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Signed, sealed, delivered: A North Oakland mail carrier makes the rounds

on September 22, 2009

Among the cars parked off of Claremont and Oak Grove, a U.S. Post Office truck stands out among the Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. Dadra “Renee” Underwood, 52, has been driving this truck for 23 years. She is one of the 80 employees at the Grand Avenue Post Office. The stack of mail she delivers every day, if you piled it one piece on top of the other, would be around three feet high.

Underwood is a petite woman. As she jumps out of the left-hand side of the white truck, her large white safari hat hides her face. When she lifts her head, her bright red lipstick contrasts vividly with her standard uniform. She is wearing dark blue pants with darker blue striped embroidery down the sides and a light blue short-sleeved shirt with red and blue stripes. The U.S. Postal Service logo is emblazoned on the left side of her shirt. When her feet hit the ground, she steps quickly to the back of the truck. She unhooks her key, which is connected to a gold chain, to unlock the back of the truck.

Although her job is very complex, for Underwood it is an everyday routine. She treks through North Oakland neighborhoods with a bounce in her step, a genuine, gapped-tooth smile and a willingness to answer residents’ questions about Post Office life.

Top two questions: Does she get a discount on stamps? And why are the prices of stamps increasing?

Underwood says she is just as much affected by the price increase of stamps because she does not get a discount. She says with changes in the economy, every facet of businesses is affected and prices must increase. The Post Office also competes with other companies, such as FedEx and UPS. “It’s the name of the game,” she says.

Underwood fingers through two different bins of mail — one with letters, another with magazines. She takes a rubber band from around a bundle of mail and puts it around her wrist. After quickly walking to the side of a red brick house, she drops the mail in a hidden slot. She then walks up stairs of what looks like the same house, but is actually a different house number, and drops the mail through the door slot. The casual observer might never have figured out that there were two addresses at the same location.

“I used to get so confused,” she says. “I would be searching all around trying to find the mail box, but now I know every house and I have a routine.”

Underwood has had different routes in Oakland, but has been delivering mail to the Claremont area for four years. This is her favorite route because she doesn’t have to climb any of the Oakland hills.

She walks her entire route, which is about 10 miles and takes her five hours.

“There are driving routes, but I don’t have the seniority,” she says. She hopes to have a driving route in coming years, but says it’s difficult because people aren’t retiring like they used to. According to Underwood, many employees will work 30 or 40 years before retiring. “Especially with the way the economy is now, it’s nice to have a job with security,” she says.

On this warm late morning, the streets are incredibly still and very few people come outside their homes. Underwood’s route is very quiet, with no noise other than an occasional conversation about a package that needs a signature or a faceless “thank you” through a screen door.

After Underwood’s divorce about 20 years ago, she had to find a way to support her family. Her brother worked for AC Transit and she thought about applying for a job as a bus driver, but did not want to deal with all the passengers. She continually thought about working for the Post Office because of its secure employee benefits. One day while reading the newspaper, she saw an ad for the mandatory entrance exam.

“I studied, studied and studied,” she says. “All the time.” Along with attending a class, Underwood studied local addresses and street names. When she passed the test, she said, “Thank you Lord! You answered my needs.”

As Underwood walks up and down each side of the street, she returns to her truck every 10 to 15 houses to get more mail or move her truck farther up the block. Back at her truck, Underwood pulls out a pile of mail, composed of letters and Netflix videos, out of her grey shoulder bag. As the world’s largest movie rental service, Netflix sends vast numbers of DVD movies to members’ doors, all delivered by postal carriers like Underwood. When members are finished, they return the movies in a postage-paid envelope — more mail for Underwood to pick up. Underwood says these Netflix envelopes make up 75 percent of her letter deliveries during the week.

In addition to the heavy volume of Netflix envelopes, Underwood says Tuesdays are also tough since that’s when advertisements are delivered. “They’re heavy, sometimes the papers fall out, but I’ll just try to break it up into two days, like Monday and Tuesday,” she says.

Underwood says after Halloween is when holiday mail picks up. “Everything’s doubled,” she says. “And around Thanksgiving, woo!” Along with the holiday season, Underwood says income tax season is a busy time in the office as well. “I try not to take vacation time during income tax season because I know it’s important for people to get them on time.”

But what Underwood enjoys most is being out of the office. “Once I’m out of those doors I feel like my own boss,” she says. “If you ask any carrier they will tell you the same thing.” She says she has her own routine and no one is lurking over her shoulder. Her check every two weeks is a perk of its own.

Does she ever encounter the feisty dog that many of us view as the carrier’s worst enemy? After all, she does have dog spray clipped to the side of her bag. Underwood says that she has heard of carriers being bitten by dogs in the neighborhood. “Fortunately, I’ve never had to use my spray on dogs,” she says. “Just on spiders and spider webs.”

Underwood says the job has its ups and downs, but she enjoys it. “Do I get tired sometimes? Yes,” she says. Underwood says although she gets physically tired after work, the most important things are rest and a good breakfast because her days are very long. “You have crazy days,” she says. “But you have to have a positive attitude.”

1 Comment

  1. Monica Livengood on September 23, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Very nice story, I really enjoy human interest stories and like the idea of looking at the people we see everyday but know nothing about them or what their job really involves.
    Thank you for sharing this.

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