Posts Tagged ‘post office’

The Mailbox

It’s taken four years, but we are finally the proud owners of a mailbox.

The horizontal side of the pole sticks out 10'.  The vertical part is 7' high because 5' additional feet are buried underground!

The horizontal side of the pole sticks out 10′. The vertical part is 7′ high because 5′ additional feet are buried underground!  In the foreground near the road is the overgrown culvert, which is a steep ditch and makes it impossible for the mail delivery truck to get close enough to a mailbox.  The mail delivery person never leaves the delivery truck; instead they perform all sorts of contortions to put the mail into the mailbox by reaching over and through the truck window.  It’s simply  too cold in winter to leave the delivery truck.

Until now, we have traveled 8 miles to our rural post office every time we wanted to get our mail from a rented post office box.  I really didn’t mind at first, because I liked Heidi, our postmaster, very much and enjoyed speaking with her each time I’d get the mail.  I learned all sorts of stuff from her – – not just the goings-on of our town and its residents, but she was a great reference for “where can I find . . . ?” and “where can I buy . . . ?” and “how does one . . . ?” plus she was great at recommending tradesmen, doctors  – – you name it.

Then the US Post Office, in its efforts to save money, started making all sorts of cutbacks, which included shuffling hours and clerks and routes.  Heidi was transferred to another post office, and we got Lili in her place – – another lovely person.  But then 3 months later Lili was given the axe and then it was Wendy.  But Wendy lived 1 hour 20 minutes away and the drive in the winter at 5 a.m. wasn’t practical, so then we got Debbie.  But then the Post Office decided that our little branch wasn’t busy enough, so they cut the hours to 4 hours a day – from 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m and 2:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.  These hours proved hugely inconvenient for us, and by now I didn’t even know who the clerks were, they were changed so frequently.


I pasted lots of red and white reflective tape on the box and the pole so the snowplow guy can’t say he “couldn’t see it” while plowing at night. Mailboxes are commonly knocked down by snow plows in Maine. If this happens, you can’t dig a new hole until Spring because the ground is frozen solid!

If you are reading this blog from a large city, you are probably wondering what difference it makes who my postmaster is.  Because we go back and forth from Maine to our hometown, our mail is always in a state of getting forwarded or held.  With our local rural post office,  you can simply call and ask if you got anything important, and they will not only tell you what’s sitting in your box, they will offer to send it to wherever else you happen to be.  If you are expecting a package and you let them know, they will be excited for you when it comes.  A rural postmaster looks out for his customers.

The new branch hours were more than inconvenient – – they also affected our Fed Ex and UPS deliveries.  Those companies would often deliver to us via the post office, where we’d pick up our parcels.  Their routes from the city meant they arrived sometime between noon – 1 p.m. daily.  But since the post office was closed at that time, they couldn’t drop off the packages there, and the post office had no interest in creating some sort of secure drop box for their deliveries.

Besides the expense of the rented post office box, there was the cost of gas.  The 16-mile round trip, at $3.75 a gallon, meant I was paying almost $2 each time I went to check on the mail.

But getting a mailbox was no simple matter.

Our local Post Office was willing to deliver the mail if we’d put a mailbox at the bottom of the driveway, at the street.  Unfortunately, however, there is a culvert (drainage ditch) on either side of the driveway, so there was nowhere to put a mailbox because the mail truck couldn’t pull up to a mailbox without the vehicle falling into a ditch.

Our difficult set-up is in no way unique.  So I began paying attention to rural mailboxes whenever I’d go out for a drive.  I saw right away that even if I could place a mailbox on a post, it would be at the mercy of the snowplow, and snowplow drivers are notoriously careless about knocking down mailboxes.    The best design for our situation would be a very, very long, extended pole, with a mailbox hanging from the pole by chains.

It took me nearly a year to find someone who could create this design at a reasonable price, but Jeremiah Johnson is a welder who was up to the task.  I showed him a pencil sketch, told him what I wanted, and a few days later he brought the 10′ x 12′ L-shaped pole that he had welded for us.  It was HUGE.  Of the side that was twelve feet high, 5′ had to be sunk into the ground.  It had to be sunk that deep due to the frost line.  I also knew that I needed to get that hole dug before it got too cold and the ground froze.  I called a local excavator, but he was busy.  I called a handyman and he said he’d do it, but he wasn’t quite sure when.

