At post office, mail and mayhem

Mail clerks cope with steely-eyed holiday madness with grit, good humor.

There they are, dozens of them, perspiring slightly in coats and scarves, shifting their weight from foot to foot, their packages from arm to arm. A few lick envelopes. A few unfurl wide strips of packing tape.

Jack Halas hardly notices.

Mr. Halas is an unassuming man, heavyset with a wide, easy smile. But on this Tuesday lunch hour shift, the postal clerk at counter No. 1 at Boston's Main Post Office finds only one way to deal with the steely-eyed madness: "You just keep your head down," he says, "and do what you can. If you look out there, you get all uptight."

As post offices across America fill with mail and mayhem this week - among the busiest of the year, with an estimated 850 million pieces on Monday alone- the handlers of holiday exchange can do little more than follow Halas's head-down ethic amid the maelstrom.

The post office, after all, is an epicenter of holiday hope and havoc, where letters to Santa show up heavy with stickers and crayon wax, where painstakingly wrapped gifts venture into the postal wilderness, where intimate words pass hands, not to be taken back.

"Do you have anything that is liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous?"

The question spills from Halas's tongue each time. That's 107 customers so far, six more hours to go. All the while, the workaday soundtrack of peeling stamps, the rip of perforated edges, and the rustle of stuffing envelopes and crumpling receipts punctuates the Christmas carols that hum from a radio beside Halas's desk.

Halas likes the Christmas frenzy, actually. He depends on the 12-1/2-hour days for overtime pay. The shifts are hard, "but the time flies," he says.

There's the regular customer who drops off a chocolate bar and a stuffed bird dressed in a Santa suit, a festive creature that chortles, "We wish you a Merry Christmas," when you squeeze its belly. There's the tragicomedy of those who come in with a peremptory "Hi" and then a more pleading, "Can you get this there today?"

"Um, no, we can't," Halas says.

And then with an impish smile, "That always makes them mad."

And then there are those who come in desperate for guidance. "What do you think?" asks one. "I want a really nice holiday stamp."

"I'd go with the snowmen," Halas tells him.

"OK," the man replies, impressed. "I'll need 1,500 of them."

Jack Halas isn't a lifer at the post office. He started seven years ago, after the machine factory where he worked as a traffic manager for 16 years was bought out. A friend worked at the US Postal Service. "I was a vet, I had that, so I took the test and passed."

Working the desk is a great job, he says. Even when customers get surly.

"Ree, ree, ree," he imitates one well-dressed woman - her glasses hanging down around her nose - when she finds out she has just addressed the wrong form. She drops her box on the counter with a bang and a huff. "People get mad," he says, and smiles.

Then there are those who skirt the system. Moments after Halas has helped customer No. 692, another 692 shows up. "This happens all the time," he says. But for a clerk down the counter, it's a different story: When a customer approaches Elena without a ticket, she sends him packing, to the back of the line.

"She's the number Nazi," Halas says with admiration.

Elena nods. "I'm the number Gestapo," she confirms.

Tax Day on April 15 is another hectic day for postal clerks across the country. But as Halas points out, that's only one day.

Throughout the weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas, says Bob Cannon, public affairs manager for the Ppstal service in Massachusetts, business is up by 50 percent. The day of Dec. 15, just 10 days before Christmas, is generally the busiest shipping day. Two days later is the biggest delivery day. And Dec. 21 is when the procrastinators roll through the doors in droves: priority mail.

Halas finally takes a break. But before long a woman knocks on the door, peers though. She tells him she accidentally dropped a $50 bill in a white envelope through the slot, mixed up with the rest of her holiday cards.

"Oh boy," Halas says. The bin on the other side is almost full. It fills up every hour during this time of the year, and the unwitting drop-off happened 20 minutes earlier.

Halas looks exasperated for a second. He looks to his colleague, and then shrugs and digs in. It's the holidays, after all.

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