10 September 2008

To The Post Office

I like the idea of visiting the James Farley General Post Office on 8th Avenue and 33rd to take care of some after-hours mailing business, but the reality... Not so much.

The building itself is a mighty impressive edifice, both inside and out. In fact, if delivering mail were a religion, this would surely be its cathedral. I can't walk past it, let alone enter it, without thinking of my dad, who put in 35 years or so at the considerably less glamorous Detroit Post Office. Although Dad never expressed any particular love for the Postal Service - on the contrary, he repeatedly insisted that he'd only taken a job there instead of pursuing a career in art because he needed a reliable income to support us four brats - he showed enough interest in all things postal, even years after his retirement, to convince me that at least part of his heart subscribed to the whole "Neither rain nor snow..." ethos. I remember him getting a kick out of driving last-minute letters out to Detroit Metropolitan Airport where his Post Office credentials allowed him to pretty much put it on the plane himself, and he never tired of telling my unemployed sister, with respect to the job she'd left back in 1972, "You should have stayed at the Post Office."

When I was an especially strident leftist, somewhere in the middle of the Vietnam War, I denounced my dad for being "part of the system." Having been vehemently opposed to the war for longer than I had, he was bewildered by what I was getting at (unfortunately it hadn't yet occurred to him that I was a stark, raving lunatic). "You work for the federal government," I seethed. "You're part of the war machine. You bring people their draft notices."

"I bring them their welfare checks, too," he said quietly, either having the decency or lacking the presence of mind to point out that I and much of the antiwar movement would be in a sorry state without said welfare checks. But I digress. The reason I had to make a late night visit to the Post Office yesterday was to send off a couple things to England. In the old days - e.g., when I was doing mail order for Lookout Records - I had all the mailing supplies, customs declarations, stamps, scale, etc., at home, and could just drop the packages in a mailbox at my leisure.

But no more, and anyway, one of the packages weighed over a pound, which means you can't drop it in a mailbox anyway, or use the machines at the Post Office to weigh and stamp it yourself. No, because some genius at Homeland Security decided that anything weighing more than a pound was too likely to be a bomb, you have to present it in person to the clerk at the window (who of course does absolutely nothing to ascertain whether or not it is a bomb, or who you are, or anything else other than weigh it and take your money).

So I had to line up for one of the three available clerks. As I said, in theory it's a great service to have a Post Office open all night; in practice, they keep just enough clerks on duty to make sure you'll be standing in line for the better part of an hour. And being the middle of the night - okay, it wasn't even ten o'clock when I was there, but you know - in New York City, you get, shall we say, an interesting clientele to share your space with.

All well and good, but I was mildly frantic to get my packages mailed and get back up to Times Square for a 10:35 showing of Pineapple Express (and for those of you who suspect I never see anything but trashy comedies and shoot-em-ups, I'll have you know I'd gone to see the Woody Allen picture Vicky Cristina Barcelona the night before - true, only because neither Tropic Thunder nor Pineapple Express was playing at a convenient time, but still...). And as luck would have it, I only missed the first five or ten minutes of the movie, which meant my waiting time at the Post Office was a mere... 48 minutes. I've seen worse, and don't even think about going there on tax day unless you're planning on making it an all-nighter.

Of the two things I was sending, one was a copy of the new Cometbus (#51), The Loneliness Of The Electric Menorah, which, as the title makes abundantly clear, is a nostalgic and winsome study of the booksellers of Telegraph Avenue. I'd mentioned it to a friend in England who sells books himself, and he was mightily intrigued, enough so that he's asked me three times to send him a copy.

The other was an oral history which I did with my Auntie Olivia in the year before her 80th birthday, which was in 1997. Unfortunately, we only got as far as the 1970s, but it still made for quite a story, and I had a copy of it bound, and presented it to her as a birthday present. Unfortunately there was only one copy of it, and a couple of her friends, especially Rachel, who did a great deal to care for Olivia in the last year of her life (and while Rachel herself was suffering from supposedly terminal cancer!). I saw Rachel last month in London, five years after she was given six months to live, and she let me know she'd be ever so happy to have a copy of Olivia's story, and so, after a bit of proofreading and editing, which it was sorely in need of, I printed up another copy and sent it off to her. For those of you who might be interested, here's a sample from it:

I'd left, and I'd got myself a room in Victoria. I was very broke, ever so broke. I just managed to pay the rent on the room, and I'd got a little dog, Dizzy, which Dingell had bought me. I was in this room one evening, there was just Dizzy and me, and all I had was one of these little, tiny thruppenny pieces. Teeny, like half a sixpence, but they were silver. And that's all I had, just thruppence, and I was dying for a cigarette. And poor Dizzy hadn't got anything to eat.

