Thursday, November 17, 2011

In which I learn that logic sometimes just doesn't matter, or, How I grew to love the US Post Office

I didn't realize how amazing the US postal service was until I moved to Chile for two years. Although the post office in Chile is open until 7:00 p.m., which is an innovation I think we could use in the US, in other ways, the service was bad. Things were stolen from the mail all the time - I had friends from the US sending me candy and goodies that never arrived. They thought I was just being rude, not writing a thank you note for the Halloween candy they had sent me, but I had never gotten it. Somewhere, there was a Chilean postal employee (or a Chilean customs employee) eating my candy corn, which ticked me off because I couldn't get candy corn in Chile.

I also could not get chocolate chips - but guess what? you can chop up a candy bar pretty easily, Crisco (substitute lard, which is better than Crisco anyhow), or ziplock bags. Fortunately, when my friend Lenore came to visit, she brought an ample supply of all of those things, along with peanut butter, which was available in Chile but only to the very rich.

Before I moved to Chile, I took for granted that a cheerful, clean, uniformed mail carrier would bring my mail to my house every day.

After I had been living there for a while, I discovered why the Peace Corps told us to have our mail sent to the Peace Corps office in Santiago, whence they would have it sent to us via courier. They knew.

I discovered why when I was living in the house with Mandy, the Scottish undergrad studying Spanish and Portuguese, and Sarah, the American woman getting a PhD in political science and doing her research on the political structures of the Mapuche. Mandy and I became great friends, but Sarah bugged me because she would sit at the supper table, picking her toes and then reaching for food with her fingers. We didn't eat together much.

They got their mail delivered at the house. I never paid any attention because I got my mail at my office, via courier. I would see their mail on the stairs and think nothing of it.

But one day, Mandy and Sarah weren't home. Someone was banging and banging on the door.

Not that I was used to having any peace in that house. In the morning, someone would turn on the three school busses that were parked overnight across the street from us (no, I have no idea why - maybe that's where the drivers lived?) and let them idle for half an hour.

Although that sound is not as annoying as the horrible "I am backing up" beep that equipment in the US is required to make and that causes me to ask if anyone has done a true cost/benefit analysis of the value of that sound, as in, how many Americans are we willing to let die because they are too slow to get out of the way of machinery backing up if it means we can sleep past 7:00 a.m. on a summer morning, the rumble of idling busses is also loud enough to wake a person.

I tried to ignore the banging, but whoever it was would not go away. I finally had to answer. I signed and left my tiny room, which was not even large enough for a mattress and contained just a sleeping bag and my clothes - no door because alcoves don't have doors - and walked very carefully down the very narrow, carpeted, slippery stairs.

Once you have slipped and fallen down the stairs, you never trust them again.

I opened the door. There stood a disheveled, boozy-smelling man holding a few letters. He was wearing old black pants and a brown sweater with holes in it. No hat. No uniform. No insignia.

"I have your mail," he said.

Then why hadn't he just left it on the stoop, as he usually did?

I reached for the letters. He snatched them back and gave me the Latin American finger wave.

You know the Latin American finger wave, don't you? It's when you rock your forefinger from side to side with the hand held parallel to your body. The North American finger wave, or, more accurately, shake, has your hand perpendicular to your body with the finger going from 0 degrees down to about 60 degrees. The Latin American finger wave goes 60 degrees from upright in each direction.

And what it means is, "Absolutely, positively no. Uh uh. No way. Don't even think about it."

If you do the Latin American finger wave at a boy who is pestering you to polish your shoes (which I rarely did, as I would pay any kid who wanted to polish my shoes), he will back away, no questions asked.

The man gave me the LAFW.

"No," he said, as he withdrew the letters. He pointed to the doorframe. "You owe me 170 pesos." (About 50 cents at the time.)

"What are you talking about?"

"Look," he demanded. I looked. There were hash marks on the door frame. "I've delivered all these letters and you haven't paid."

I had no idea what he was talking about. "Ten pesos a letter," he said impatiently.

"Are you nuts?" I asked. "These letters all have stamps!"

"The stamp is just to get it from one post office to another," he said. "But you have to pay for delivery!"

I didn't believe him. The whole idea was crazy. But he wouldn't give me the mail and I knew that this wasn't something I could wait out, plus I was worried he would bang on the door again the next day and I would never have any peace. I gave him the money and threw the letters on the kitchen counter.

The next day, I went to the post office and asked one of the clerks. "The postman told me I have to pay him for delivering stamped letters!" I said in disbelief.

"Well of course," she said. "The stamp just gets it from one post office to another."

I shook my head. "Why doesn't the stamp include delivery?"

She rolled her eyes. It was so obvious. "Because all the houses are different distances from the post office! How do you decide how much to charge for the stamp if you don't know how far from the post office the house is?"