Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Places of paper

The threat of rain - which promptly stopped - canceled a trip out to Staten Island's woodlands. So I bit the bullet of Things Bureaucratic.

This is a very boring story. Yet fascinating. To me.

I had to defer my jury duty for a second time, and was required to appear in person along with the summons that I had received at home, to do so. I imagined that this process would be complicated, tedious and involve waiting. So I had plenty of documents to support my case and a fresh New Yorker (I mean the magazine, not a lippy denizen of this city) to help pass the time.

It took 40 seconds. The lady behind the counter asked when I could serve, I told her, she nodded, she stamped my form and out I went.


Next stop Canal Street post office in Manhattan. A friend had alerted me that a parcel he'd mailed to my PO box had bounced back to him. I had to find out why.

Bring on the valium.

I have kept a PO box since Flatbush Avenue days, to which address parcels could not be delivered safely. I keep the box as a billing address of record, mostly, and for receiving mail when we travel.

On Canal Street I opened my mailbox with my key. There was nothing inside.  A piece of paper was glued over the back saying something indecipherable from my end. I headed for the single, barred window across the room, from whence all help comes. In theory. Six people ahead of me spelled a 20 minute wait.  My back doesn't do standing. It does sitting, fast walking, running, tennis and canoe paddling. It just doesn't do standing. It's a lumbar vertebrae thing. So my back was not happy.

Neither was the lady in the window, once she'd heard my brief story.

No, she says, she can give me a renewal form but she can't tell me a) why my box is closed, b) why I was not alerted by email or at my residential address c) why all my mail (from the banks and credit cards who still insist on sending me paper and who now think this address is not valid) was returned to senders. I must knock on the door of the little room that houses all the PO boxes with my zip code and the man inside will help me. She can't. He does that.

Some years ago my mailbox resided in the  the Prince Street post office in SoHo, which closed, to a great wailing and gnashing of teeth (even mine, which tend to chip when gnashed). It is now an Apple Store. Worry not, said the USPS, although we are downsizing (they can't afford the cost of their healthcare plans, pensions and very decent wages - in short, the United States Postal Service is bankrupt and dying) we will transfer ALL your post office boxes to the post office on Canal Street, ten blocks downstream, in Chinatown.

And they did.

These boxes now live neatly housed inside their own room. A rectangular box, about 30 feet long by six feet wide was constructed just for them, and all the mail with the original zipcode and PO box numbers - so no one had to change their addresses - goes into the little room. And in the room is a man.

And the man's name is Alan.

Alan opened the door in response to my rapped tattoo. I introduced myself. I explained my problem. And I smiled. Broadly. He said I must apply to have my box reopened. I would need a passport to do this. And I had to go back to the lady at window. No, he didn't know why it had been closed and all my mail sent back.


The lady at the window was not prepared to budge on the passport question. I had photo ID - my driver's license. I had the PO box key. I even had two bits of refugee mail addressed to me that Alan had managed to scrounge for me. Clearly - I thought - I was still me. She could enter my details provisionally but Alan had to sign off on it. She went to fetch Alan out of the little room. The queue behind me was now 10 strong. Alan appeared, followed her through the door to the beyond-the-bars section. And then disappeared.

This was at the 45 minute mark.

Has he gone to lunch? asked the lady.

You're asking me?

After another 10 minutes of this Alan pottered back into view, smiling conspiratorially at me. Alan knew something. In the meantime someone else had a loud and unrelated meltdown behind me.

Please bear in mind that at this point nothing has happened. Nothing has occurred. Nothing has been achieved. No explanation has been given. Nobody has said anything useful.

I am invited back to the little room.

Inside his fluorescent and neat, pigeonholed lair Alan offers me a little wooden stool to sit on. I make instant use of it. He says he is puzzled. My face and voice commiserate but I am detached, having given myself over to the twilight zone. I am now looking at the back of all the post office boxes. They are each labeled in the neatest script imaginable, on a small white or pale green or blue or pink label stuck above each opening. There is mine, Marie Viljoen. Impeccable capital lettering. Over the backs of some boxes are squares of paper in larger letters, an identical hand, with an explanation as to the holder's whereabouts or the box's status. Alan's notes to himself. Architecturally precise.

