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Going First Class
From The Westlake Village Collection.
Whatever the qualifications may be for the position of Postmaster, I'm sure
they are higher today that they used to be. The present Postmaster of Westlake
Village drives a BMW and can only be seen by appointment.
We have twelve mail carriers and six mail trucks. An eighteen wheeler, jammed
with junk mail, backs into the truck dock of the Westlake Village Post Office
every morning at seven. Emblazoned on the side of our town water tower we
display our very own zip code number. We are, in short, a first class
neighborhood with a first class post office.
This does not mean that our mail service has improved since the old days. On
the contrary! The only noticeable improvement is that our mail is delivered to
our door. When the first Westlake Villagers straggled into town at the close
of the war, mail gathered dust in the post office until somebody walked down
and picked it up. The post office was little more than a steel barred window at
the back of Ernie's Hardware store and was presided over by our Postmistress,
Helen was Postmistress through the war years. She and her husband, Andy,
handled the entire postal burden in that critical cross-over period between the
hayseed years of Toad Hollow and its slow but steady transformation into a
structured community of strangers. Every morning at dawn a brown van would dump
canvas sack of mail at the front door of Ernie's Hardware store and pick up a
smaller one that had been waiting all night. Helen and Andy took their sweet
time sorting the mail and stuffing it in the worn wooden slots set in the wall
behind the barred window. To the accompaniment of grunts and body language only
they could understand, the sorting process would grind on until noon. In
their closeness, Helen and Andy had developed a communication of their own; a
series of growls, mumbles and nudges were all Helen needed to tell Andy what she
wanted him to do with the mail.
It was not critical for us to get mail every day. Once a week was enough, and
when a Westlake Villager went to get his mail he was coerced into picking up
the mail for his neighbors. Helen would insist on it, and it was not unusual
to come home with an armload of mail for your neighbors and none for yourself.
Helen would shout at you from behind her barred window while you were looking
for washers and nuts in Ernie's plumbing supplies. With her head cocked to the
side, she would call . . . "Hey you! -- Appledore Drive, pick it up! You got
"Appledore Drive" and 'you' were all the same to her. She would strong arm
you into accepting mail for 28 through 47, even though you lived at 36, and
you'd spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon delivering letters and
postcards to your neighbors when you should have been working on the leaky sink.
you had the nerve to ignore her, she would shout at you and fling your mail and
that of your neighbors at your feet Fortunately, fourth class mail in the
early fifties had not yet overwhelmed us.
It was obvious to postal patrons that Helen was in charge. After all, Andy
was not the Postmaster, Helen was the "Postmistress," and therefore called the
shots in the confined space of the Post Office back of Ernie's store. Everyone
got the impression that Helen ruled the roost in their modest apartment across
the street as well. She was a barrel chested woman while Andy was not much
bigger than a ventriloquist's dummy. She wore flowered house dresses over which
she strapped a floor length apron such as bakers wear. She wore her hair in a
net and her feet were as flat as they had to be to support a body of such
bulk. She wore lavender woolen carpet slippers and gray cotton stockings. The
stockings and her flat shuffling feet encased in carpet slippers brought to
mind a caged elephant on its hind legs. The store would tremble gently on its
foundations as she plodded from the barred window to the worn wooden slots
where she retrieved the mail from the lower shelves -- she left the top three
of slots to Andy who would scramble to reach them from the top of a shaky
Helen and Andy lived together, worked together and presumably slept together
in their apartment across the street. They were never out of sight of each
other. It is said that two people so inseparable begin to look like each other
and maybe even think the way the other does. But as the years passed they looked
less and less like each other and more and more like themselves.
No one knew them as well as Ernie. Helen and Andy were on the job before
Ernie opened the hardware store in the morning, and they stayed back there for
lunch. They would sit behind the iron bars, in the middle of their unsorted mail
and grunt to each other as they ate something left over from the night before.
Ernie often mentioned it was like watching animals feeding in a zoo. The Post
Office rented the space from Ernie, and it was good for his business too;
people would walk in for their mail and buy something on impulse from him as
As the town matured, and grew from rural to suburban, Helen and Andy tried to
keep up, but it was clear they would have to expand. The Post Office decided
to build a First Class Post Office building with a First Class Post person in
charge. It would have been hard to imagine Helen Grogan being in charge. It
meant Post Office boxes, packaging sales and overseas mail. It meant Post Office
vehicles and delivery men. It meant issuing passports and money orders ....
and it certainly meant NOT eating your lunch with the first class mail as your
It was good news for most of us in Westlake Village. Ernie, in his hardware
store, rationalized the decision by saying he could use the extra space as a
"Home Decorating Center" .... after all, the town was growing up and
gentrification was creeping up on us.
