with this wonderful
organization.  Enjoy.

Portland's branch of the United States Postal Service (or "the service" as
it's more commonly called by its most disgruntled veterans) has to be one
of the most prominent, colorful collections of losers, misfits, whackos and
psychos ever assembled under one single roof, with perhaps the exception of
some of the more notorious prisons, insane asylums and the like.  Labeling
this bizarre occupation as "the service" is one of many pseudo military
details about the place which amplifies the already oppressive weight of
the low morale and tedious unproductivity of the massive building.  Time is
divided off into "klicks" (hundredths of an hour), while the various shifts
are called "tours", as in tours of duty.  The whole place is awash in
bizarre acronyms and terminology, one example of which being the various
terms for the big containers into which the mail is placed and carried  you
have "BMCs" (bulk mail carriers) and "OTRs" (on-the-rails) which are both
giant metal containers, you have "dollies", which are wood/medal hybrids,
you have "pallet dollies", which are flat dollies for placing mail pallets
upon, you have "hampers", which are cloth/wire hybrids, you have the
ridiculously named "baskarts", which are a cross between a hamper and a
giant shopping cart (apparently, one supervisor managed to last a year at
the post office by pushing a single EMPTY baskart around the workroom floor
all day before he was discovered) and you have my personal favorite, wire
"tainers", giant metal cage like objects for throwing mail into  the word
"tainer" presumably being invented and applied here because most people at
the post office cannot handle saying three syllable words like "con tain

One of the more ridiculous aspects of being a mail handler, and one which
definitely was omitted from the formal job description, was the nightly
necessity of actually STEALING equipment from other "pay locations", that
is, different work stations in the post office.  When your station would
run short of OTRs or baskarts, you'd have to stealthily creep onto a
different truck dock or sorting area, where some poor veteran had gleefully
hoarded a virtual El Dorado of empty equipment, and grab one and slink off
before being discovered.  In fact, there really was no feeling like the
adrenaline rush coursing through my veins as I towed a stolen wire 'tainer
behind me--as frantically as possible without looking overly
suspicious--while waiting for the inevitably shouted "hey!" to be heard
behind me from the old compulsive gambler on the West truck dock who had
been saving that damn 'tainer for the 9 o'clock mail truck coming in from
Coos Bay.

Other great post office acronyms are the SPBS, pronounced "spibs" by all
the supervisors, which is a giant, purple, octopus like, multi million
dollar mega machine which sorts and distributes hundreds of thousands of
pieces of mail.  The Spibs is to the United States Postal Service what the
Great Pyramids of Giza were to the Pharaonic regime in Egypt.  There's also
the mysterious "NIXIE", an acronym for I don't know what, that seems to be
some secret branch of the post office that I always hear about, and see
written clues and references to, but never get to see.  My main job is
basically to throw mail and parcels off of trailers onto WW2 era conveyer
belts which carry the stuff into the area of the Spibs, where automoton like
human drones scan bar codes and distribute the stuff into OTRs, BMCs,
dollies, pallet dollies, wire tainers and hampers for distribution to cities
and post offices around Portland.  The layout of the place is amazing  a
giant warehouse with various "pay locations" where different groups of post
office peasants labor under feudal serf lords who in turn feud with the
emperors and high priests, aka "the suits" (the suits being the accountants
and managers that attempt to bring order to this huge, unprofitable
enterprise, and somehow end up doing it as chaotically and disorganized as
possible) up on the fourth floor of the formidable edifice on 9th and Hoyt.
And within these sociopolitical caste hierarchies of labor, there are even
more intricate and rigid subdivisions.  I am the lowest of the low, being
a mere holiday "casual", a career choice of which the post office thinks so
little, that it once recruited among winos on Burnside boulevard.  However,
the suits ended this time and money saving practice when it was discovered
that many of the winos were clocking in stone cold drunk, climbing into a
hamper or an OTR (hidden, of course, behind the protective purple facade of
the massive SPBS machine) and sleeping out their entire shift covered by a
light and comfortable layer of canvas mailbags.  They're a little tougher
on us now.  Above the holiday casuals there are regular casuals, who have
as few rights as the holiday casuals do, but gain a little extra prestige
by working in these slavish conditions year round, instead of only at
Christmastime.  Yes, casuals are definitely the so called "untouchables"
the lowest caste around the water carriers of the Service.  Above the
casuals are the PTFs, or "part time flexibles".  These are the people who
have to put up with a lot of the shit work, but are also in the union,
having somehow passed the post office's elite, rigorous "civil service
exam".  Being in the union carries many benefits, as the "regulars" (who
are chivalrous knights, above the PTFs) can attest to, not least of which
is the seemingly inalienable right to do absolutely no work while in full
view of the supervisors and telling them to "fuck off" if they have the
nerve to assign you any minor task.  Casuals do all the work at this place,
believe me.

