Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Minion of a Bygone Era

The mailman walks with a limp as he carries and sorts the heavy advertising brochures and catalogs that now make up the bulk of today's mail. I often see him when he arrives at in the lobby towards the end of his long day, as he performs his time-consuming and increasingly thankless task.

He patiently fills the endless rows of mailboxes with the mostly "junk" mail that now brings in a lot of the revenue for the struggling postal service -- mail from advertisers that the residents routinely dump in the trash bin downstairs before they head up to their apartments.

I am always surprised that just from the daily arduous task of placing mail in the endless rows of boxes, he has taken the trouble to match up all the names to the faces he occasionally sees. When I happen to see him, he knows my name and formally greets me.

He is an elderly black gentleman who has worked in the civil service for years. He speaks to me of his bad knee and upcoming retirement. When he disappears for a while, the delivery goes awry, and I get mail intended for numerous other residents. When he returns, order is restored as he resumes his routine of putting the mail into its designated boxes.

"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," is the unofficial postal service motto, (inscribed on the General Post Office facility on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City), conveying the reliability of mail carriers and their once important mission, recalling the days when mail was the only form of communication and linked distant places. In today's fast-paced world, the mail carrier serves as a reminder of that different slower-paced one, not all that long ago, when his arrival, together with the letters he brought, was eagerly anticipated and awaited. Today, he is often not even noticed, as many, at least in my high-rise building, no longer bother to check the mail regularly. 

In an era when electronic communications make up most of our correspondence, his services are now becoming antiquated and often redundant. The letters and printed bills that the post office used to routinely deliver have slowly become a thing of the past, and the occasional letter we still do send has become something we have come to disparagingly call "snail mail."

Nonetheless, even today, the mailman's regular presence still conveys a reliability more so than that of the Internet, which though most convenient, is also prone to frustrating and unpredictable outages. The letters he occasionally brings are something concrete one can hold on to, as opposed to something intangible stored out there somewhere in the amorphous "cloud" of the Internet. As our need for the postal service slowly declines, and in view of the recent talk of cutbacks, I fear that mail delivery as we know it will eventually become extinct. 

I know I will also miss this gentleman soon to retire who regularly greets me as he cheerfully and tirelessly goes about his appointed rounds.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

One Small Good Thing

He is very fragile. Alone, elderly and frail, he is like many of the City's unnoticed population, making their way slowly down the streets, with walkers and canes. I first happened to meet him almost 20 years ago, when he was a robust and demanding professor of literature at the same school where I taught a class in writing.

And just recently, we came across each other by chance, the way people in the City are sometimes wont to do.

How could his health have deteriorated so much in the interim? I wondered. Since the time we cordially shared that same office, how could so much in his life have changed?

While I had been off living my own life, the years had definitely taken a devastating toll on him.

I was shocked to find him slender, hunched over, using a walker, his proud face, frightened and haunted and strained. Yet when he met me, this 70+ man clearly wanted to convey an impression of dignity and he did. When we spoke, I realized that at heart, he was the exact same person I had known years ago, given to long discourses on esoteric literary topics.

In a sense, nothing had changed since we last met. Yet, in another sense everything did.

What amazed me the most was his determination to persevere. In one short encounter, he made me realize that I was fit and able to do things, ordinary things that I always take for granted, things that pose a major challenge for him and many others like him every day.

I offered to come and visit.

As I walked into his apartment, I surveyed all the medications that were lined up in rows on his kitchen counter, and I felt helpless.

“Do you need to take so many pills?” I asked with concern.

I also felt helpless to address all the medical ailments that he had developed, and I was outraged that he was not getting the care that he needed from his health plan, which was limited to in-network providers.

Yet he was humble, not even complaining about his health insurance but grateful for what benefits it allowed, and for the simple things that he was able to do every day.

Even though it took him all day, he told me, he did his laundry and neatly folded it. He took obvious pride in keeping his apartment in immaculate order. And he amused me with an essay he had saved from his teaching days, written by a student who meant to refer to a “rabbit’s foot” for good luck, but wrote instead of “a rabid foot” and “a rabbi’s foot.”

So now, I come over to see him, once or twice a week, lugging a bag of groceries from Columbia Foods, in order to make him a nutritious meal.   

When I arrive, armed with my ingredients, he is grateful. And so am to be able to do just one small good thing.

In our conversation, as I cook, we talk over each other and often miss each other’s words.  He speaks so softly that I can barely hear him; and with his hearing loss, I have to keep repeating the words I say.

Care-taking, I realize, has its innate satisfactions. It brings out my nurturing instinct, my ability to be of genuine help with the simple tasks that most adults take for granted.

“You're treating me like a baby,” he said to me amiably the last time I came over, when I just instinctively without asking cut the food I made for him because his hands were shaking so much that he could not do so on his own.

Yet he was smiling, his face relaxed, bemused by my endeavors.

And then, while we sat at the table and chatted, as we used to do when we shared an office, I found him laughing at and with me.