The Letter Carrier

The Boardwalk USPS branch is located on the west bank of the Saginaw River, on Boardwalk Drive, just north of where Bay Road and Shattuck Road intersect. The branch is not technically in the City of Saginaw, and instead serves as the main sorting and processing hub for all Saginaw Township- and Carrollton Township-bound mail.

It is also where the rural carriers set out from for a scattering of small farming communities further out along the straight, narrow, country highways that cut west out of town and form a grid-like pattern across much of mid-Michigan. On the opposing, east bank, near Saginaw High School, is the Cumberland branch, which serves most of the city proper.

Mark Swan at the start of his route.

Boardwalk Drive is a tough turn to spot, wedged and camouflaged as it is between a Biggsby Coffee, the Global Tanning Salon, and several nondescript auto parts stores. The first time I tried to find it without Google Maps telling me exactly where to go, I passed it twice—once northbound and once southbound—before finally anticipating the turn correctly. I missed it a couple more times after that.

James Stamann, a rural carrier who works out of Saginaw’s Boardwalk branch, sorts mail for his route.

The office itself is in a commercial park several hundred yards down the drive and not visible from the noisy, five-lane chaos that is Bay Road. All morning and afternoon, the mail trucks come and go, like worker bees coming and going from a hidden nest. The trucks are a good deal less conspicuous than foraging bees though. (I only started to notice them after my first trip to the branch.)

Letter carrier Dave Eddy sorts mail for his route.

I don’t know if tired letter carriers, puttering down Bay Road after a long day in a rickety truck, minds adrift and mail trays empty, ever miss the turn. Do bees ever miss theirs?

Between a pandemic and an election, America managed to politicize its most trusted and beloved federal agency.

To be clear, that’s nothing new. Also, the 45th president had been trying to strangle and discredit the USPS for months—even years. And that so many people could be persuaded, seemingly overnight, that mail-in voting is fraudulent only proves that they never really loved and trusted the postal service in the first place—that they just took it for granted.

Since 1775.

Still, the correct takeaway here isn’t that the USPS belongs to the left and needs protection from the right. It’s that the Postal Service has to serve all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, and that it needs to be defended against any partisan attempt at undermining its functioning or legitimacy. Those of us who are happy about how mail-in ballots tipped battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania should be happy primarily because people got to vote and the democratic process worked, and not just because the election went our way.

Mark Swan delivering mail to an apartment building.

Think of it this way. If you mailed in a ballot for Biden, a Trump-supporter carried, handled, and/or sorted your ballot and made sure it got to where it needed to go. If you mailed in a ballot for Trump, a Biden-supporter did the same for you. I think about Mark Swan, a letter carrier I met in Saginaw earlier this year. I could guess at his politics, but I won’t. They don’t matter. And he knows that too. All he would have known and chosen to focus on, driving or walking along those pockmarked, mid-Michigan streets and sidewalks, his mail trays and satchel brimming with ballots, is that he was directly responsible for allowing so many his fellow citizens to show up at the polls, whether they agreed with him or not. In those few days I spent shadowing him on his route, Mark emphasized repeatedly just how much ordinary Americans depended on the postal service—sometimes, for their lives. How precious he must have felt his cargo to be in the days and weeks leading up to election day; how proud he must have been to carry it all.

Mark Swan on his walking route in Carrollton Township.

Mark would have felt that way because he loves his country. Or, I’m pretty sure that’s the reason he would have given. Love-of-country is frequently scoffed at and derided by the well-educated and/or progressive for smacking of a blind, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil sentimentalism. And it’s true that jingoism and virulent nationalism, masquerading as patriotism, run rampant in this country. But I want to suggest that love of, and belief, in America, can mean—must mean—something different, and that the men and women (our family, our friends, our neighbors) who work for the Postal Service exemplify it. It means, at bottom, that you trust in the essential goodness of a person who looks nothing like you and lives nothing like you, that you strive for friendship and solidarity and compromise with this person even if you do not agree with or understand them, that what you love is not their politics but rather the vividness and realness of their humanity—the hand that gripped the pen, the tongue that licked the envelope.

Mark Swan stops to chat with a resident on his route.

And it means that you trust and commit to and love your fellow citizen enough to carry their vote to the ballot box.

It’s six in the morning on a mild, early May day and there are two boxes of baby chicks stacked on the supervisor’s desk. The desk is not tucked away in some back office but rather sitting out on the sorting room floor, in the open, surrounded by letter carriers’ cases.

Baby chicks in the mail.

Besides me, the only people present are five clerks who’ve been receiving, scanning, and sorting palletfuls of packages since two in the morning, a handful of habitually-early carriers, a supervisor, and, because she has a photographer from the local newspaper to let in and mind, the Saginaw city postmaster herself. Which is to say that at this hour, the branch still feels empty and airy and cavernous. Boardwalk is a large branch.

Letter carriers Kim Urbain and Bill Whyte sort mail for their routes.

Because of the angle at which sunlight is slanting through some half-open window blinds, I can clearly see the individual droplets of vapor rising out a coffee cup. Carrie, the postmaster, sits next to it, at the supervisor’s desk, answering emails. In between bursts of typing and the package scanner’s beeps I can hear the chicks chirping—muffled and distant, but unmistakable.

October 2020
Philomath, OR

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