“DO NOT RENT BOX 841!”
Someone scrawled the note in black sharpie and tacked it on the wall over a table littered with papers and assorted office supplies. I stared at it while I waited for the post officer worker to reappear. She was retrieving a package that ended up in the main branch of the post office where I live. Behind me several people stood in line with their heads down, locked in staring contests with their phones. The place was quiet except for the ambient sounds of voices drifting out of unseen corridors and the metallic clinks and scrapes of locks and grates opening and closing. Post offices seem to be a vortex of strange where the agreed upon laws of the universe are either up for grabs or don’t apply at all. Time felt trapped in amber here. The room was stale as I’ve often found it in this and other post offices, as if all the paper and cardboard routinely molted, leaving their synthetic skins suspended in the air.
I couldn’t stop staring at the note. What had happened to make BOX 841 uninhabitable to the slush of cards, bills, and packages that still washed in via post? Maybe BOX 841 had been seized by the Feds as part of a clandestine drop point for some mafia-related dealings:
Joey, go to the post office and get the thing in BOX 841 for our friend who needs the stuff to do that thing for our other friend.
Sure thing boss—
And also get me a book of stamps. Get those birds of America ones. They make my holiday cards look real nice.
The other obvious possibility: BOX 841 was haunted or cursed or a little bit of both. Post cards deposited one day and gone the next; a child’s eerie giggle heard coming from behind its expressionless grey walls (watch the movies, it’s always a ghost kid); a post office worker’s unexplained disappearance hours after she was heard complaining loudly about “that nasty Box 841.” I believe it. Its veiled inner-workings and arcane, secretive practices (what is metered mail, anyway?) give it the cache of one of those mysterious syndicates from a super hero comic book universe. Mess with that at your own risk, right BOX 841?
I have a healthy respect for the post office. This is comprised of one-part appreciation for its services and three-parts mild abject fear. Post office workers hold an inordinate amount of sway, and I think they know it. I have no issue with this. We entrust them with food, electronics, money, and, I’m sure, somehow, someway, even our loved one’s remains. They are not to be trifled with no matter how antiquated or superfluous they seem.
The other post office branch where we live is a 5-minute walk from our house. It’s a cramped, hovel definitely playing forgettable youngest child to the favorite son on the other side town. I made a point to check it out shortly after we moved to the neighborhood.
As I walked in, I was met with the tinny strains of a Buddy Holly song coming from what appeared to be a small AM/FM radio, the kind I remember having on top of my dresser when I was a kid in the 1980s. The main counter took up most of the space. There was a small annex with a couple of counters where people could fill out forms or finish addressing packages. Across from the primary counter were displays of envelopes, boxes, and packing tape.
Behind the counter stood a singular post office worker. He looked like he was somewhere between 60 and 302; he had a skeletal physique, thinning hair, and a greyish cast to his skin, the color of watery stew. He was gruffly explaining to the woman ahead of me about the slips she needed to fill out to send her oversized envelope to Germany. He sounded like a bored, extremely unhappy TGIFridays waiter barely tolerating questions about the menu from a table of gluten-free patrons. Like the note about BOX 841, I couldn’t help but stare. There’s a story standing here in an ill-fitting, company issued polo shirt.
In the many years since that I’ve been using this branch, I’ve been able to piece together that: he’s a smoker; he’s a fan of golden oldies from the 50s and 60s; he has a girlfriend who has a son and at one point there was high drama about taking a personal day to go with her to court; he does not suffer fools who come to his counter, so don’t bother trying to play dumb about the price of first class, overnight; he will make goofy faces at your baby and unearth some ancient cache of stickers like the kind you used to get at the dentist office, little images of strawberries and hot dogs with big googly eyes for your child; he knows most of his regulars by name; the branch is so small that many days he seems to be there alone for most of his shift, until one day I went in to find a woman in her 40s with long purple hair working next to him. The post office is a receptacle for so many kinds of travelers.
In truth, the post office asks fairly little of us and seems pretty happy to hang out and do its thing, like a federally-funded Burning Man attendee. This is why I find President Trump’s grudge against the USPS particularly head-scratching. What did it ever do to him? Send him tax forms? To be fair, we know that he really does not appreciate the whole pay-your-taxes situation. Maybe it accidentally lost his teenage fan letter to Saddam Hussein. I wonder if it’s because he knows that the post office is still a meaningful, relevant, and relied upon way for us to connect—information, story, parts of our lives get folded and boxed and sent through the mail. Whenever and however that kind of interchange happens, power is present. This is a giant uh-oh in Authoritarianism For Dummies. Control is key. But connection and story are like invasive root plants in your garden, sending their runners in all directions, impossible to fully rout out. For now, the post office, along with all its quirks and rough edges, remains intact, a welcome harbor in roiling tides.
The woman comes back with my package. I sign a slip and for a second am tempted to ask her about the note and BOX 841. But I don’t. Some questions don’t actually want answers. And some places that can hold onto a bit of their strange are better for it.