I grew up in Western Pennsylvania where there was no town.
Our parents built a house across the black-topped, un-lined, barely two-lane road from Dad’s folks. Our home was surrounded by woods and a big hill we called The Nob. Two of Dad’s siblings and numerous cousins lived on the three-quarters of a mile stretch of dead-end. We walked to family get togethers carrying covered-dishes and Mom’s delectable Coconut Cream Pie.
Our mailman (always a man back then) delivered mail to the box at the end of the driveway. When we required stamps, Mom put the money in the mailbox and raised the flag. When the mail came, so did a book of stamps.
We seldom went to the post office. Bills often got paid at the bank—a system I’ve never deciphered; one childhood mystery I’ve left alone.
Leaving my woodland home, I attended college in York, Pennsylvania. Our post office was on campus, student run and easy to access. After the dorms and college apartments, my freshman roommate and I lived in an old row house. For country gal me, that location was as valuable an experience as college. Our neighbors were as varied as the folks on campus and everyone seemed to slide into place together, no matter our ethnicities.
- After college: Denver. Huge and short-lived.
- Post Colorado: Moving around Pennsylvania.
- From Pennsylvania: Columbus, Ohio. Disliking life in suburbia.
- Following Ohio: Whittier, California. Liking townhome living.
I have no memory of post offices in any of these cities. I had to have purchased stamps and sent packages. No where in my mind can I conjure a moment of opening the door, stepping in, and facing the familiar rows of silver mailboxes or the gray counter with waiting clerks.
My next stop more closely resembled home.
I moved to the small, Northern Exposure reminiscent town of Red Lodge, Montana. The main street, nobly named Broadway, is also the Beartooth Highway, climbing up and eventually into Yellowstone Park.
Ten years later, I came to Pittsburgh on a whim. I’m still here, having wound up marrying a local bloke who I’m having a difficult time convincing to move. Like ever. The blessing is that he loves travel as much as I do. Otherwise, here I am, stuck in suburbia south of the city. The neighbors are nice and the neighborhood offers lots of places to walk. My cousin, from the flats of Lancaster, calls our sidewalks a Cardio Workout. It’s Pittsburgh. There are hills. Lots and lots of hills. Being here is fine. Don’t tell Alex.
However, always, I miss Red Lodge.
The post office.
Our exploits started with Joe, the grumpy postal clerk who Jackie and I wore down with smiles and stupidity. Like the day we were standing in a busy line full of people sending holiday packages. We had forgotten something rather important—oh, like bringing the right amount of money with us perhaps? People were getting impatient, Joe was getting grumpier as we searched purses and wallets.
Jackie reached into her coat pocket and brought out a handful of Hershey’s Kisses gaily wrapped for Christmas. I stabbed a hand in mine, praying for a stash. Instead, I revealed lint and a crumpled tissue. We distributed Jackie’s, ahem, Kisses to the crowd and started quipping like we were on stage at a comedy club.
Joe finally caved and his weathered Grumpier Old Man face crinkled into smiles and guffaws. That was it, we had won over him for the rest of his days. The applauding crowd commended us on doing what they could not: break Joe.
There was the postcard I received from a friend who traveled to Mexico.
He scribbled my first name and my street on the card and tossed it in the mail. It found me.
There was the clerk, sweet S., who worked there for years after Joe’s death from cancer. When I moved, S. would sneak notes to me on mail coming through her line. Box or letter, I was never surprised, but always delighted to see her scribble, “Hi RM, hurry back, we miss you! S.”
Unusual things would happen. Like the mail person calling you at Christmas saying, “Hey, this one is from your mom. It might have cookies in it, so don’t let it sit—come in and pick it up today.” Or someone would stick a stamp on the one envelope in the pile that you missed. Then quietly let you know the next time you came in that you owe them (personally, not the P.O.) for the stamp.
If the Red Lodge post office had an espresso machine in the lobby, it would be the place to hang out and chat with friends coming and going.
Back to that nowhere place I grew up…
Weekends visiting my parents, Dad would voice any excuse to dash out on a Saturday morning while Mom tinkered at home. The premise could be the bank or the grocery store, but the reality was sneaking in a trip to the coffee shop. He loved chatting with his buddy’s over a steaming cup of java. On the way home, we would detour to the post office. It was a joy to walk in there with Dad, his friendliness reminding me of Red Lodge. He would catch up with the guy behind the counter, who Dad had known from childhood.
These places, these offices we patronize to send things off to others, can provide pleasant experiences. When the employees treat you, the customer, like people and not transactions. If they welcome you as if they were the proprietors of a small-town store and they depend on you for their livelihood. And especially when they crack a smile as you dig a piece of Hershey’s Chocolate from your pocket and slide it across the counter along with your letter…