Going postal at Christmas

The machine clicked loudly, telegraphing any signs of hesitation to all in the crowded lobby.

Myra Beltran/Houston Chronicle/AP
A mid-December day at the University Station Post Office in Houston.

It was the week before Christmas, and the line at the post office snaked twice around the lobby and crumbled into disarray just inside the door, where brief eye contact and the honor system ruled the day. No one was moving. It looked like an exhibit in the Postal Wax Museum. I trudged over to the self-service kiosk where the line was much shorter.

I don’t like self-service. I tell people it’s because I don’t approve of taking jobs away from people, but the real problem is that I’m no good at it. The machine invariably asks me something I don’t know the answer to, and it can be huffy about it, too. I resent this. I am a retired letter carrier, and we moved mail the old-fashioned way, by cracky: hand to hand, human to human. We were fast, friendly, and frequently accurate. This machine was a whippersnapper.

The woman in the front of the line was clicking away at the screen. And the clicks were startlingly loud. Any signs of hesitation on her part were telegraphed to the whole lobby. I felt sorry for her: The machine could smell fear. The next person took a long time, too. I breathed deep, summoning serenity. By the time it was my turn, I had the heart rate of a yogi.

What is your preferred language? Click

What is your destination ZIP Code? Click click click click click

Anything damp, unseemly, or likely to wreak havoc in the package? Click

Anything jingly? Intimidating? Uncomfortable in social settings? Click. Click. Click. I was on fire.

But under the weight of concern from the people in line behind me, I felt a growing obligation to minimize the seconds between clicks. Outside, shadows lengthened. The sun dropped below the horizon.

Finally it was time to slide in a credit card. The machine sneered. “Try putting it in the other way,” the gentleman behind me suggested. No good. After the third try, the machine issued a bleat of distrust. 

“I’ve got a different card,” I said, and fished around for that one, beginning to perspire. Yes, I had become the elderly lady in the grocery line, fumbling in her purse, the object of pity and derision. The machine wanted a PIN, but not the one I suggested. 

“Start over,” I clicked, intending to try the first card again.

What language do you prefer? What is your destination ZIP Code?

Oh no.

Up and down the line, folks shifted their parcels to their other hip.

My package wasn’t a gift; Santa’s reputation wasn’t riding on it. I tried to bail out. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking back, sheepish. “I guess I don’t know what I’m doing. You all go ahead.”

“Don’t be embarrassed,” said the nice man behind me. “Try it again. We’re all friends here, right?” He swept his hand around. 

It was a Christmas miracle: Smiles were blooming all down the line. Peace on earth, and mercy mild! I sent out a rumpled grin, clicked with deliberation and sincerity, and introduced my credit card as though I were presenting it to the queen. The machine surrendered a mailing label.

If coins had thundered into the slot I couldn’t have been happier. Everyone burst into applause. Comfort and joy! I hauled my package off the scale and basked in the human sunshine of goodwill. The faces in line were radiant. God bless them, every one: These were my new friends.

“I was a postal employee for more than 30 years,” I volunteered, shrugging. “You’d think I’d know what I was doing, right?”

Oh, silent night.

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