Waiting in line for 45 minutes to mail a postcard this morning is a test of patience. People come in and then leave; some stay and grumble, while others wait in silence. There's a cough, a sneeze, the shuffling of feet, a chorus of sighs, indiscernible whispers. I'm one of those with the heavy sighs escaping my lips. I've nowhere to be, no one's waiting for me, and this is just a small part of what is to become a full day. But still, I grow impatient. Like a pot of soup on the stove, I can feel the frustration turning to anger as it grows from a simmer to a boil.
It's 9:45am and the twelve of us who have stayed the course in this line have been waiting for fifteen minutes for a postal employee to open a till. Why would they open the doors and then not be available to customers. "They" know we're here because there are cameras everywhere. I have the thought to dig out my camera and start taking pictures of the inside of the post office. When I did this at Christmas, not realizing you're not allowed to take photographs in the building, I was quickly scolded. I resist the urge to draw attention this way, assuming that someone will appear soon.
Another five minutes goes by, and we can all hear the laughter of a group of people behind the closed windows. This is when my patience ended. To know that they're being so inconsiderate is intolerable to me. So, I step from the line and knock on the window. Immediately, the blinds are drawn up and a dark, scowling faces stares at me, as five other scowling faces behind him mimic the scowl.
"What do you want?", he yells.
"I want you to open the window and serve all of these customers like you were supposed to do when you opened twenty minutes ago," I yell back.
He stares at me. I stare at him. There's a cough, a sneeze, the shuffling of feet, a chorus of sighs, indiscernible whispers.
As if touching it burns his hands, he ever so slowly, mockingly-so, slides the window open.
"I'll help all those other people, but I won't help you," he smirks, tilting his head to cast his gaze around me, and jutting his chin forward, as if the implication of who those other people are is lost on me.
Before I can catch my breath, three or four people shift in line and shout in unison, as if they're part of a Broadway musical "Welcome to our Neighborhood Post Office" and not here, in this Brooklyn post office, "Just help the young lady, so we can all get on with our day", the choir sings.
He motions for me to move the side with that same jutting chin gesture, and rings his bell for the next in line to step up. No one steps up. He rings and he rings and he rings his damn bell, but everyone in the line stands still. And I'm standing still, holding my breath, realizing that I'm being an ass and that I've played my part in this volatile situation. Silence screams and bounces off the brick walls. Finally, a middle aged man makes a move to step out of line, but his friend pulls him back and chides, "Don't even think about it George".
I want to be back in the line. I want to be the youngish woman who uses her sense of humor to diffuse the growing frustration of not only her own self, but of the other people waiting. I want to smile sweetly and kindly when it's finally my turn to get my one postcard stamp, wishing him a nice day, and moving on with the rest of mine. But it is too late, and this man and I are holding one other's gaze, like the lion and the gazelle. But which of us is the lion and which is the gazelle?
This entire situation lasts around three or four minutes, but it feels like an hour to me. At last, he gives up, shrugs his shoulders, and gruffly asks what I want. I get my stamp. He takes my money. I mail my postcard. And as I turn back to my post office posse, they cheer and whistle and a few even pat me on the back. Me, the girl from Alaska, being cheered on by these New Yorkers, these New Yorkers with their reputations for being aggressive and for not taking any shit.
I emerge from the dark building and step out in to the brilliant sunshine. I feel badly for my actions, and I immediately regret my behavior. I hang my head and realize that I have much more work to do to be someone living a peaceful life. Clearly, I'm far, far from peace, love and tranquility.
Postal employees have a rough go of it I know. I understand that they have to put up with a lot of shit. I don't know which came first, the grumpy postal clerk or the grumpy postal patron.
Regardless, today is another day and I have more items to mail. I cringe at the thought of returning to the post office, but know that I have to face it sooner than later. I could make the journey to the one further away, but I refuse to hide. So instead, I braid my hair, wear a hat and put on sunglasses in an attempt to disguise myself.
The door creaks as I enter, leaving the sun-filled street for the darkened cave of this U.S. Post Office. There's no one in line. I notice this first. He's the only postal clerk working. I notice this second. He looks up. I look at him, as I'm still standing just inside the door, frozen to the spot. He motions for me to come up and for a moment I think he doesn't recognize me, but as I get closer and then am at his counter, his smile gets even larger and without faltering he whispers, "Miss, I'm sorry". His whisper is so faint that I wonder if I heard him correctly. His brown eyes are kind and soft and I know that I heard him just fine. "I'm sorry too," I whisper back.
I get my stamps. He takes my money. I mail my letters. I walk out of the dark building and step in to the brilliant sunshine.
It's not always easy, this being human.