Supervisors, on the other hand, just do a lot of yelling and screaming at
casuals (ah, the supervisors--those watchful shepherds of our little post
office flock, if you will.  The supervisors, as a breed, are so reviled by
the average Postie--and rightfully so--that they are required in some postal
branches to have an escort when they walk around on the workroom floor, for
fear of violent retribution by one or more disgruntled underlings).  And as
for the union regulars, they hang out in the luxurious break room (five
vending machines and a filthy table) and walk from one pay location to
another as slowly as possible.  And this whole bizarre process is observed
by a kind of warrior caste  the postal "inspectors"  the service's own armed
branch of secretive, highly trained detectives, who spy upon the entire
warehouse through narrow slits carved into "crawlspaces" with two way
mirrors, cameras and microphones. You never know when these big brothers
have their eye on you.  One story making the rounds of the workroom floor
tells of a guy who had been having a friend on an earlier shift punch in
his timecard four hours early every day.  This had been going on for a
couple years, so it was estimated that he'd collected about $15,000 in
"supplemental" income.  When the inspectors finally caught on to his scam,
they came to bust him one day (just like they showed us would happen in our
first-day training video if we were ever caught stealing mail.  This video
actually starred Edward James Olmos, playing his stern cop character from
Miami Vice, narrating dramatizations of postal workers being busted, such
as the case of the rural mail carrier who was taking whole sacks of mail
and dumping them into an empty field so that he wouldn't have to take the
time to deliver them).  So anyway, before they took this guy away in cuffs
they asked him if he knew what he was being busted for.  So this dude goes
"was it the drug dealing?".  And they say no.  And then he goes, "was it
the mail theft?".  And they shake their heads again.  Incredulous, he asks
"well, was it the having sex with casuals in the parking lot?".  And the
inspectors still answer negatively.  Finally they break the news that it's
the time-card fraud, and the guy says, disappointedly, "oh, just that".

As far as the supervisors, I can only speak about my own personal version
of this universal paragon, a comical fat man with a fake hip who wears black
jeans and a black leather jacket, looks like a sleazy mafia godfather, and
sits in a tiny greasy office all night barking on the phone when he isn't
pacing the concrete floor like an attack dog carrying a walkie talkie and
scowling malevolently at the casuals while being ignored or mocked viciously
by the union workers.  My supervisor claims to have been in the marines with
Joe Frazier and to have knocked him out at some point, a claim rendered even
more laughable by the fact that he got his rib cracked by a punch from a
little deaf/mute guy last year when the deaf/mute came in to work on a day
when he was supposed to be home sick, to look for his wallet.  My supervisor
chased the guy into an elevator, demanding to know what he was doing at work
on his sick day, so the guy (feeling a little bit cornered) promptly punched
the supervisor, cracking his rib.  The deaf/mute was fired, but has since
been reinstated by the union.  At our last weekly "safety meeting", a
ridiculous requirement, where the supervisor always stutters some bullshit
advice about driving carefully on wet leaves or something, the supervisor
announced that the deaf guy was returning to duty this week, upon which some
of the regulars started chanting "rocky, rocky"--quietly at first, but then
reaching a thunderous pitch.  There was nothing the supervisor could do.
The deaf/mute was back at work tonight, the supervisor was scared of him
and not going anywhere near him, so the guy did absolutely no work all
night.  By the way, the deaf/mute was awarded $90,000 US cash in back pay.
That's one thing.  The union regulars make FAT BUCKS.  That fact makes you
feel less sorry for them when they tell you crazy stories about being
alienated vietnam vets stuck in the post office for thirty years on end,
working the night shift, with the same crazies and kooks to keep them
company.  Probably the most interesting guy that works there is one of the
"mule drivers" (mules are these little yellow car-things which pull trains
of OTRs and dollies), a dude who was a legend on the day shift when my
friend Nolyn worked there last year.  Nolyn didn't believe that he was real,
but it turns out that he was because I worked with the guy.  Here's his
story, and I'll be damned if it isn't true.  This is not an urban legend.
So back in Vietnam, the guy was in a horrible explosion one day, and had
major damage to his face--it was basically ripped apart.  So, back at the
field hospital, the army surgeons were getting ready to do reconstructive
surgery on the guy, and they needed a picture of what he looked like so that
they could have something to go on.  They searched through the guy's wallet,
and found a picture of the dude's father as a young man, which they ended
up using as the model for his plastic surgery.  So this guy now has to go
around for the rest of his life with the face of his father.  I actually
took to calling him "face of my father", although not to his face of course.
But talk about an existential dilemma, eh?  Jesus Christ!  This guy used to
drive around with a giant-size "tin man" (from Wizard of Oz) doll sitting
in the passenger seat of his mule.  I guess the tin man symbolized his own
life, or something.

Another gruesome story has got to be the time when a load of human heads
(for medical samples) were being shipped to the OHSU lab and one of them
began to leak.  That's right--the box began to ooze human-head fluid.  They
had to take it down to the "dangerous parcels" department, which is where
they take suspected bombs and such.  Whew!  Glad I didn't get any of that
human head-fluid on me.

So I'm sure you're curious as to who my fellow casuals are:  a guy who likes
to "go out to his car" on his breaks (a code phrase for smoking crack  I'm
not kidding), a 19 year old punk rocker from Kansas, a 35 year old Nigerian
guy, a 40 year old Mormon family man that looks like Bill Clinton, an old
Irish guy with a grey ponytail who has spent a few years in prison, a
preppie Irish kid from Connecticut, a working class kid from Woodburn with
a horrible birthmark on his face, and several stoners from Southeast
Portland.  We all get along relatively well, as we all seem to realize the
sheer absurdity of the place as well as the mixed blessing of making pretty
good money while enduring in such oppresive conditions.  To tell you the
truth, though, doing it for one holiday season is pretty easy  the place is
so bizarre, that you can actually learn to laugh at it.  Doing it for a
lifetime, though, would probably kill me.  Or my supervisor.

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