I went across to a news agent shop, and he used to sell five cigarettes for thruppence... Oh, this thruppenny bit, some silly ass, showing off one day, had bent it with his teeth, double. So I had a doubled-up truepenny bit, and I went across... Oh, I hammered it out, I went and asked the landlady if she'd got a hammer and tried to hammer it out straight, but it was all sort of battered. But I went across to the newsagent and got five cigarettes, and there was a butcher's just up the road, and I went and cadged a bone for Dizzy, and I went back in.

So it was Dizzy and me, lying on the bed. I'd got my cigarette, and the front door went, and the landlady answered. Then she came to me and said there's a man here to see you. And of course it was Dingell, with his bike. He'd biked all the way up from Bedford. And I thought, oh, no, I'll never get rid of this man. Well, there he was, and of course he'd got no money, nobody'd got any money. I couldn't turn him out; it was late in the evening.

At the time I was between jobs, as you might say. I'd left the office long before this. I'd left because Truda... Her father was head wine butler at the Criterion, and she was a waitress at the Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch. Of course she was making a lot of money, for those days. And there's me, scraping along on seventeen and six, giving ten shillings to Auntie or something. I never had any money, and Truda always had money. And she said, 'Well, I don't know what you're doing sitting in that office with no money and what have you. Come to the Cumberland, come be a waitress.'

And I thought, well that makes sense. I don't want to work anyway, but if I do work, I might as well work and have some money as work and have none. Of course Uncle George and Auntie Nell fell about when I said I was going to be a waitress. Oh my God, that was awful. Mr. Welch and everybody said, 'Oh, Olive, you can't go and be a waitress.' But I said, yes I can, it's a lot more money. And off I went.

I became a waitress with Truda, at the Cumberland Hotel. I was earning much more, I was earning as much as Uncle George, practically, with tips. We worked long hours, mind you, and it was hard work. But I certainly had a lot more money in my pocket when I was working, but I didn't stay at one job. I went all around the hotels, I worked at the Strand Palace, at the Regent Palace... We'd just go from one to the other. We worked in the restaurants, the lounges... In the lounges everybody fiddled like mad. It was very stressful, but you made an awful lot of money.

However this was one of those times in between, when I hadn't got a job, and I was broke. Another old boyfriend, a friend of Maurice's, Jack Wall, I'd rung him up, and he came up and took me out to dinner, fed me, and lent me some money. But that had just run out as well, and I was down to my thruppenny bit when Dingell came and parked himself on my doorstep. And of course I couldn't throw him out, so I let him stay there that night. I didn't sleep with him or anything like that. And of course the next morning the landlady said, 'That's it, you've had a man in your room all night, you've got to go.'

So out me, Dizzy and Dingell went. Waifs, strays, in the heart of London, so to speak. Him and his bike, me and Dizzy. I don't know, we wandered around, we'd got to find somewhere to stay. And he wasn't going to go, so it was quite obvious that we had to take a room together.

I don't know how, but Dingell found some money somehow. It was sixteen shillings to get a room, I remember. We found this room in Mornington Crescent, in the end, and I think he had just about enough to pay for the room. So there you are. He sort of moved in with me. I still didn't sleep with him, not for ages. We slept in the same bed, but no way would I let him touch me. But there we were, the three of us, the dog, him and me, and I think the next day I went out and got myself a job at the Strand Palace Hotel.

Well, then it was very expedient to have Dingell there, because otherwise I had to leave my dog. But now I could go to work and leave Dingell to look after the dog, you see. So it was working out okay for the moment. I remember I used to save chops and things for my dog. If somebody left a piece of steak or whatever, I would gather it all together and bring it home for Dizzy. Never thinking of Dingell, just the dog. I used to eat in the Strand Palace, of course. And Dingell once said, 'Yes, I remember those days very well. You used to bring home steaks and chops for the dog, and I was eating the dog biscuits!'
A bit long, but hopefully you got the flavor of it. And as for Pineapple Express? Hilarious, I thought, but also an excellent riposte to those terminal hippies who insist that marijuana is "all about peace, maaaan." The violence, blood, guts and gore, all played up for maximum comic effect, made it pretty evident that marijuana is actually about amplifying what's already in your heart and mind, as the nonstop commentary and guffaws from a row of fat stoners just behind me made clear. Oh, and I did live in Mendocino County for ten years, where an Uzi is as common an accessory to the marijuana trade as a peacock-feathered roach clip or a handwoven God's eye. Anyway, I hope I won't be giving away any crucial plot developments by informing you that the good (i.e., the stoned but not habitually murderous) ended well and the bad badly, and that, as Oscar Wilde reminded us, is the meaning of fiction.

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