October 03, 2005

Going Postal

Visiting the post office on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope is an exercise in patience that even Tibetan monks or devotees of Sri Chinmoy would have a hard time enduring. For a neighborhood that has a reputation as the home of so many freelance writers and other at-home professionals, Park Slope is horribly underserved by a tiny and filthy post office. Thousands of customers must buy stamps, mail packages and conduct other postal-related businesses in a space smaller than most city bedrooms. The branch rarely opens on time and frequently closes early. The clerks spend more time gossipping than they do working. Those with epilepsy are advised to stay away as the flourescent lamps and slow ceiling could induce seizures in the healthiest of human beings.

Today, the line seemed especially long, probably because I was there at about 12:20 PM. I usually try to get to this particular post office shortly after it opens in the morning to avoid any sort of crowd, but today I had spent the morning making the last edits on my book before it goes to print and wasn't able to get out of the house until the afternoon.

When I entered the post office, a line of people was already snaked around a table in the middle of the skinny waiting area and out of the door. I knew the wait would be at least twenty minutes, but my manuscript had to go out today so I joined the line. At least ten people were in front of me, and within a few minutes of my arrival five more people joined the line behind me. Only two of the post office's four windows were staffed by clerks and one was busy weighing and affixing postage to thirty padded envelopes and ten small packages from one customer, who settled in for his wait with a copy of the Wall Street Journal and a cup of coffee as his transaction was being processed. At the adjacent window, a young mother began her transaction, her infant boy sitting in a Maclaren stroller parked to her right.

I looked toward the door and saw the line continue to grow. Each person who joined the line bore the same resigned look on his face as if he had gone through his own Postal-themed stages of grief before committing to the wait: denial ("There's no way this line could take so long"), anger ("What the fuck? Why is this line taking so goddamned long?"), bargaining ("Maybe I can ask them to open up another window"), depression ("How pathetic is it that I have so much free time to wait on a line at this disgusting post office?"), and finally acceptance ("I gotta mail this letter, so what other choice do I have?").

One woman walked in, pusing a stroller in which sat a very cute girl of no more than one year. This mom did the same double take everyone does when they walk into the post office. "Whoa, look at this line," she announced to the people already in line.

Her shock, however, wore off when she saw the woman currently conducting her business at the front of the line. "Sarah," she called out. The women clearly knew each other and were soon exchanging cheek-kisses and bright-eyed smiles to each other's child. It was obvious that the women had not expected to meet each other at that moment in the post office. It was the type of chance meeting that I imagine happens a thousand times a day in a neighborhood with as many young parents and stay-at-home-mommies as Park Slope.

After catching up with her friend for just a minute or two, the woman who had just walked in walked back to her stroller, grabbed a small padded envelope from a pouch on the back, and strolled up to the front of the line. "Could you mail this for me?" she asked her friend, handing her the envelope and a few crumpled dollar bills.

"Sure," said Sarah, but she refused the money. "I'm charging it, so just pay me back outside."

Nobody said anything, but the people in line were clearly agitated as they watched this happen. Who did this woman think she was? Why did she get to skip ahead while the rest of us had to continue our waits? Still, most of the people probably had the same thought in their heads that I had in mine: who wanted to be the person who yelled at two moms in front of their kids?

As the post office was only the first of many errands I had to run today, I was almost annoyed enough to speak up. I looked at the large envelope in my hand. "Excuse me," I imagined myself saying, "but could you mail this for me, too?" If they protested I might have replied, "I'm sorry, but had I realized that having a baby would have given me a pass to the front of the line I would have borrowed one from a friend and brought it with me." Entertaining my innner jerk was the only way I could keep myself from exploding at these two women.

With her envelope handed off to her friend, the woman who had just walked in went back to her stroller, stepped on the levers to disengage the wheel locks, turned around and went outside, parking her kid and herself right in front of the post office's windows.

What bothered me so much was the arrogance of the mom at the end of the line. To assume that her time was more valuable than the time of the almost twenty people ahead of her was the height of arrogance. Would it have been more difficult for her to stand in line than the old man who leaned on his cane and shuffled ahead with some difficulty as the line inched forward? The elderly woman pushing a granny cart probably wasn't so psyched about having to stand up for so long. Who knew what priorities the other people in line were shuffling around in order to endure this wait?

It's not that I think women with children don't deserve special consideration - I give my seat up to moms on the subway all the time - but the assumption that such consideration should simply be expected is arrogant and rude. If the women had asked a favor of everyone in line I'm sure most of us would have gladly let them go ahead. The fact that they didn't irked people more than the extra minute that was added to everyone's wait as a result of this woman's flouting of the pact all people enter into when they join a line.

Lines are great equalizers. Except for the people on either extreme - right near the front or at the very end - everyone, regardless of personal circumstance, has to wait for more or less the same amount of time. It doesn't matter who you are; I wait, you wait, everyone waits, unless I can make my case to everyone in line and not simply the one friend I have at the front.

Contrary to a recent New York Times story, it's not the size of the stroller that's the problem, it's the size of a person's sense of entitlement. If you can't be polite, I don't know what kind of consideration you deserve, especially since I frequently see many moms in the very same post office making the best out of a bad situation. Some of them figure out how to entertain their kids for twenty minutes. They set down a bag of Pirate's Booty and a coloring book in front of their kids and join their place in line like everyone else. As my sister, who shares my frustration with the entitlement of so many city parents, likes to say, "It's not a disability, it's a child."

Posted by Doug at October 3, 2005 03:06 PM

This reminds me of an incident in Park Slope at a coffee place my friend told me about: She was at the coffee place which was in one of the old brownstones without a ramp, and this mommy with a stroller said to the proprietor, "You know, I never realized *how hard* it was for people in wheelchairs before I had the baby. You [store owner] should really put in a ramp. Or take orders from outside." My friend restrained herself from saying "The building was built before the code!" or "Are you kidding?" but I believe she threw a dirty look.

Posted by: Jen at October 3, 2005 04:43 PM

I doubt it had anything to do with being a mother but who knows.

Would you have felt different if the one in the process of the transaction had said, hey, what do you have to mail, want me to mail it for you?

I get annoyed at people in cars who don't take their right away and wave other cars ahead of them when I'm behind them. How very considerate they are and able to pat themselves on the back for it at my expense but then I'm grumpy about stuff like that.

Posted by: ellison at October 4, 2005 11:55 AM

I was almost mowed down by two women with strollers in Park Slope. I tried to move aside but they didn't even move an inch! Like they didn't have to notice another person. Watch out baby coming through!!!

Posted by: Ger at October 4, 2005 01:47 PM

i notice the same thing on the uws. i hold doors for people and they don't say thanks. like being a mom means you don't have to be courteous.

Posted by: Jo at October 4, 2005 04:35 PM

try UPS

Posted by: moira at October 5, 2005 08:42 PM

At the Anover Post Office we have long lines but now we have a wonderful machine that you can mail anything (even return receipt requested )-you just need to use a credit card- have them installl one of those machines - also , it is available 24/7.

Posted by: Sondra Finegold at October 6, 2005 10:23 AM

i was in line for coffee in the slope and a lady asked if she could cut because she left her baby at home...alone!!!!!

Posted by: Ali at October 6, 2005 11:18 AM

I believe that's actually illegal, and she could have been arrested! I would have said no, go home and make your own pot of coffee.

Posted by: MOB at October 6, 2005 12:15 PM