Somewhere within this cavernous building on Midway Drive a bell rings. It is three o’clock in the morning and for some it is time for lunch or a break. The cafeteria fills with faces. Some sit alone, faces hard to read after a thousand and one nights of brown-bag lunches, cups of coffee, and burning cigarettes.
Others cluster in small groups, tiny alliances which crop up within a large work force; their conversations are predictable — children, bills, a new car, the latest connivings of J.R., the Chargers. And there is, of course, talk of their common glue: the endless incidents with supervisors and with regulations, the inevitable stories of mindless work, of their employer — the U.S. Postal Service — as dinosaur.
The proportions of the post office building are deceiving from the outside, its true vastness revealed only from within. There are two main working floors. Downstairs, where the bulk of the parcels are handled, is much like a miniature amusement park, with a zoolike skyride moving just below the ceiling, sacks of mail its passengers. Carousels dot one comer of the floor, each with a worker perched above in a crow’s nest, sending packages down slides that signify different destinations. In the center of the floor, workers stand at large wooden cases and sort manila envelopes and newspapers into pigeonholes. These two work areas are among the most dreaded in the building; hours and hours on your feet.
In a compartmentalized section of downstairs is the forwarding department, where workers, in relative autonomy from the rest of the post office, code names into computers and hope to get a new address label to put on errant mail. Also downstairs is the Red Room, the enclosed and locked area where registered mail is sorted.
The smaller mail is handled upstairs, where it is dumped onto a 150-foot-long conveyor belt which feeds, like a cattle chute to the slaughter house, into a massive canceling machine. Fully a third of the upper floor is dominated by eight huge letter-sorting machines, which accept envelopes of standard size and weight. From each of these eight computer-controlled monstrosities protrude twelve consoles at which operators sit and press three-key codes for each of the letters thrust into their view — zip code, proper postage, no zip code, wrong postage — at the rate of one per second. Three workers constantly clean out the bins of sorted mail behind the machines. Many more workers, up to 120 at a time, stand elsewhere upstairs, hand- sorting mail the machines have rejected, do not understand, cannot compute. Like sharpshooters mesmerized at a carnival midway, they lean against their rest bars and deftly toss letters into this hole, that hole, this hole, that hole. While most of the city sleeps, 500,000 pieces of mail will pass through the building.
The clock in the cafeteria, known as the Swing Room, reads 3:10. Carlos, an American of Mexican descent, sits across from me. Elbows propped against the table, his gaze moves slowly around the room to the clock and back around the room again. “You sell your soul for a few bucks,’’ he says, arching his eyebrows for emphasis. “You tell yourself. Where can you make this type of money without an education?*’ Yet many have had educations. Carlos has a degree in economics from UCSD. Previously he had been a cost accountant with Rohr and manager of a restaurant. Eventually he hopes to set up his own computer firm, specializing in software for the restaurant business; he has his business cards already printed and many of his ideas on paper. What he needs is capital, and the post office is a means to an end. Recently his wife gave birth to a baby girl, so there will be added bills and delays. “It’s not just the work,” he continues, “it’s the whole damn environment. The management here is the worst I’ve ever experienced or known of. The whole atmosphere is one of suppression — how could a worker feel a part of the place? The supervisors are a joke; most of them fail in basic communication. Have you seen that issue of Time a couple of weeks back which featured Japanese companies and their management?” I nod. “Well, they certainly could take a lesson from them. The basic philosophy of the post office is that workers are stupid and have no need to participate beyond following orders.” Henry, in his blue overalls, sits to my right. His face, behind thick-lensed black glasses, is cracked and worn — the sign of hard living. Somewhere in his fifties, Henry has been with the post office close to a quarter of a century. He seems to take the place in stride, passing up many an opportunity to become a supervisor (“Why should I?”). Browsing through a word-origin book, he asks me if I know where the name “Turner” comes from. I don’t. Screwing up his eyes tightly, Henry turns to the section under T’s. “It appears that ‘Turner’ comes from those who operated lathes in the middle ages.” Carlos jokes, “Boy, you’ve come a long way since then.”
It’s 3:15. Carlos’s break is ended. He gets up to go down to the employee development center for his secondary training, a welcome hour’s respite from the working floor. Envious eyes look up at him. “What’s your zone?” somebody asks from the end of the table. “Chula Vista,” Carlos replies. “That’s the good news. After training I have to go down to 074.” The eyes turn sympathetic; he’ll be on his feet for hours.
Getting into the post office is a job in itself. The civil service exam (for clerk- carrier positions) opens up roughly every three years. In the spring of 1978, 10,000 people took the exam in San Diego. This year that figure climbed to 17,000. Because of the demand, study courses are available. There are a hundred points possible; seventy is passing. Five points are then tacked on for veterans and ten points for wounded veterans. This, plus the fact that the exam is open to veterans anytime within 120 days before or after discharge, gives the veterans a decided advantage in obtaining a job with the postal service. Consequently, most workers have had some military service, and add to the military flavor of the place. wiping off the top of a can of Tab with a napkin, she speaks of what to get her children for Christmas. For her a job at the post office is a blessing. It’s the only job she’s ever had. She loves it because she loves people and welcomes the chance to put good money toward the family needs. Married at a young age, she now has two children at twenty-eight. The clock closes in on 3:30. Cheryl quickly offers half a sandwich to anyone willing at the table. No takers. The bell sounds and people stand in unison. Machines begin humming once more, the supervisors wait for their operators.
