I had forty five minutes at lunchtime and thought I would mail my tax checks. It’s April, so maybe that was my first mistake. My town post office moved onto Main Street and there’s no parking unless you want to circle the block, park at the cemetery, or jog in. So I thought I’d have better luck in the city.
The post office was a lovely brick building with old fashioned mailboxes and a mural on the wall. I opened the door and found myself at the end of the line. It was 11:50 and I counted twelve people ahead of me. I sashayed left so as not to block the door. It took fifteen minutes to get here and I was not turning back.
There were several post office windows but only one open. I looked at my watch, wondering what would be preferable: a tooth extraction, a Zumba class, a Calculus final. I began a game of mental tennis to test my patience. It had been only five minutes, and that wasn’t unreasonable, but I pay for this service and should expect more, especially given the checks in my hands payable to the treasury. I told myself to settle down and do the math. The first woman finished in 3 minutes, so I’d be up in 33 more minutes.
33 more minutes!
But wait. A man two spots ahead dropped out. Dressed in office attire, here was someone with priorities. He left and came back to ask the driver of the gray Toyota to move. I didn’t think to double-park. Heads turned, eyes followed him, a collective bleating rose from the sheep, us that is.
It was 12:01. I heard laughter and talk behind the wall from other workers, not the one at the window. What business would ever survive this kind of customer treatment? I listened but couldn’t decipher the words, imagining something along these lines, “Gee, Wanda, it’s tax season and lunch time, did I tell you that joke? Why don’t we go out for lunch, get our nails done? Race you to the corner 7-11 for a Slurpee?”
HELLO. WE’RE WAITING HERE.
More people snaked behind me, stretching towards the back wall mural, past the door. It felt hot. My pulse raced, the kind of sinking sensation you get when you spend your morning at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Who does anything with the government unless you have to?
The clerk at the open window moved with glacial speed, her moves and expressions so choreographed, it was hard to tell she was human. She had this way of looking over her glasses at the customer that made you put your feet together, tuck in your chin, check your nails. Surely you did something wrong, though you weren’t sure what.
A tall man in blue oxford, pressed pants, and glasses stepped to the window with letters in hand. The clerk barked at him, handed him green forms and pointed to the back of the line. He bowed his head and scurried to the table.
WHAT?!!? Sent to the end of the line for not having his certified slips completed? The written portion is for the customer and doesn’t have to be filled out. I thought about the headmistress in Road Dahl’s Matilda, the hammer-throwing Olympian, Mrs. Trunchbull. An ogre on good days, she loathed children and lived to throw them in the Chokey, a dark narrow cupboard with protruding nails and sharp glass.
Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda
Miracles divine! It’s 12:09! A worker opened the second window.
I looked at the man in the Chokey at the end of the line. He hovered at the counter, wincing, looking for a break, maybe an invitation back to the window. We avoided his eyes. I inched forward, desperate to find slips, 33 minutes I could bear, but I WOULD NOT go to the Chokey. I would shout at the clerk for them first, between customers.
Around the next wall I saw them. Phew.
A middle-aged woman called me to the window at 12:16. I said hello and she looked at me, waiting. I handed her my two letters with certified slips. What could go wrong now?
I hadn’t given it much thought, but earlier I slit open one of my envelopes and re-taped it along the top. The clerk held it in her hand, tracing the scotch tape with her finger.
Look lady, I thought, I gave up my lunch break, waited 26 minutes in line, filled out my slips though there weren’t any at the desk, all this to send an exorbitant sum of money to the state to pay for this government neglect and abuse. Any profitable business would apologize for the wait, call for help, open another window and thank the patrons who pay their salary. Not to mention the only reason I came was to certify my hard earned dollars make it into government coffers because the USPS is not responsible for lost mail unless I pay extra to certify its delivery. The irony is not lost on this citizen.
What incentive does the post office or any government agency have to help us? It only means more work for them. More customers, more work, same pay.
She held a letter in each hand now. So what could I do? rant about the insolence of office and tell her how to do her job better? suggest a good customer service program? tell her it’s ONLY tape?
In the ten seconds this emotional tennis played out, I did the only thing I could do.
I said, “You don’t have any of these do you?” distracting her from the tape and pointing at the light house stamps. “My girls collect them.”
Baaaaaah goes the sheep.
“No. Ran out of those a while ago.” She noticed the Ray Charles stamp I used on both envelopes. I don’t send cool stamps to the government but my husband took the postage roll of flags. Thank goodness. This gave me credibility; maybe I was part of the sisterhood. On the stamp, Ray Charles has on glasses and is laughing in true form, mouth wide open, head rolling. Did I detect a smile on the clerk’s lips?
She spoke then. “Did you want the winter flower stamps? They’re nice.” I let out a breath. Sure. I bought two packs.
My watch read 12:22. I left the window, checked the line, eyeing those poor buggers still in the Chokey.