ROYAL OAK, Mich. - I begin my ritual. To the left rests a pair of needle nosed pliers and a flat headed screwdriver. To the right sits a vessel of amber fluid bubbling with anticipation. Every ceremony needs a sacrament, and mine comes with a yeasty, malty holiness. Between the two, spread out on the altar of my basement workbench, are the reasons for this rite. I run my fingers over the flattened, smooth steel protruding from the stiff, heavy plastic soles. Just two days earlier these were fresh steel hex screws shining brilliantly. Seventeen screws under each of my feet guiding me safely from house to house. Now most have been shaven flat from the constant grind of foot to ice or snow or step or cement. Within two or three days this metal has met its match and I am forced by the will of nature to repeat this liturgy. I talk to the screws: "I pray that you will bring me home safely tomorrow." Then I take a drink. When the right shoe is done, I repeat with the left one. My favorite is the left. I again bless that sole and take another quaff of the holy sacrament. This winter, I have found religion in the form of two simple household tools and a box of steel screws. Oh, and some beer.
Two words sum up this winter for me: brutal and relentless.
A National Weather Service meteorologist has given Metro Detroit the number # 1 ranking in its "misery index." Detroit has had 90.6 inches of snow so far this season; only 3 inches away from the all-time recorded total. We have had over 100 days of below freezing temperatures, and too many days of single-digit to subzero temps. Detroit has had its harshest winter since 1950. In a recent article, the Associated Press says that Detroit is experiencing the most extreme weather of any city in the country. And I deliver mail on foot, house to house, six days a week. That probably explains why I talk to my shoes. I may be somewhat delirious.
When I see the metal from my safety footwear grinding down to a nub, it helps me to appreciate the aches and pains of my knees, back, and hands. This human body is amazing, and even in my 50s I am in awe of how much punishment this shell of skin and bones can endure. My brother asked me last week how I do this job day in and day out with this harshest of weather conditions. My reply, "I don't know how I do it. I ask myself that same question at the end of every day." My fellow carriers and I delivered the U.S. mails every day this winter. We were given no snow days. We were given no administrative leave. We were expected to come to work and complete our assignments each and every day this winter. That is our job. That is our commitment to the American public. That is the mission I signed onto when taking my oath as a USPS letter carrier.
The trick to making it through these brutal days - for instance one day it was a high temperature of -7 degrees - is to play mental gymnastics with your psyche. You know, mind games. I bring a hot thermos of joe along with me and tell myself, "Get through the next 15 minutes and you get a slug of java." Get through the next 15 minutes and I get to blow my nose. If I make it to noon I'll find a bathroom and relieve myself! Little rewards with big mental payoffs.
The other fundamental element to getting through the worst of days is the response and respect I receive from my wonderful patrons. On this most hellish of days the Lynch girls, eight and 10, home from school because of the weather, greeted me at their door with a carafe of hot cocoa. "Mailman John, we want you to be warm so we made some hot chocolate for you." It wasn't the delicious drink that made me warm that moment. It was the sincere and caring sparkle in those little girls' eyes that ignited a bundle of tinder in my soul and gave me the inspiration to deliver more mail that day. This winter has been brutal, the worst in a lifetime. But yet I still feel blessed to walk these streets, even in a foot of snow and ice. I have a job with benefits and a retirement package. I have health and life insurance and paid days off. I have a strong union that fights for all workers' rights. I have a wife who retired as a letter carrier after 31 years of service and gives me deep spiritual support. I come home each day to a pantry filled with food and a bubbly cold libation to go along with it. When the snow is coming down one inch per hour and the wind is blowing at thirty miles per hour, this is my mantra; I am blessed. I am working, albeit not in the conditions I would choose, but nevertheless, I am working. I would be more stressed if my house payment was two months behind and my family could not afford to go to a doctor. I would be more stressed if a food bank was my option for putting nourishment on my table. And I would be completely overwhelmed if I was in a position of long term unemployment and my bare minimum of subsistence payments was terminated by the government. I am blessed to walk these wintry streets.
Unfortunately, the United States Postal Service does not feel as blessed as I do these days.
We had a tremendous Christmas season this year. Our parcel business grew dramatically in 2013 and for the fiscal quarter that ended December 31, 2013, we showed an operating profit of $765 million in just three months. The previous year, 2012, we had profits of $623 million for the whole year. These are astonishingly great figures of financial strength and should be heralded as a turnaround for our much beleaguered institution. Our postal unions made positive media alerts to announce this great news. But what did the USPS do with these figures? They made us watch an educational video from Postmaster General Donahoe, as well as flooded the media circuits with reports of impending doom and gloom. The Spin-doctor General reported that we lost close to $5 billion (yes, "b" as in billion). He announced that unless we get legislative relief in the form of a bill named S 1486 (The Postal Reform Act of 2014), the ship is sinking and we have run out of lifeboats. Here's the rub. The $5 billion loss is a paper loss. The money was never paid out. This loss goes back to the health care prefunding mandate fiasco. Without that 2006 mandate to pre-fund retiree health costs for 75 years, the Postal Service would have either broken even or made a profit for the last eight years. The reality is that the Postal Service has $50 billion stashed into its health care fund, enough for the next 40 years at least. The Postal Service has not paid any money into this fund for the last two years, but still uses this as a paper loss for accounting purposes. The big question is what is the motivation for this "spin" from USPS upper management?
In October of last year, I just happened to be sitting at a table with the Spin-doctor General at an awards luncheon in Washington. He was a jovial guy and actually grabbed my wife's camera and took our picture. I had a chance to address the crowd of dignitaries and expressed my concerns for the future of the Postal Service. Afterwards, Mr. Donahoe took me aside and assured me that he was doing everything in his power to save the Service so that we would not face bankruptcy like the "Big Three" car companies in Detroit. He told me that the Service needed to remain a public institution and never should it be privatized. He seemed sincere. Then again, I am a notorious bad judge of character.
This Senate bill S 1486 has the ability to end Saturday delivery and end the door-to-door delivery that our country relies on. It would cut into workers compensation benefits and allow the closure of more mail processing facilities. It would kill jobs and slow the mail service. It is a slash-and-burn solution to a problem that does not even exist. Our Postmaster General supports this bill, as well as many of our political foes and allies. My own senator, Carl Levin voted to push this bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor for consideration for a vote soon.
It is imperative that you do what you can as a citizen to understand the importance of this issue.
And please support S 316, the Postal Service Protection Act (Sanders, I-Vt.) and HR 630 (DeFazio, D-Ore.), two bills that were recently introduced in Congress. They address all the real concerns facing the Postal Service.
It is the simple tasks that keep us sane. I feel an anger rising up in me as I write this. It is time I go down to the basement for a rap session with my winter safety shoes. A screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and a box of screws is calling my name. Oh yes, and a lovely mug of suds. I'll be alright.
Photo: Matt Spiel CC