Going Postal

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed round.

--U.S. Postal Service motto

You receive a letter telling you to come for an interview at seven in the morning. It says you should wear sturdy shoes, because you might be given a strength test. It says there will be a drug test. You haven't been doing any drugs, so you're not concerned.

You've already filled out the application forms for casual employment with the U.S. Postal Service. It took you more than an hour. Not that the questions are difficult--it's just that the forms are so numerous, asking the same questions over and over. By the time you got to the last one, still trying to write legibly, you were exhausted and your hand hurt. It didn't occur to you at the time that this was probably good preparation for life as a postal clerk.

You drive down to the Postal Service office at 16th Street and Buckeye Road. You drive around the building for a while, trying to figure out how to get into the parking lot. You worry that you're going to be late. Finally, you drive into a vast parking area, which turns out to be the right place.

You find the room. It's behind one of a line of anonymous doors on the ground floor. It looks like a classroom at examination time, with its rows of desks and people quietly filing in and finding their seats.

The majority of your fellow applicants are Latino. A couple are black, and the rest are white. The age ranges from early 20s to 40s and possibly 50s. Nobody is too hoary.

Once everybody's sitting comfortably, a company girl takes the stage and tells you how to fill out the forms on your desk. Before you do, she tells you what a horrible job you're applying for, how tedious and lacking in prospects it is.

"This is not a career position," she stresses, even though the ream of forms you filled out has already told you that. "It will not lead to permanent employment." She says that you'll be expected to work 10-hour shifts, six days a week. Your day off can be canceled at any time if they need you to work. For this, you'll be paid $8 an hour.

Company girl scans her audience. "Does anybody have a problem with that? Does anybody just want to work an eight-hour day?"

You do, but you don't say anything. Only one guy speaks up. He just says yeah, the hours are too long for him, and he leaves. The rest of you fill out your forms.

When you finish, nearly an hour has gone by. Some people go outside to take the strength test. You've applied for a casual clerk's position, so you don't bother. You still have to get fingerprinted, though, and take a drug test.

The guy who takes your fingerprints has the manner of a jailer or a doctor. He doesn't look at your face, or even speak to you, just takes your hands and snaps commands at you. Or rather he snaps commands at your fingers, because that's where he looks when he speaks. When he finishes, he indicates a roll of paper towels you can use to wipe the ink off your fingers. Then he turns and takes the pair of hands in line behind you.

The drug test is administered in a bus in the parking area. You wait in line for the one toilet cubicle. Before you go into the cubicle, they make you empty your pockets. They give you a cup and you take it into the cubicle and piss in it. Then you come out and they give you a bottle and you stand at a small sink, in full view of everybody, and try to pour the piss from the cup into the bottle without spilling any.

You know people who've been in prison. They've told you that the most degrading, dispiriting feature of prison life isn't the confinement or the beatings by the guards. It's having to piss in the same pot as other people, having to breathe in the stench of their piss, having to look at it. Now you get an inkling of what they mean.

After a few people have had their test, the bus reeks of piss. You try not to look at the people coming out of the cubicle with cups of it in their hands, but you can't stop yourself. There's an attractive girl you've been looking at, on and off, for the past hour. She's in front of you in line for the cubicle. You experience a strange mix of arousal and revulsion as you watch her transfer the contents of the cup to the bottle.

When you leave the bus, the hot, gasoline-fumed morning air seems fragrant. You go back to the classroom and wait to be called for an interview. You feel bullied and depressed.

Company girl takes you to another room, just the two of you. You sit at a table. She talks about the post office with evangelical zeal. You wonder if there's a place in this building equipped with special washing machines for the brains of employees.

She says she wants to ask you some hypothetical questions. "Suppose you were sorting mail and you saw another worker hiding an envelope inside his shirt. What would you do?"

You try not to laugh. It's so obvious what she wants to hear. "Well," you say. "I like to think I'm a compassionate person. So if it was any other job, I'd go and talk to the guy, ask him what was going on. But . . ." You let your face tighten with righteous anger. "This is the post office. You can't have people interfering with the U.S. mail. So I'm afraid I'd have to report the guy immediately."

Company girl is thrilled. She gives you a look that might be love. Slowly, intensely, she raises a hand in the air and says, "Exactly!"

She asks you similar questions, and you give her similar answers. By the time you finish, you're pretty sure you've got the job. She tells you to go and have your medical examination later that day. If all is well, they'll give you a call.

The medical exam is in the afternoon. They give you the address of the clinic. You can understand why this is the Postal Service's favorite clinic--it's almost impossible to find your way inside. The front door is locked and there's no sign of anybody. You walk around. Eventually, in a little alley round the back, you find an unlocked door. You go in, and find a receptionist. You tell her why you're there, and she gives you a couple of forms to fill out.

An hour after your scheduled appointment time, you're still sitting there and you still haven't been seen. Neither have the three other people in the waiting room. You complain to the receptionist, saying you have things to do. She says the doctors are at lunch. A nurse comes and gets you. She gives you a vision test, but doesn't tell you whether you've done well. She takes your blood pressure, and mutters the result to herself. You ask, "Is that good, bad or average?"

"It's good," she says. Like the fingerprint guy, she doesn't look at you at any time. You start to develop a complex.

She takes you to a small room and leaves you there. Before she leaves, she tells you to strip and put on a paper gown and wait for the doctor to examine you. You do. A half-hour later, you're cold and bored and you haven't seen the doctor or anybody else. You take off the paper gown and get dressed. On the way out, you tell the receptionist that you'll call the post office and schedule another appointment.

You don't.

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Barry Graham