If you want to understand a mail carrier’s relationship with his route, walk with him on a Saturday.
In the six-day postal week, Saturdays are just a little bit more personal. Offices are closed, but shops are busy. It’s when legions of carriers pass yard sales, avoid leaf blowers and step over carwash puddles. It’s when they can give a gardener a short break, exchanging a few words about the weather before putting the mail right into a muddy hand.
“You see everybody,” Dave Stacy said Saturday as he shouldered his 35-pound bag behind the post office in downtown Takoma Park. He was preparing to walk the route he’s been pounding for more than 20 years: the three-block Old Town business district and several surrounding neighborhoods.
“When the weather is good, Old Town is just really hopping,” the trim 55-year-old letter carrier said. “I talk to everybody.”
On this cold, sunny morning, the talk during Stacy’s Saturday mail delivery was about Saturday mail delivery. He was seeing some people for the first time since Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe announced plans to eliminate first-class mail delivery on Saturdays in the face of declining mail flow and collapsing revenue. Unless Congress blocks the move, the 150-year tradition of Saturday mail will end in August.
On Stacy’s appointed rounds Saturday, few said they would miss the mail. But many said they would miss the mailman.
“Hey, gorgeous — what’s going on?” manager Elizabeth Brinkama greeted Stacy as he strode into the Now and Then gift shop, his blue uniform standing out against the racks of cards and the browsing patrons. It took her less then five seconds to cull the stack he handed her: a merchandise catalogue, some credentials for a trade show. Nothing urgent.
“Quite honestly, the bad thing would be not seeing Dave on Saturdays,” she said. “It’s our busiest day, and a lot of his other customers are in here. There’s always a lot of conversation.”
Across the street at Mark’s Kitchen, the tables were packed with weekend brunchers. Stacy was careful not to bump any heads as he and his bag squeezed to the stack of outgoing mail behind the counter. He flipped through, saw an envelope without a stamp and attached one from the supply he keeps handy.
“He’s a total blessing,” said waitress Gretchen Kapuscik.
Carriers and customers develop a strange kind of official intimacy. The country’s hundreds of thousands of uniformed carriers are six-day-a-week visitors from the government (and have been known to report crimes, detect gas leaks and check on the elderly). They know your reading habits, your love for Netflix and your speed-camera problems.
Stacy began his bond with Zip code 20912 in the spring of 1983. He was amazed at the zeal with which he was greeted — people running after him, blocking his truck. “I thought, ‘Man, they are really avid letter writers,’ ” he said — until he realized that he’d begun work on April 15, tax day.
Now he recognizes his customers by address (Kapuscik lives on Glenside Drive, he noted), knows their birthdays, and is careful to put the checks and postcards on top of the stack and bills at the bottom. He once brokered an arrangement between one customer who had a downed tree and another who needed firewood. Then he helped split the logs.
“I don’t want to just deliver the mail and not stop to chat,” Stacy said. “I want to be somebody out here.”
In the 1990s, he was somebody to flirt with for a young architect named Amy Giller in an office on his route. After a few months, they progressed to a lunch date. And then one of her friends sent her a postcard that read: “Are You Still Having Fantasies About the Mailman?”
And guess who got to deliver that?
“I’ve never seen anyone turn so red in my life,” said Stacy. After 17 years of marriage, they still have the postcard, along with three kids, at their home in Silver Spring.
On Saturday, Stacy worked his way along Carroll Avenue, house to house to house, many of them long ago cut into small apartments. Some of the older mail slots and boxes are impossibly small for his wads of magazines and catalogues. “I’m pushing 2013 mail into 1945 mailboxes,” he said.
The mail is bigger than it used to be, but in the era of e-mail and online billing, it isn’t as highly prized.
“I was joking with Dave yesterday that it would be fine with me if they went to three days a week with the mail,” said Bruce Sawtelle at Takoma Bicycle. “Not getting it on Saturday will not really be a problem.”
Saturdays have been part of the postal rhythm since citywide, house-to-house mail delivery began in 1863, according to Nancy Pope, historian at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. At that time, Saturday was just another weekday. But as labor laws brought us the two-day weekend, it became the most social shift on a mail carrier’s schedule, when a trip up the porch steps might lead to a glass of lemonade or a cup of cocoa.
“When the carrier came on Saturday, he was not just seeing the mother and the children but the father, the moneymaker,” said Pope. “It was a great family experience, a rush for everyone to get the letters written before the carrier came.”
The mail mood shifted as the country grew. When women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers in the 1970s and ’80s, houses emptied out during the week. Even weekends became nobody-home time as families ran the errands they didn’t have time for on workdays.
In recent years, as the Internet has bled the Postal Service of its first-class flow, it has also repopulated the houses along the mail route. Telecommuting, online grocery shopping and everything Amazon has meant more people at home, both during the week and on Saturdays, according to Pope.
This is not the first time the Postal Service has tried to cut Saturday delivery as a way of balancing the books. In 1957, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield was faced with the opposite of today’s postal conundrum: He had too much mail to deliver in the postwar boom and a Congress that wouldn’t increase his budget (the Postal Service didn’t become a self-financing agency until years later). He cut Saturday service on April 13 of that year. There was such an outcry that Congress caved, new money was found and Saturday delivery was restored by the next weekend.
“That was the way people communicated. Today, it would be like losing your cellphone or Internet service for one day a week,” said Pope. “People were up in arms. Compare that to the reaction this week — I didn’t hear that there was a flood of calls to Capitol Hill.”
There were immediate calls from some members of Congress, especially from rural areas, to save Saturdays. And the National Association of Letter Carriers, worried about the workforce reduction that will surely result, demanded Donahoe’s ouster.
Stacy’s own feelings are mixed. He would enjoy Saturdays off for a change.
“I’ve never been able to coach one of my kids’ teams. Birthday parties have to be on Sunday,” he said. “But I look at the big picture: You’re going to lose good middle-class jobs.”
Along his route, however, their was more love for Stacy than for the mail he brought.
At a gray shingled house on Carroll, Adam Bodner came out on the porch to say hi to Stacy, his letter carrier for 16 years. He took the Saturday haul: a clothing catalogue and a bank statement.
“Yeah,” said Bodner, “this could’ve waited till Monday.”