I was born in the 2 cent postcard and nickel letter stamp era, am living in the 29 cent postcard and 44 cent letter era (soon to be 45), and it looks as if I will exit life in a post-post office era. I am sorry about this: glad to see trees spared for paper, certainly, but otherwise I see this as a loss of a democratizing and, to me, very personal institution.
My grandfather Harley Greenwalt was postmaster of the tiny town of Mount Auburn, Iowa (current population 160). Somewhere I have a blurred black and white photo of him in his dark shirt, tie and hat, heaving the canvas bag of letters into the mail car of the train as it passed the depot door.
Grandpa Greenwalt ran to work, pursued as always by his own demons of urgency and time shortage, through his sheep pasture and apple orchard, past the henhouse and across the railroad tracks. He ran, leaving the Studebaker in the garage for my grandmother Myrtle, the local nurse, to use. He always wore a tie, his shirt was hastily misbuttoned half the time, and he had a hat or cap tugged down on his head against the breeze he created in his daily dashes.
I came barely up to the counter of the two windows in his tiny post office, where I fiddled with the combination locks on mysterious ranks of brass boxes. In the back room behind the big wooden sorting tables, Grandpa filed mail into a rural delivery cupboard -- packages, envelopes and catalogues to be toted by car to the local farms. Roads were poor, and the mailman, Walter Smalley, got stuck a lot.
It was a mom and pop operation, but so was everything in Mount Auburn: Next door to the post office was Sam and Lulu's cafe. One or two people worked at the counter of the corner grocery store, the bar, the hardware store, the bank and the switchboard.
Presumably, this civil service job gave Grandpa time -- after sorting letters -- to sit in the back room and memorize poetry, of which he was fond. And it was in that back room that Myrtle, my grandmother, had her first stroke. Grandpa laid her on the sorting table and sent for help.
The Greenwalts stayed put in their village, but one of their three daughters -- my aunt Melva -- went on to live in various exotic places, including Bangladesh, where recipients must pay the mail carrier for the letters or the carrier tosses them in the canal. Or so she told me. My conscientious grandparents would have been apoplectic to hear that.
My two St. Paul neighborhood post offices still provide little adventures and small sweetnesses. One employee addresses me as "dear." Another shows me photos of his rescued dachshund and we discuss books. One runs classic movies in the lobby for customers standing in line to watch. And I snoop shamelessly at the return addresses of packages they clutch and then start conversations with them.
So far I have met, among others, the Norwegian consul, a Sami artist and a Somali woman who needed a passport photo. I gave her a ride to a post office that provides that service. "God love you," she told me by way of thanks.
About 20 years ago, I drove down to Mount Auburn, navigating by memory, light and smell, like some kind of salmon returning home. Grandma and Grandpa Greenwalt's post office had not survived. It was towed out in the country to be used, I was told, as a chicken coop.
I don't know if email killed it, or Twitter, or cell phones, or the general precipitous decline in writing letters. But it gives me some consolation to picture a Rhode Island Red laying eggs in Box 29, next to a leghorn in Box 30, and both of them clucking cheerily with a bantam or two down the line.
Karin Winegar is a St. Paul journalist and author.