The Night Mail

PostofficeYou know, there’s supposed to be an old British documentary called “The Night Mail.” I think that’s the title. About an overnight mail train. I’ve never seen it; it’s supposed to be a classic. But that’s not what I’m referring to here. Rather, it’s the arrival of today’s mail at 7 p.m. This after getting no mail yesterday (a regular delivery day despite the proximity to Veterans Day). And no mail on Saturday, which was Veterans Day. I got calls from neighbors the last couple of nights wondering what was going on.

I heard our mailbox open and went out to the porch before the mailperson, who was other than male, had departed.

“Boy,” I said cheerfully. “You guys are having a rough time. What happened to the mail yesterday?”

“The guy who had the route yesterday–I don’t think he had a flashlight,” the mailperson said. She scurried into the dark before I could fully process that. Didn’t have a flashlight? Yeah, sure, a flashlight would be nice if you’re out after dark. But since when did it become a requirement for finishing a mail route in the middle of a semi-lighted city?

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” I’m one of many under the mistaken impression that these words were written with a United States postal agency in mind. The words paraphrase Herodotus, who was describing a Persian courier system of the 5th century B.C. Those guys knew how to deliver a message. The mistaken impression arises from the fact Herodotus’s words are inscribed on Manhattan’s old General Post Office

(a totally neoclassical pile if ever there was one).

Memo to Berkeley P.O.: Neither Herodotus nor his American translator mention anything about artificial lighting. No torches, electric or pre-electric. If you trust the Greek, the Persians were uncowed by undispelled night-time gloom. And you know, from a customer standpoint, I’m not even asking for “swift completion” of the appointed rounds; just plain old unmodified “completion” would do fine.

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5 Replies to “The Night Mail”

  1. We’ve had our mail delivered well past 6:00 before in the winter months. For like a week in a row. I happened to catch the carrier one night, and in the nicest way asked what was going on. Fortunately, he was a jovial guy. He informed me there was a shortage of carriers in the area and the P.O. had bussed a bunch of them in from Joliet, including him. And none of them knew their way around town. Well, that explained it.

  2. BTW, I love tht neoclassic pile. It reminds me of our own old Post Office, which is no longer used as a Post Office, having been replaced by a soulless wart on the city with Richard Nixon’s name on the cornerstone.

  3. Agreed: re: that post office building. We were up in
    Napa the other day visiting a friend, and walking
    around the downtown, we happened across the “old” main
    post office. Graceful and understated, a product of
    the WPA era, probably, and in complete contrast to the
    neo-Stalinist style on exhibit in the nearby county
    office complex. Berkeley and Oakland have great older
    post offices, too, from that same era. Really elegant,
    in an age where that adjective could still be applied
    to public buildings. (The scale of that NYC building is so overwhelming, though, that it graduates from elegant to monumental.)

  4. I have never seen a mail carrier after dark delivering mail in any of the places I’ve lived. I’ve seen them in uniform after dark on April 15 or thereabouts but that was at the office.

  5. As you might expect, a random German has posted a photograph of the downtown Napa post office:
    http://blog.subnetmask.de/2006/04/10/
    By the way, the service at my office (just five blocks from the P.O. referenced above) has been awful lately. We regularly receive the mail of neighbors, and they ours. Often the carrier does not stop by, which we know because mail we’ve left out for her to take is still there two days later.
    And while we’re on the topic of mail, why not mention that before our company leased this building five years ago, it was home to various mental health professionals. Utne Reader still arrives here, addressed to “Napa Valley Sex Offender.”

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