The Writers Voice
The World's Favourite Literary Website

Going First Class


Harry Buschman

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 Grogan.

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 a 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 mail here!"

"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. If 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 gray 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 rows of slots to Andy who would scramble to reach them from the top of a shaky step stool.

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 well.

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 tablecloth.

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 for 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 hump."

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 early 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 goods.

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 only reliable witness.

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 with 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 first."

©Harry Buschman 1998

Critique this work

Click on the book to leave a comment about this work

All Authors (hi-speed)    All Authors (dialup)    Children    Columnists    Contact    Drama    Fiction    Grammar    Guest Book    Home    Humour    Links    Narratives    Novels    Poems    Published Authors    Reviews    September 11    Short Stories    Teen Writings    Submission Guidelines

Be sure to have a look at our Discussion Forum today to see what's
happening on The World's Favourite Literary Website.