The first week in the post office is devoted to orientation. Various speakers instruct the new employees on all aspects of postal operations: rules and regulations, rights and benefits, time-keeping, safety, and a code of ethical conduct (basically, not to discredit the post office through any action or association). The information comes fast and furious, but an underlying message is clear — it is a highly structured system and the success of a potential worker depends on his willingness and ability to adapt to it.
The first two months of work constitute a probation period. Thirty- and sixty-day evaluations are made, by the worker's immediate supervisor, and these arc carefully examined by the management in hopes of weeding out undesirable characters. During probation, there is no right of appeal if you are fired. If you are not, you can think in terms of having a lifetime job, should you choose to. And you immediately take your place in line, so to speak, behind those who have seniority. The longer you stay, the better your chance at a desirable position. For example, many operators of the letter-sorting machines seek to transfer to a (coveted) clerk or carrier position; usually a two-year wait is necessary.
Because most of the mail is sorted at night, workers, other than clerks and carriers, usually work eight-hour shifts between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Overtime, when ordered, is mandatory up to three and a half hours a day. Eleven-hour days are not unusual, especially during this Christmas rush, when upward of a million letters a day are handled in the San Diego post office. A seven-day week is not unusual during the holidays, either. My last New Years was greeted by a solitary horn (obviously snuck in past the security guards) blown from the further reaches of the building.
By agreement with the employees’ union, overtime must be ordered at least a half hour before a worker’s shift is scheduled to end. Many workers play cat and mouse with supervisors on hearing that overtime is being called. “Safe” working spots are sought — the departments “States” and “California” are reputed sanctuaries in times of need due to a fairly benign supervisor. Others have mastered the art of going to the bathroom or on a break at the appropriate times (i.e., when the supervisors are walking about calling overtime). Most wait — and watch the clock.
At 5:00 a.m. the loudspeaker sputters, then, “The mail from San Berdoo [San Bernardino] has now arrived.” From my vantage point I see workers pulling the cages, loaded with sacks and trays, out of the elevators. For me, five o’clock means my last break — I hope. I get off my rest bar and head for the Swing Room. My eyes seem open enough just to focus in front of my feet. Phillip, hands in his pockets, steps alongside me. A diminutive figure with gray beard, long hair tied back, and flashing blue eyes, Phillip could pass as a Zen master in blue jeans. His demeanor is one of spirit — curiously at home, but with' detachment from any environment. “How are you?” I ask. Fine, is all he says, perhaps with the trace of a smile.
We skirt the long conveyor belt where half a dozen workers are bent over, pulling letters from the mass of mail moving toward the insatiable machine that will cancel it. One of them looks up and smiles. “Two hours to go!” he shouts after us, crossing his fingers in the air. Suddenly we are confronted by a supervisor. She pauses from correcting a worker’s posture on his rest bar. “Where are you going?” she demands.
“What time do you get off?”
Inside the Swing Room, I pull a Pepsi (caffeine without coffee) from a soft-drink machine and join Phillip at a table. The room is noticeably more subdued than two hours earlier. A couple of people glance through a loose-leaf folder containing the latest post office positions open with vacancies. A group at one table plays cards. Scattered about the room are the usual solitary figures. Outside, the fog has thickened considerably; Midway Drive is barely visible.
Phillip and I speak of traveling. He spent years with the merchant marine, ended up in the Middle East, became interested in Arabic languages, and eventually studied Islam. Since returning, he has spent the last fifteen years with the post office. I’m tempted to ask him why the post office, but the question seems superfluous with Phillip — somehow unimportant. Instead I speak of my own experiences traveling. As we talk, a lightheadedness comes with the distant places and events. At 5:15 we reluctantly get up from the table to find a supervisor, hands on hips, blocking the door. “Turner, go back and help them break down the San Berdoo mail.”
Supervisors perform no manual labor whatsoever, nor are they allowed to eat with the workers. Union rules. New supervisors are chosen from among the worker ranks by means of a program that provides training as well as ascertains the applicant’s capacity to supervise. Many workers decline the opportunity to become supervisors. Too often, the red badge makes the man. Then the old friends are gone.
Security is evident everywhere in this federal monolith. The parking lots, entrances, and a good portion of the working floors are watched by means of a closed circuit TV. Guards check all badges, letters, reading material, bags at the doors. The ceilings of the work floors are lined with one-way mirrors where guards can make sure mail is not tampered with or stolen. Even given such safeguards, the postal service throughout the U.S. lost approximately $700 million last year in theft and fraud. I, however, am not a crook.
By 7:00 a.m. belts are immobile, the humming of the letter sorters has ceased, no movement of wheeler or monkey cage or belt. The huge room sags with silence, as if all the noise had been sucked out by a vacuum. Tired and relieved faces wait around various time clocks for the last seconds to tick away. Carlos joins me, smiling. He says, “All right, no overtime!” I smile back. Looking upward, I ask Carlos if he’ll still be working here in 1984. Following my glance to the one-way mirrors, he says, “It is 1984.”