Rapid urban renewal is yet to touch the walls of the Harlem branch of the United States Post Office. Tucked away in a tree-lined stretch of W 140th Street, just a few blocks north of semi-thriving 135th between 7th and 8th avenues, the building’s utilitarian façade tells its own tales – more than the executive arm of its long term tenants would like, at any rate.
With one glance you know that finding Disney’s Seven Little Postmen gaily singing “the mail must go through” inside is as likely as an elephant take ear-powered flight at the circus. And you get the impression that scant regard, if any, is given to the proletariat it serves.
The branch, signposted as College Station, is snuggled between buildings with such optimistic monikers as Progressive Apartments, but in this particular corner of Harlem, the US Postal Service will not be gentrified. The nondescript reddish-brown brick outlook is grim; the metal grills covering the windows a reminder of Harlem’s not-so-distant trouble-spot past.
This doesn’t feel so much like a service centre or community hub as it does a distant outpost. If it were a school building, Fred Krueger would be its janitor and Ferris Bueller would take every day off.
I push through the doors and into the barren, grey, low-light purgatory that passes for this (once?) great country’s public service. In my backpack are a weighty collection of inflight magazines to mail home to myself in Sydney, a Burj Khalifa snow dome for a friend, and a limited edition Flying Lotus concert poster for a colleague.
In front of me are at least 10 patrons of African-American or other non-white ethnic persuasion. Behind the counter stands one lone customer service assistant, her colleague doing whatever it is that postal workers do when they’re ‘out the back’, half a dozen service windows looking like they’ve been closed since the Cold War ended. This could take a while…
I join the queue behind a tiny septuagenarian Italian lady who, over the course of 15 increasingly awkward minutes, unleashes a flatulence tour de force for the ages. Wearing a floral summer dress, she slowly spins around to survey the room’s occupants after each impressive point-scoring combo – whether to show remorse or pride is unclear, my eyes and those of my fellow patrons looking everywhere but the source of these sporadic, spectacular eruptions.
For a brief, beautiful moment, the two rostered staff work the counter in tandem. The ‘out the back’ lady tags in for her colleague, whose customer is struggling to comprehend her explanation on the difference between first class, registered and express post. Given the $19.95 he’s quoted for the privilege of having a registered letter signed for at the other end, his request for a second opinion is understandable. He’s summarily dismissed from the counter to fill out more paperwork.
Staffer #1 takes her lunch break at 12:01pm on the dot, leaving her ‘out the back’ friend to deal with the 15-deep queue ‘out the front’. Nobody is here for something as simple as buying a postage stamp, not the least me, and our ‘out the back’ friend doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
Meanwhile, the septuagenarian is unimpressed. “Her friend has just gawwwn out for a caw-feee,” she drawls, as I start contemplating something a little stronger.
I reach the front of the queue, soon sighting an oasis in the form of a vacant service window. Phase one of this operation involves buying the appropriate postpaks for each parcel, a simple task which sees me supplied with a rectangular poster prism 30cm too long, a padded bag twice the size of a snow dome, and another that’ll only fit half of my magazines. I’m sent back to the benches to fill out the Customs declarations forms, but invited to jump the queue once I’m done.
While I’m busily filling out address fields in duplicate, the queue threatens to revolt. The lunchtime rush is barely shuffling forward at a crawl, with tempers fraying on both sides of the glass screen separating the posties from the proles. “You can bet this doesn’t happen down on 68th Street,” snaps the put-upon staffer, referencing the comparatively palatial USPS digs on the Upper West Side.
“They’ll shut this one down eventually,” she adds, as a microcosm of the ‘real’ America unfolds before my eyes – not the city of dreams south of 110th Street, but the economic reality which is easy to forget when you’re a tourist blinded by the bright lights of greater Manhattan.
The ladies in the queue formulate plans; discuss calling politicians; promise to start petitions. “It’ll only improve if more than one person takes a stand about it,” opines their ring leader elect, a large thirtysomething woman whose afro is perfectly braided at her scalp.
Everyone is frustrated. The lone staffer, whose daily triumphs over adversity include today’s tutorial with one customer on how to operate an EFTPOS machine, temporarily returns ‘out the back’ to hunt for some parcels that are due for collection. When she’s gone for several minutes, I pipe up: “Has she gone home?” My one-liner tanks, wry Australian humour seemingly not so big ‘round these parts.
She eventually returns and sends me back to the bleachers a second time, the customs form for my magazine collection apparently inadequate. Thankfully, it’s a case of third time lucky, and my customer service officer couldn’t be any more charming when I make my triumphant return. She cracks wise about kangaroos, how vicious they are and how she wishes she had one in the building now to protect her.
And just like that, my US Postal Service experience is over. I emerge from College Station some 75 minutes after entering, blinking at the harsh natural light. My wallet is $100 skinnier. I have a newfound admiration and respect for Australia Post.
I skip my planned lunchtime stop at IHOP, head east, and descend the subway steps at 135th and Malcolm X Blvd to jump on the 2. Not to Manhattan this time but The Bronx, in search of more of this ‘real’ America.