My mailman retired today, his last day of work delivering and sorting mail at the Inwood branch of the Post Office in upper Manhattan, a small squat non-descript brown brick building on Vermilyea Avenue with its own bureaucratic idiosyncrasies on the inside.
Pepe endured us all for 32 years, delivering mail into our small mailboxes with alarming regularity. Mail was tucked into our boxes with a little tap. Every envelope, postcard and catalog would be handed to us one by one or placed on top of the radiator in a pile and given out with a flourish while we waited. He wore his black hair in a small ponytail, climbing the steps to the building with his mail cart and the three steps to the mailboxes on the left and right sides of the elevator. He left packages with the super and, when thieves searching for credit cards and checks broke into building mailboxes, he was the one who suggested using a post office box.
He knew all of the old ladies by name, the helpful Mrs. Ullman, Mrs. Bernstein whose apartment I came to occupy after she died, cranky Mrs. Ward and elegant Mrs. Sinsheimer and her twin sister, and as I write this, they all come back to me again. They were old when I moved into the building and we would meet by the mailboxes while they waited for Social Security checks and packages of polyester pants and stockings ordered from catalogs. They are gone now, replaced by direct deposit and neighbors who sing opera or teach, and who receive Netflix and packages from eBay and Etsy.
Pepe brought me bits and pieces of my past, some of which I still have. He delivered letters from my grandmother, Anna David of Webb and Astor Avenues, who sent cards on every holiday, and who mailed news from her latest trip, written in her unmistakable swirly handwriting, with postmarks from Florida, resorts in the Catskills, and her home in the Bronx. I came across a letter of hers just the other day, written on small stationery and asking me, pleading, would I take some time out and visit her?
My father once mailed me a large box, filled with birthday gifts--a hideous brown striped acrylic sweater, a camera bag and a fish pin that he made out of laser paper. I still have the camera bag and the fish pin sent all the way from San Francisco, not long before he died. My great-aunt, Auntie Esther, mailed me her recipe for Greek bagel cookies from her apartment on University Avenue in the Bronx, and her sister, my great-aunt, Mollie, mailed me sweaters she had knitted from patterns and yarn I mailed to her home in Deep River, Connecticut. My grandparents, Sophie and Marty, who lived in Coney Island, sent me a birthday check every year they remembered, no card, just a check. I saved the envelopes to remember them by. Old friends sent me birthday cards and Christmas cards in the days, not that long ago, before cell phones and the Internet. Sometimes they would bend and get stuck in the mailbox.
I was starting make my way as a writer and struggled to make a living or, as my boyfriend, George, says, to make a name for myself, whatever name that would be. When I traveled to interview and photograph prizefighters in different states, or to Africa and the Dominican Republic, to San Francisco to visit my parents, to Amsterdam on vacation, to Ohio to visit friends, I let Pepe know my whereabouts so mail wouldn’t pile up. My life must have seemed quite adventurous.
Working the phones and editors for writing assignments, I sat writing at the long wooden table in my living room, telephone next to me, television turned on, an old Apple computer fired up. Propped up by bottles of Diet Coke and cellophane packages of Devil Dogs, I wrote into the night. The bell would ring from downstairs around noon, and I would leave the computer or telephone behind in anticipation of the day's mail.
“On my way!”
Pepe delivered bills and catalogs, letters from my editors and publishers, contracts, checks, credit cards, and letters from editors and perspective employers telling me, thanks but no thanks, W-2 forms, magazine subscriptions, postcards from friends traveling around the world or just saying hello. When the IRS started sending me letters, I didn’t want to open the mailbox. An official looking letter insisted that I owe them $8,000 and penalties would be charged. How could this be? My total income that year couldn’t have been more than $30,000. My accountant found their error and each time they sent a letter, the amount had fallen. After almost nine months of wrangling, it turned out that he was right and the IRS wound up owing me money. Then I looked forward to my mail again.
When Pepe was on vacation, mail would be delivered much later in the day and often, my neighbor’s mail was mixed in with mine and they found mine with theirs. I once praised Pepe by filling out a compliment card at the post office; I think it may have gone all the way to headquarters in Washington. Just a small token of appreciation. Several weeks later, I met him in the lobby of my building; I had forgotten all about the card.
He was beaming.
“Thank you for the compliment,” he said.
I was embarrassed.
“Oh, well, you know. . .thank you,” I sputtered. “Did they give you anything, like a watch or a certificate?”
“Well,” he said, a bit sheepishly, “they gave me a t-shirt."
When I began working a regular schedule at a regular job, or what amounts to regular these days, I spent less and less time at home and more time at the office and on the subway. I’d run into Pepe on Saturdays or on my days off. He began working inside the post office but it wasn’t the same as being out on the street, just as it wasn’t the same for me anymore when I worked outside of my home.
Last week, he pinned a card to the bulletin board of my building announcing his retirement on February third and thanking us. “To all my friends,” the card said. “Just dropping a note to thank you for the wonderful time we spent together one way or another. Thanks for being like family to me, I will never forget you.” Inside was a photograph of Pepe in his pale blue postal uniform, much younger and slimmer, with dark hair and a black mustache.
In my barely legible handwriting, I wrote on one of my note cards printed with my name, address and a scene of buildings. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for all of the years of wonderful service. This is the end of an era. . . .” I paired it with a large bag of chocolates and trekked down 204th Street to the post office this morning. At 8:30 am, Pepe came out of the back room where he had been sorting mail for delivery, for the last time.
“32 years,” he said. “I’ll spend the time with my wife and daughter, take my daughter back to school in Florida and the relatives are waiting for us to come visit them in Puerto Rico.
“It was time,” Pepe said, giving me a hug. “I’ll miss the people here.”
“It won’t be the same. I had to say goodbye and say thank you. I saw the card with your photograph,” I added. “You were younger and thinner then."
So was I.