‘Twas the week before Christmas, and the stack of items for mailing was complete. Off to the post office I went, with one package heading for my nephew, three PaperBackSwap books seeking new homes, and one Very Important Envelope requiring delivery confirmation.
I doubt I like or dislike the post office any more or less than anyone else. Less than a mile away and on my general route to almost anywhere, it’s convenient. The wait times is lower than that of the post office of my youth, although whenever possible, I avoid the line for a clerk and used the automated kiosk.
Alas, the Very Important Envelope precluded use of my automatic friend. Eight days before Christmas, I’d have to wait my turn in line for a real person. The queue was surprisingly short for the time of year, but my stomach plunged when I saw the available clerks. There she was: my post office nemesis, whom, for convenience and politeness, I’ll call Nancy. Plenty of other names cross my mind when I see her, but none would be respectful or polite, and even if I knew her given name, using it here would be unwise.
I did what I do when Nancy is at the counter. I counted the people ahead of me and tried to estimate given package load of those customers and the status of the current transactions who’d be my clerk. I’ve repeated this ritual my past four trips in the counter line. It makes no difference in the outcome, of course. Every time, Nancy is mine.
Nancy and I go back about three months. Progeny in tow, I stopped by to mail some homeschooling curriculum (workbooks and a textbook) to family across the country. My automated friend doesn’t work for media mail, so I headed directly for the line. After a reasonable wait in line, I found myself in front of Nancy. Nancy asked the usual question about the contents of the package (bound, printed material, etc). I affirmed its acceptability for media mail status, adding that it was homeschooling curriculum.
Rule number one. No small talk or additional information with Nancy. A sharp look from her was followed by sharper retort that curriculum was not media. Thrown, I answered that I’d sent this type material several times. For years, in fact. I received it that way as well. It took a few minutes to convince her that we were indeed talking about the same thing: bound, printed material. She then proceeded to the questions regarding hazardous or fragile contents, firearms and the like. My children, sensing tension, decided to start talking. “What’s media mail, Mom?” my younger asked.
Rule number two. Don’t talk to Nancy about post office regulations of past or present. I answered my son, referring to the book rate designation of the past. “There was never a book rate,” interrupted Nancy. After a brief, stunned silence, I quietly returned that indeed there had been — I’d mailed many a book that way. From there, the conversation became bizarre. A tirade followed, a litany of items people attempted to mail via book rate (yes, she used the term freely at this point), including coats and car parts. She became combative, even starting in on homeschooling as well as postal crimes of the past. I used a tactic I’ve generally reserved for my younger son: I told her we needed to end this conversation, as it didn’t seem to be very productive. She harrumphed. We left.
As the fates would have it, I was to require counter service a few other times over the next few months. Once, my automated friend was out of service. Another time, I needed another media mail transaction mediated by a human. Each time, I found myself with Nancy. Even without any confrontational postal exchanges, I found myself sweaty and tense approaching the counter, bracing myself and using as few words as possible. Until last Saturday and the Very Important Envelope. I rarely have Very Important Envelopes to mail, and this was the first required certified mail and delivery confirmation. I perused the possible forms in the counter cubbies next to the line, choosing one that seemed promising, and approached the counter.
Rule number three. Don’t ask Nancy questions about post office stuff. This seems counterintuitive, since she’s a postal worker and all, but trust me on this one. Nancy rapidly listed what I needed, so I returned to the form area and produced three choices. Two were correct, and with some prompting, she agreed to tell me which two. My additional questions to clarify some details were met with cryptic answers in an annoyed voice, but somehow I made it through with (I hope) the proper documentation required. Somewhere in all this, I ended up mailing a 15 ounce, $15 paperback to Arizona for the $9.61. I’m sure that was above and beyond for the eight days remaining until Christmas, but the transaction occurred without my involvement while I was figuring out the Very Important Envelope’s journey. I briefly questioned Nancy about that and was quickly rebuked. I let it go.
I left fatigued and irritated. As with the other Nancy encounters, I also was a bit shaken, wondering how someone could get through each day with that much hostility and anger. I also left wondering what I can learn about me from Nancy and folks like her. I wonder if those encounters could be spiritual work.
I can’t change Nancy, but I can change my response to Nancy. Okay, I could also change my post office, but that would be pretty inconvenient. I didn’t exactly enter these encounters with good will and patience, at least not after the first one. I entered tense and ready for conflict. I never swore or treated her disrespectfully, but I was hardly warm and compassionate. And Nancy did not disappoint. I almost wonder if she enjoys seeing customers squirm as their blood pressure rises. So I wonder what would change, at least for me, if I greeted all that vitriol and unhelpfulness with a smile and warm comment. Would she respond by softening? Maybe, but that’s not the main question (although that would be a fine outcome). What matters would be what happened inside me. I just might soften, and I’d likely leave far less shaken, irritated, and fatigued. I might even walk away with a smile, if for nothing else than the knowledge that I’d not allowed another person’s misery to become mine. Certainly, it’s worth a try.