Alan may be puzzled by something but if he knows what it is he's not telling me. He only allows that my box is closed, all my mail returned to sender. I wonder if he plays poker.

He encourages me to make one more trip to the barred window to see if I can reopen the box with only my driver's license as identification. I go. There, I wait. I don't even know what I am waiting for. I don't know why I was granted an audience in the rectangular room.

I have been here an hour! I say crossly to the lady behind bars. Then go home and come back some other time, says the lady.

That's what she said.

Alan returns, an answer in his eyes. He leads me back, again, to the little room. In we go again, the door is closed behind me, again. When did you pay your renewal fee? he asks. I don't remember, I say,  but I pay it every year for an annual renewal; the last months have been blurry.

But Alan already knows: You renewed in July, he says. And then asks himself, So why did I close your box?


I say, Maybe it was just a mistake.

I don't usually make mistakes, says Alan, introspectively.

And I believe him. No one who works in a windowless box and who has handwriting like this makes mistakes. I think Alan is going to worry about this for days. Weeks. Or perhaps he's figured it out already. In the meantime I have to track down every credit card and bank and merchant, since my returned mail spells that my billing address is dead.

I left. No payment required. No passport.

No idea.

That is my story.


  1. I like this story very much. As frustrating as my own similar experiences have been, your style of writing captures the characters wonderfully.

    It feels like a short story in and of itself. Love.

  2. Oh Alan.
    Are you sure you weren't having a nightmare renewing your driver's license at the NJ Division of Motor Vehicles?
    They now have bullet proof windows, while you wait in line, and I think the lady who told you to "go home and come back" with 6 points of identification works nights at my DMV. oy.

  3. This is precisely why i only use the automated machine (is that redundant?) at my local station. USPS must have a special advanced course in obsfucation. Methinks you sneaked that photo with your phone and alan would not be amused.

  4. Anna - thank you.

    Stacey - must be her other shift.

    Anonymous - I took the photo with my camera. I think Alan saw me.

  5. What Anna said.

    Not that you'll want to, but 11232 has short lines and lots of PO boxes.
    That said, they did lose a Hudson Clove box returned. Or they ate it.

  6. Well told, Marie. I actually know Alan and I can vouch for him. He's a funny little man.

  7. To Stacey, there were alot of changes for me when I moved from NJ to Florida - some good, some not so good. The DMV is one of the good ones. I can't believe how efficiently they operate here, at least where I live. How well I remember the horror that is the NJ DMV.

  8. ah, everyday moments of surrender: "My face and voice commiserate but I am detached, having given myself over to the twilight zone."- well said. I also love the above post about algebra; your mysterious mental powers. a well honed, whole mind.

  9. I had a similar experience at the Board of Elections in Brooklyn yesterday trying to pick up an absentee ballot. It was an hour out of my life that I don't think could be replicated anywhere else. I am still so confused about how they operate that I could not put my experience into words as eloquently as you did. I have also concluded after watching how things are done that my ballot has close to zero chance of being counted when it is returned.

  10. The myriad things we have at our fingertips here in New York -- endless art and culture, luxury goods, instantly-appearing and delicious udon ordered on the web -- and yet, the post office is mind-numbingly inept.

    I could write long, ranty essays about how much I hate the post office in NYC. It really doesn't matter which one - in the city, the one downtown Brooklyn at Cadman Plaza, in DUMBO, in Crown Heights, in Park Slope. They are universally awful places that transport you into the twilight zone, indeed. Related: Once I had the Cadman Plaza post office lose an insured parcel (upwards of $2k of merchandise) and act basically like I didn't exist.

    I can't even. You poor thing. If I ever get arrested for disorderly conduct or assault, I guarantee you that it will be at the post office.

  11. Jill - you have to tell me where you order that udon :-)

  12. OMG! the post office is nuts.
    but you somehow managed to turn this into a great story.

  13. This reminds me of the postal service in Cameroon, where I lived for two years in the town of Ndikinimeki. But when my mail failed to appear, it was because the man contracted to bring in from the larger town had died...and no one delivered mail for 9 months...

  14. Actually, that comment was not from my husband, Steve, but from me, Cecile! I'm the one who lived in Cameroon :-)


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