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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Brokeback chasm

March 1st, 2007

BY EVELYN BARTLETT

I’ve never considered my strong back to be my strongest qualification for employment. That is, not until I had the dubious distinction of being trained as a holiday mail clerk at a large postal transfer station near my apartment. Having endured unemployment for far too long to mention, I simply wanted someone, anyone, to offer me a job. So when I saw their recruitment banner for the Christmas rush, I made a dash for HR, where I was handed reams of paperwork to complete and instructed to return at a later date.

As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

After spending two hours reiterating the same data on each redundant form, I showed up as directed for another five-hour drill that included vision test, fingerprinting, a medical questionnaire that brooked no quarter, drug screening, and background check. The actual face-to-face interview lasted no more than ten minutes. By the time the drill ended, I remained in the dark as to what exactly I’d be doing, how many hours, what days, etc. All I knew for sure was that I had some sort of job for about three weeks. I guess they figured anyone who would put up with this so far was primed for what would follow.

Not that I wasn’t warned by well-meaning strangers as to what might lie ahead. Perhaps most concerned was the man at HHS to whom I report for food assistance. “I’m afraid you’re going to hurt yourself in that job,” he stressed. “Another of my clients — who’s a big guy — does that every year and always tells me it’s unbelievable what they make him do.”

The irony was not lost on me that here was someone with no choice under current policy but to reduce my food assistance by half because my recent income was considered “unearned,” i.e., IRA withdrawals. (Bear in mind that today’s regulations consider collecting cans and bottles as unearned income.) Yet even he would rather have seen me not work if it meant going to this particular job. But like I said, my back is strong. I adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

I next attended another four-hour orientation session, this one at least on the clock. However, my new employer still clung to the curious notion that employees should not be privy to the tasks they would perform, not to mention how many hours per week. We did learn the history of the USPS, took an oath of allegiance to our country, and also heard a few good jokes. Something told me, though, that this might be my first and last encounter with a good-natured postal worker during my upcoming stint.

Sure enough, my first shift found me under the thumb of someone whose implosive form of “going postal” bordered on hysteria. Of the four of us being trained by her, only a man named Jim and I returned the next day. Apparently being decades senior steeled us to what had made the others fold. Later, Jim and I learned that postal regulars refuse to work alongside this woman, making us two the unsung heroes of casual workers. Yes, you read correctly. “Casual” is how the USPS refers to seasonal employment. “Casual abuse is more like it,” one of the dispatch guys said to me after my indoctrination.

Then again, jabberwocky is the primary language of the USPS. Even their measurement of time is nonsensical. It’s not enough to have their time clocks set to military time. They must also measure an hour in increments of one hundred rather than sixty, which meant consulting a conversion table each time I punched in or out.

Standard English may not make much difference anyway, with so many postal workers who are immigrants. Yet language of any kind is beside the point in an atmosphere drowned out by machinery that’s run 24/7, spread throughout a facility spanning three city blocks. A shrill P.A. system, which endlessly calls out for mechanics and supervisors, further cranks up the decibel level. The mechanics at least respond. Whereas management, much like the great Oz, remains mysteriously unseen, yet dreaded and feared all the same. Playing into their own role of munchkins, postal workers allow for this omnipotence, anxiously insisting to us casuals, “Management will get angry if you do this, that or the other thing.”

Yet except for an occasional suit, who I dubbed “Mr. Ramrod General” because of his amazingly erect posture, management appears to operate in absentia. Perhaps, I wondered, they’re concealed behind the all-knowing computer monitor — large as an outdoor movie screen — which calculates every movement of every machine at every minute.

Our trainers were themselves mail clerks. My own trainer would always escalate from merely crazed to virtual banshee whenever Ramrod General strolled by. Should he appear in her vicinity, mail would fly through the night faster than Santa’s sleigh. Since Mr. Ramrod was rather a handsome gent, at first I took her frenzy for misplaced sexual energy. She then told me they’d both begun at the USPS the same year, but under the old boy network, she’d never had a chance at promotion. I then realized that her stepped-up, frenetic pace was instead a pathetic display of prowess.

