Each warm morning I walk down the hill at Owen Park in Vineyard Haven, being tugged by Floyd, my yellow lab who seems hellbent to get into the sea before someone pulls the plug. The other day as we turned the Main street corner into the park, we saw the women of the exercise boot camp slowly and eerily trudging backwards down the hill. They looked like a scene from Night of the Living Dead in rewind. Floyd was momentarily spooked. He then made a beeline for the safety of the water.
After he had his dip and a lap, I washed the saltwater off his plastered fur with one of the hoses conveniently located on the pier. We watched the 7 a.m. ferry ease out, then so did we. Floyd ambled down the beach, nose to the sand, sniffing out the occasional stale yet delectable crab leg or some crumb de la crumb from a bygone picnic. We made our way to the post office in time for the day’s opening.
Time was letters soared
To higher missions beyond
Do you remember receiving a letter and you weren’t playing Scrabble? I’m old enough to have fond recall for the art of letter writing — as in missive, epistle or wish-you-were-here composition — in that era that preceded e-mails and tweets. It gave real meaning to You’ve got mail. It gave real excitement to retrieving your mail. Someone cared enough to send the very best of themselves. Someone took the time to send along some valuable information or regale you about some exotic destination or neurotic adventure. Someone sat down and gave the world some thought — and you were the recipient, gladly. Then it was your turn.
Today, most of what passes for posted mail is junk, bunk or the stuff of funk — advertisements, catalogues and bills. You’d think by now all this stuff would be cluttering your computer devices instead of choking your mail boxes.
Some critics have said we should consider closing our postal system. Seems a bit draconian at a time when we’re trying to keep and create jobs. And after all, not everyone lives on the internet. Not yet.
In a Boston Globe op-ed piece in June, former New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu said we should privatize the post office. That would be like throwing out the bath water after mailing the baby, or something like that. That would be like knocking one letter out of USPS and turning it into UPS. That would also probably mean a book of stamps would cost you around $220.
No, I think at least here on the Island the post office serves a greater purpose.
Each day I find myself on automatic pilot to the Vineyard Haven post office for my encounter with postal disturbances, many of them actually worth the trip — because Island post offices are not your average chambers of gloom. On the contrary, to me the post office is like an oasis, a bazaar, a meeting place or wait station.
Floyd on leash walks me inside and right up to my box. He sits. I get the mail. Invariably someone rubs Floyd’s head and if there’s a yellow pickup card in my mail, we go off to join the line, and if there’s no card, we go back home — with what little mail seems worth keeping for the moment.
On a good day, before I leave the post office, I have made a doggie play date or a human dinner date, or noted a movie or lecture I’d like to take in, or heard about a friend’s birthday, or heard about a kid going off to college and leaving the Island for the first time, or reconnected with a summer person.
Waiting there in the window service line has taught me patience. Many times the line is quite long, but I can do some smart phone research or find myself catching intriguing snatches of conversation. On a recent occasion, I was behind a woman clutching a Melville collection. We exchanged pleasantries about the author: how in Moby Dick, the harpooner, Tashtego, hailed from Gay Head, and the third mate, Flask, came from Tisbury. She then told me that 100 years ago, Melville’s daughter bought a summer house on South Water in Edgartown, the same house that became Patricia Neal’s. I then told her that Melville once worked at the New York city post office to make ends meet, or maybe to mail them to each other.
I’ll go on getting my mail by making trips to my post office, until that day comes when either they close that office or I decide, in terms of making that trek, I would prefer not to.
And that, my friends, is the strange mantra used by Melville’s existential protagonist in his 1853 story, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby says to his boss when asked to handle another writing chore. In a tale that darkly demonstrates the fine line between obstinance and abstinence, Bartleby refuses to continue working, then refuses to leave the workplace and eventually ends up in the post office’s dead-letter room before he dies of starvation in prison.
This postal note that joins author to character strikes a chord where morality meets irony. Like something out of Albert Camus, who once admitted basing his existential novel The Stranger on the works of James M. Cain, who, of course, gave us The Postman Always Rings Twice. It all fits!
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.