Among the theoretical questions people sometimes pose to themselves — if my house were burning down, what would I grab? If I won millions in the lottery, what would I buy? — is the classic, “If I had one day to live, what would I do?”
People usually say they’d spend their last moments with family or in the embrace of a loved one. Unimaginative. Me, I know exactly where I would rush: to the nearest post office. There, each minute would be long, if not endless, and deeply felt. Plus, when my end finally came, I would be eager to go.
I had a couple of packages to send this week, and while in my old age I have learned to weigh them, slap on proper postage and just drop them off, thus escaping the eternal limbo of waiting, I had run out of dollar stamps and figured I would slide by the postal service station in the Merchandise Mart.
Seven people in line. Normally I’d spin around and leave. But I had to get this in the mail. How long could it take? I chose to wait. The lone clerk was helping a customer with the slowness of a deep-sea diver defusing a bomb at the bottom of an ocean of honey.
But another clerk setting up.
Ah, reinforcements, I thought, hope dawning. The clerk got her station ready, and slid back a glass partition, just as the other clerk finished her transaction. Her customer turned to flee, and at that moment the working clerk spun 180 degrees and walked away as the new clerk announced to us, “May I help you?” As if there were some postal rule against two clerks working at the same time.
“You know,” I said to the woman in front of me, “The post office is the one place where tea party dogma about tearing down the government starts to make sense.”
“This is actually a good one,” she said in flat voice. “The others are worse. The people here are nice . . .”
The new clerk suddenly left, so there was nobody behind the counters.
“ . . . When they’re here,” the woman continued.
Nobody was just buying a stamp or weighing a letter. They all had complex transactions — certified, insured letters to foreign addresses. They fell to protracted conversations about different stamps, just out of earshot, the clerk holding up one sheet, then another. One woman asked about having something notarized, and the clerk began to explain at length why she couldn’t do that.
As I neared the front, the line slowed. Time itself seemed to slow. Finally, I got to the front. “I want to mail this book.”
Not so fast. First, security theater: Any of my articles liquid, fragile, potentially hazardous such as lithium batteries?
“It’s a book.”
Do I need insurance, tracking, receipt confirmation? A blur of services offered.
“No, thank you.”
I’m beginning to see the problem here. It isn’t just that the system is slow and the staff indifferent — seemingly indifferent; I’m sure postal workers are very nice people who would care if only it weren’t against the rules, if only they weren’t trapped in some Kafka-esqe machine, forced to repeated litanies of rare perils and unwanted services. The book was finally stamped. I set my second package, a poster tube, on the scale.
The woman turned and wordlessly walked away again. I could feel the line shift and groan behind me. It was then I realized, given a choice, I would spend my last moments on earth here. In fact, I think I am; some part of me never left the post office. I’m still standing there. The comforting thought is this: At least when I do die and go to hell, what I find there won’t come as a surprise. Hell is a post office with, maybe, flames.
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