I already knew a thing or two about what the USPS considers prowess. As one poor soul would load the mail, another wretch had to simultaneously monitor upwards of 160 holding bins into which this loaded mail spewed rapid-fire according to zipcode. This part of the job, called “sweeping the mail,” was loathed by all. Not only did one have to frantically transfer each holding bin’s contents into waiting dispatch trays, but as each tray quickly filled, the sweeper then had to immediately print a new label, hoist the heavy trays onto a dispatch conveyor belt, then dash back to replace the emptied tray, all the while harriedly inserting a fresh label. There are dispatchers meant to ease the sweepers’ lot. But typically they were nowhere to be found. This left one with no choice but to do it yourself or face a ward of bins beeping their overloaded distress. (And in my case, should this occur, I had a banshee to contend with as well.)

I am inclined to be a Luddite, but I must confess to finding USPS automation infinitely more intelligent than those who man it. Although being fed constantly, it has not developed a taste for the out-of-ordinary. Another USPS incongruity is that bills and direct marketing are considered “good” mail because of their standard envelopes. (I thought I knew what it felt like to be pummeled by credit due, but attempting to manage hundreds of statements at once is worse than bankruptcy, I can tell you.) Conversely, mail of a more pleasant nature is deemed “bad” because of its idiosyncratic packaging, which jams the machines mercilessly. So I became adept at eyeballing the oddball envelope and pulling it for alternate handling. One of my favorites came from the AIDS Foundation, with its giveaway squishy, small, round enclosure.

Such sink or swim training soon had me processing 40,000 pieces of mail within an eight-hour shift. This involved repeatedly lifting trays of up to seventy pounds apiece onto the jogger, a vibrating shelf that helps sort and separate envelopes to prevent jams. I’d use my left hand to hold the stack upright and my right to yank any errant strays: change of address notifications, rubber bands, and hemocult samples being mailed to medical labs. I also had to flip those envelopes with postage that did not face forward. I then shoved each batch onto a conveyor belt to be fed into the automated system.

Despite such challenges, USPS workers are expected to keep these machines running without a moment’s pause. To achieve this, they have a little trick called “throwing” the mail. This involves a subtle wrist action in which entire trays of mail are flipped intact onto the jogger, versus the awkward handfuls we casuals would transfer with trepidation. Since I had now passed muster, my trainer decided to teach me to throw. I consistently landed each trayful intact, yet also at a consistent thirty degrees off-center. Throwing the mail is an impressive trick, yet it exacerbates the sweeper’s headache because it loads the machine ever more fast and furious.

If my wilting spirit remained willing to tough out this Christmas crucible, the flesh was weakening despite my best efforts to prevail. I swigged water throughout my shifts to prevent muscle cramping. I purchased socks at Rite-Aid that promised to “massage your feet with every step.” And I’ll be damned if at $3.49 a pair, they didn’t deliver on this promise. The thought then occurred to me of a contract between Isotoner and the USPS for work gloves that also massage the hand.

When I went home each evening past midnight, my toilette included scraping the soot that seeped beneath my fingernails despite these work gloves, dabbing calamine lotion on my face, which was inflamed from whatever infiltrated this postal station’s air, rubbing cool peppermint lotion on my feet and calves and tiger balm on both shoulders and joints.

Yet by my third and final week, I had muscle spasms, sciatica, and numb fingertips. Not to mention a viral infection plus ringing ears from the constant loathsome noise. So I decided to bag it a few days before my time was up. No great loss since I’d learned that even when scheduled ten straight days, including Christmas, I wasn’t entitled to overtime. At twelve dollars an hour, it was hardly worth my health.

Indeed, the health of USPS workers is dismissed to the point that calling in sick is cause for chastisement. Schedules are dictated day-by-day and even postal regulars have to fight through their union for the requisite two days off per week. Casuals who question this management by fiat face immediate termination. During my first week we had a brief roundup in which Mr. Ramrod recognized one of the regulars for 500 consecutive hours without one sick day. However, he had to be roused from his oblivion before realizing he’d been cited.

The solitary spark of Christmas light I witnessed while in this netherworld was one child’s letter to Santa. Inspired to write my own by a New York Times article I happened upon, which told of volunteers in Santa Claus, Ind., who respond to children of all ages, I began:

Dear Santa,

Do you offer an internship program for elves? If not, I’d be willing to assist in pulling your sleigh since I am able to transport heavy loads. Or perhaps help prepare your deliveries with a quick chimney sweep? I can claim a remarkable efficiency of motion and I’m undeterred by soot. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Bartlett | Link to this Entry

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