"Lose money offa the rent?" Well, maybe; but a brand new Pizzeria was moving
in next door, hardware and Italian food go down well together.
In short then, the only rumblings of dissent came from Helen Grogan, and as
the new Post Office took shape on Westwood Avenue, she became increasingly
bellicose. I avoided picking up my mail, hoping that someone else might do it
me. Perhaps my wife might be curious enough to go down there to see if there
was news from her father back home. Helen, in her Darth Vader voice would
bellow, "Hey you!!" .... pick it up!" and fling your mail through the barred
window, then glare at you while you stooped to pick it up.
It couldn't have been pleasant for Andy, either. Ernie often told me later
that he could hear yelps of pain from Andy back there in the corner.
"I dunno, I guess he got in her way, or sumpin' .... but two, three times a
day, she'd give it to him good. Y'dint dast stand up to her -- she'd bust yer
Her behavior should have warned us but it didn't. Andy was one of the first
postal workers to find himself a victim of P.O.V. (Post Office Violence). He
was within reach whenever the madness overtook Helen .... and she'd give him a
good one. I suppose Andy figured that once it was out of her system she'd leave
him alone for a while, and maybe when this was all over they could open that little dry goods store he always wanted. For a while he was right, she'd take
a swipe at him with the mail bag, or kick him off the step stool when he was
working on the top slots. Andy would pick himself and scuttle out of her way
for a few minutes until it blew over.
Then the unthinkable happened!
It was a week before the opening of the new "First Class" Post Office on
Westwood Avenue, and already they were phasing out the old one. About 4:30 pm
Helen decided to close the "Second Class" Post Office in the hardware store
in the day.
"Night, Ernie," said Andy.
"Yeah, humph," said Helen
They stood in front of the store and it looked to Ernie as though Andy wanted
to go one way and Helen wanted to go another. Suddenly, Helen reached down
and grabbed Andy by the throat, picked him up off his feet and began shaking him
as a dog might shake his master's slipper. Ernie was reluctant to step
outside and interfere, so he looked the other way for a moment or two. When he
looked outside again, Helen was still shaking Andy, and as Ernie later told the
police .... "Poor little bastard, looked kinda limp to me, so I sez to myself I
better step out there and stop it."
"Well," he went on, "I goes out there and I sez, 'Now Helen, take it easy --
put 'im down before you hurts 'im. She don't put him down, see .... she takes
'im in one hand, like you woulda bagga flour in the store, y'know .... then
she throws him at me!"
Ernie wasn't expecting that, but he did catch him and reeled backwards into
the store. There didn't appear to be much life left in Andy so Ernie laid him
on the counter. Helen followed him back inside the store and stood at the
counter and said:
"Sumbitch assole, drygutsore! .... Bullshit!!". At least that's what it
sounded like to Ernie. Ernie was a hardware man and had no knowledge of dry
Almost unobserved by both of them, Andy stirred a bit and seemed to be on the
verge of coming out of it. His eyes were still bugged out to the extent that
Ernie honestly felt they would pop out of his head. His nose and mouth were
bleeding, too, from the cuffing and all. Ernie tried standing him up in front of
the counter but he went spindly all over and collapsed like an unstrung
marionette. That's when he called 911.
Andy went to the hospital of course, and Helen was charged with assault.
Ernie tried to keep out of it, but like many innocent bystanders, he was the
Old timers here in Westlake Village often recall that event. It's hard to
believe it was more than 35 years ago. Now our new First Class Post Office is
beginning to show its age. There have been bizarre events there as well. Two of
the clerks have pulled revolvers on each other. One actually shot out an
overhead fluorescent light above the counter. One of the delivery men ran off
a sorter in a mail delivery vehicle and was later found in a motel in New
Dorp, Pennsylvania. There seems to be something that triggers madness in postal
workers and drives them to do things other people wouldn't think of doing.
But back there in the old Post Office, behind the bars of the Post Office
cage, Helen was a simmering volcano and Andy's innocent dreams of a dry goods
store must have brought her simmering to a boil. "It could'a been me," Ernie
remarked later, "could'a been anybody -- just happened she got her hands on Andy
©Harry Buschman 1998
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