Monday morning. Long line at the post office. I had a stack of packages to mail—same as everyone else there. I also needed to pick up more of the flat-rate priority mail boxes, but the racks were empty. A man ahead of me in line needed some too, and one of the clerks had to go hunt up a new batch of them in the back room. Listening to the impatient sighs all around, I was glad he’d beat me to that request.
Except it turned out—after the guy left, which is a bummer—that the new stack of boxes was the wrong kind, just plain priority mail, not the flat-rate boxes. So that poor customer went home with a pile of the wrong thing. I was the one who discovered the error, while the clerk was taking care of my packages.
“Are these the same as the flat-rate boxes?” I asked, not seeing the words “flat rate” anywhere on the white slabs of ready-to-fold cardboard.
“Oh, shoot,” said the clerk. “No. Shoot. We gave him the wrong kind.”
I had already told him I was going to need a dozen of the medium flat-rate boxes, so he said he’d have to go look for them after he finished ringing up my packages. More restless sighs from the long line of people behind me. Now I was going to get to be that person, the delayer.
The clerk handed me my receipt and disappeared to the back room. Shuffle, sigh, murmur goes the line. Seconds tick painfully by. This is the kind of situation that makes me squirm; I have a tendency to blurt out inanities in a vain effort to break the tension.
“This is the awful part,” I said to the line in general. “When you’re the one holding everybody up.”
Every single person in that line stared back at me blankly. Not one single commiserating smile, not even a quirked corner of the mouth. Just—blank. Except for the one woman who muttered to the man in front of her, “She picked an interesting time for this.”
Which, I couldn’t help it, made me chuckle—an interesting time for what? For picking up shipping boxes? In the post office during the holidays? That’s an interesting time? I think it’s kind of a pedestrian time, an obvious time, don’t you? Or maybe it’s just that I “picked” a time when the line was very long. Which is to say, I went to the post office in December. Hee. I’ve stood in no less than four very long lines at three different branches of the post office in the past week, at various times of day. (Y’all are keeping me busy with these book orders!) I feel fairly confident in saying categorically that there is no time the line isn’t long, this time of year.
It was funny, the contrast between that P.O. trip (mortifying) and the one I made last Saturday morning, with Stevie along for the ride (amusing). We had three packages to mail and I was hoping to pick up the flat-rate boxes then, but then, too, the display rack was empty. And—ironically—I didn’t ask the clerk (different clerk, different P.O.) to fetch me some that day, because the line was moving so very slowly. When Stevie and I got in line, there was a woman finishing up at the counter who had mailed six or seven packages, and I gathered her order had been complicated and had taken a while. The man at the front of the line was clearly at the limits of his patience; he was puffing air out his nose quite angrily, like an irritated bull.
The clerk, a cheerful, portly fellow, seemed to be trying—with much more success than I had a few days later—to lighten the mood with humor. As the six-package lady was packing up her wallet to leave, the clerk announced, “All right, and FIVE..FOUR…THREE…TWO…ONE! We’re closed, people!”
Gasps all round—but immediately he was laughing, waving his hand to show he was teasing us. Everyone giggled except the puffing bull-man, who barked, “You’re lucky we don’t all have pistols!”—which I think was meant to be funny, actually, but came off rather alarming.
Then it was that man’s turn at the counter. As he strode forward, he watched the six-package lady exiting and said, loudly, “Doesn’t she know they teach remedial math in night school?”
I looked anxiously at the door to see if the woman had heard the insult. I think (hope) she was out of earshot by then.
“Harsh,” I murmured, and the woman in line ahead of me, a lovely twinkly-eyed grandmother with fluffy Miss Marple hair, shook her head in agreement.
The bull-man pointed at the angel stamps on the poster and said, “I want 25 of those.” But they only come, the clerk explained, in books of 20. Bull-man snorted, exasperated. “Fine. Then give me 25 of those blueberry ones,” he grumped, pointing at the juniper-berry stamp in the Evergreens collection.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the clerk. “Those come as a set—the four evergreen designs.”
“But I only want the berries.”
“I’m sorry, sir, they don’t come separately.”
“But I don’t want the pine cones!”
“I’m sorry, sir…”
By now Miss Marple and I were both giggling, hidden from the bull-man’s view by the big empty rack that was supposed to hold my flat-rate boxes. The young guy in front of Miss Marple shot me a grin. There was this ripple of camaraderie all down the line—the bull-man had been so disgusted with the six-package lady for taking so long. He would have hated to be behind his own self in line. It was kind of delicious, this moment.
Now, threaded through the seven or eight minutes it took the man to agree to suffer the pine cones along with the berries, Stevie was chattering to me in his hybrid of English and ASL, and I was speaking-signing back to him, and he was melting the hearts of the other women in line, as he is wont to do. He’s just such a cute little guy, you know? Miss Marple loved him. Ms. Marple, I should say, because she told me all about her granddaughter who is deaf, and she, grandma, signs a little, “but not enough.” And we talked about Signing Time and ways to learn ASL.
And it turned out the young guy in front of her was mildly hard of hearing and had worn hearing aids as a child, but didn’t wear them any longer. He cracked Stevie up, making eyes at him around the empty box rack. It felt like we were all passengers together on a cruise or something, fellow travelers bonding on a long journey.
At last the bull-man stomped out with his despised pine cones, and the next few transactions moved rapidly. Stevie and I were beckoned forward by the same affable clerk who’d been so patient with bull-man and six-package lady. He greeted me heartily and signed hello to Steve. And proceeded to explain, as he weighed my packages, that he too was hard of hearing. (What are the odds? It was kind of incredible, this convergence of hard-of-hearing men young and old.) I learned to sign when I was little, he signed, and Stevie grinned and got shy, and I was kind of relieved the bull-man wasn’t in line anymore because our conversation undeniably added a few extra moments to the transaction.
Good moments. Moments of connection. Everyone in that line was smiling—the bull-man’s ironic surliness had put us all in merry spirits, somehow. That and a cute little deaf kid with blue hearing aids.
I guess that sense of connection, that we’re-all-in-this-together feeling, is what I was looking for on Monday, three days later, when I babbled my remark to the impatient queue in the other post office. I was a six-package lady myself that time and already self-conscious about that when the whole wrong-kind-of-box thing happened.
I should have brought Stevie with me that day. Or a loud and bitter hater of pine cones.
Booknotes: The Kitchen Madonna
“The Ungovernable Sense of Life”
A Hanna’s Christmas surprise for Santa Lucia Day