North Oakland Post Office
on November 23, 2009
When I walk into the North Oakland branch Post Office at 8:56, I immediately take stock of my surroundings and stake out a post from which I might best accomplish my mission. I choose a blond-colored wooden bench alongside the main entrance where there’s a good view of the lobby. My not-so-covert objective is to observe and record the scene here in the Post Office this fine Wednesday morning.
The beige-colored Post Office takes up the corner at the Shattuck Avenue entrance to Vern’s Shopping Center in the Temescal neighborhood. The cool fall air flows frequently into the room lingering near the glass doors as patrons run in and out. The grey ceramic-tiled floor sprawling before me is fairly clean, but the large grey rug bearing the blue eagle emblem and the United States Postal Service logo has seen better days. Off to the left a line of customers has formed behind a small island stocked with postage labels, tiny mail insurance forms and an assortment of colorful but official-looking labels.
The wall to the left appears to normally house stacks of white, blue and red priority mail boxes, but its supply has dwindled. Further along the wall is a massive collection of colorful mail packaging with various themes — birthday balloons, baby shower — stacked among the rolls of packaging tape. Somewhere behind the walls of the lobby I can hear the rumble of mail carts rolling along the floor, their wheels squeaking softly.
There are three uniformed postal workers, all female, behind the counter assisting customers who are lined up five or six people deep. The atmosphere is light: Muzak plays softly from an unseen radio, and the women behind the counter have that glazed-over, government-job-enthusiasm, but they are sufficiently pleasant and polite to their customers.
The worker at the first window disappears momentarily into a back room while her customer waits patiently with a small smile on her face. The customer’s rugged attire suggests that she just got back from a hike: cargo pants, purple fleece vest, and hiking boots, but I get the impression from her relaxed smile and laid-back posture that this is probably her regular look. A Whitney Houston song — the one about the children — plays softly and the postal worker in the center window sings a few bars. “I decided long ago…” she sings softly and hums the rest of the line.
There’s an interesting assortment of humanity in the always-present line. An elegant-looking woman in a grey wool overcoat, tweed skirt and tall black boots stands in front of a goateed young man dressed head to toe in black. His right pant leg is rolled up and in his arm he cradles a black bike helmet. A very tall and burly man also stands waiting in line, wearing sweatpants and a slightly tattered 510akland t-shirt. The Post Office is one of those locations people can visit in whatever the hell they happen to be wearing. I recognize this look, as it is one rocked most often by college kids and busy moms; it usually ends up somewhere between pajamas and warm gym clothes. I proceed to track the number of sweatpants sightings. By 9:14, there have been three.
Determined patrons cross the lobby floor opposite the main entrance to pop their letters into one of the three navy blue mailboxes built into the wall. Others move over to the hundreds of Post Office boxes lining the right wall, jangling keys to pluck out the one that will grant access to their mail.
Not everyone seems as familiar with the Post Office. A wild-haired man dressed in grey comes in with a puzzled expression on his face. He wanders in the door, staggers around in a small circle, gazing about in surprise as if this is the first Post Office he’s ever been in. He walks back out.
When the line dwindles a bit, I figure the polite thing to do is to explain my mission to the postal workers, who so far have yet to acknowledge my presence despite the fact that I’m 30 feet away and clacking away on my laptop. I stand in line.
The singing postal woman notices me waiting in the line and asks if I’m waiting for a passport.
“No, Ma’am, “ I answer. Clearly I’m not as Ninja-stealthy as I’d thought. I overhear her tell her present customer that the female passport customers spend a long time looking in the mirrors she gives them, but the guys usually just tell her to take the picture. A man in a utility jumpsuit, presumably the janitor, emerges from the back room and walks out the door. In his hand, he’s carrying a tattered American flag. The singing woman starts up again, this time to Bette Midler “God is watching us…God is watching us…” she sings. I feel mildly embarrassed that I know all the words to this song.
The janitor returns a few minute later, but the flag is gone. I wonder what he did with it and try to remember the protocol for getting rid of a flag. I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to burn them, but I don’t think he was gone long enough.
The woman with lovely wavy hair at the first counter space tells me to step forward to her window. I smile brightly and explain what I‘m doing here: I’m a student journalist and our assignment is to go to a location in North Oakland and report on what we see for one hour. My enthusiasm is met with a blank, uninterested stare. “As long as you don’t take any pictures,” the singing woman says warningly. “You can write as much as you want, but you can’t take any pictures inside the facility.” I thank the women and head back to my bench.
A young woman in velour sweats (current sweatpants count: nine!) heads toward the door carrying the package she picked up at the counter. It is wrapped in brown paper and is the size of a shoebox, and has the plain, handmade quality of a care package. She heads towards the door but changes her mind and sits down at the end of my bench.
Sweet, she’s going to open it here!, I think. She turns the package around in her hands a few times, searching for an entry point. Finally, she uses her keys to hack through the clear packaging tape. I may be more excited than she is to see what’s in it, and I try to sneak a peak while clacking away on my keyboard. She pulls out a few small items and sets them out of sight on the floor.
The suspense is killing me. I try not to stare but glimpse a small bottle of hand lotion. I can take no more.
“What’d you get? What’d you get?,” I ask in an excited loud whisper, like a kid on Christmas.
She looks up at me, surprised, as if she hadn’t noticed I was there. She laughs. “This is my stuff that my ex-boyfriend sent me.”
I wish the floor would open up and swallow me whole. Crap.
“Oh…I’m sorry,” I stammer, but she’s laughing.
Uh…is it okay for me to laugh about this? I wonder, hoping she’s not about to flip out or cry. I really really wish I hadn’t asked. I make a face and feel my face flush. “I’m really sorry,” I apologize and she laughs more.
“It’s okay. I wasn’t sure if he’d sent it back to me, so I thought I’d open it here and just throw it out.”
Ah, yes. Thank you, universe, for another fine lesson in minding my own business. (Unfortunately, this does not bode well for a career in journalism.) The woman leaves shortly after our encounter, and with my hour past, I exit quietly before I can ask any more embarrassing questions of strangers.
Total sweatpants count: eleven.
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