Three weeks later, we still did not have a mailbox hole dug.  But luck was on our side.  The road maintenance excavation crew happened to swing by our street.  Their job was to clean out and replace culverts that drained into the bog known as Little Pond across the street.  They brought huge monster trucks and bulldozers to dig up our road, put in new culverts, cover it with gravel and smooth it down with asphalt.  They also  re-dug the ditches on either side of our driveway.  They were happy to dig my mailbox hole for a little proffered cash on the side.  And so we now had a 5′ feet deep hole at the bottom of our driveway.

Next I bought two 50 lb bags of “Quikcrete” – –  a fast-setting concrete mix – – and my husband and I filled the 5′ hole with a combination of Quikcrete, gravel, and dirt.  I put plenty of reflective red and white stickers on both the pole and the mailbox, so our snowplow guy won’t hit it (but at least the mailbox will swing on the chains instead of snapping off a post if it does get hit).

It is pretty nice not having to drive to the post office to get my mail, although I still go occasionally to buy stamps, send a package, or catch up on town news with the latest postmaster.

Impromptu Tour Guide

Due to cutbacks by the United States Postal Service, our local post office has dramatically reduced its hours.  Now it’s open for transactions only M-F from 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m, and 2:15 pm  – 4:15 p.m. in the afternoons.  The post office delivery truck drops off the mail around 8:30 a.m., and it’s placed in PO boxes around 9 a.m., so the window to get one’s daily mail in the morning is very narrow indeed.  The lobby without counter service is open during the middle part of the day if you have a post office box, but if you get a notice in your box that a package has arrived and you aren’t there during counter service times – – too bad.  You must return during one of the two-hour windows to claim your package.  It gets worse:  the routes of both FedEx and UPS work out so that they arrive at the post office between 12:30 – 1:30 pm, when the post office is closed, so packages headed to the post office cannot be delivered or redeemed if they are being delivered to your post office box as an address.  A solution to this problem would be for UPS and FedEx to place a delivery box outside, so the postmaster could access it during open hours, but UPS and FedEx have so far been uninterested in doing so.  It is very likely that in the next 2 years, our local post office branch will cease operating altogether.

I try to coordinate a visit to the post office with our transfer station – – also known as the garbage dump — which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 – 4.  We have no trash pickup here – all self-generated refuse must be taken to the dump in our car. The post office is 6 miles away and the dump is another 2.5 miles further up the road, and what with the cost of gas nowadays, I try to limit my visits.  Also on Tuesdays, our tiny library is open from 5 pm – 7 pm (the other day is Shabbat, so I can’t visit then).  It’s a 3-mile trip one way from home to the library but it’s on the way to the post office and dump, so I try to stop by the library on the way home.  Still, I do have time to kill from the post office closure at 4:15 to the library’s opening time of 5 p.m.

So yesterday I stopped by the lake.  I couldn’t go swimming or kayaking due to it being the Nine Days (leading up to Tisha B’Av), but I was content to sit there and watch a 5-year-old boy fishing with his father.  The look of joy on the little boy’s face when he caught a fish (as well as the proud dad’s) was priceless, and I never tire of the serene view of the lake, clouds, and surrounding mountains, and the quiet.

Suddenly a minivan with Illinois license plates turned into the parking area, and a married couple with 2 preteen daughters stepped out and started taking pictures of the beautiful view.  I couldn’t resist asking if they were from Chicago – – one of my daughters lives there and I will be going there to visit next week.

“No, we rented this car from New York,” the man replied.  “We are from Denmark.  We are doing a driving tour of the eastern United States.”  He explained that one of his daughters had hurt her ankle, and as a result they had to cancel many of their planned activities for the day.   They were limiting themselves to sightseeing from the car on this day, and had driven about 90 miles from western New Hampshire, extemporaneously wandering the scenic mountain roads.  He had many questions about what there was to see in this part of Maine, as well as questions about Maine culture, the people, the lifestyle, etc.

Well, I had nothing better to do until the library opened . . .

“We didn’t care for New York too much, to tell you the truth,” he confessed.  “Such a big city is not really our thing; we really prefer being in nature.”  He proceeded to tell me how surprised he was “that many of the natives we encountered there spoke English with very strong accents that we couldn’t understand.”  I had visions of him encountering chassidim who not only dress differently than the mainstream, but speak “Yinglish.”  But he said, “I’m talking about Hispanics and Chinese people.  I couldn’t believe it, but we met people who are Americans who could not even speak English!  That was very surprising to us – – I don’t understand how citizens can live in a country and not speak its language!  How is this possible?”

As we chatted,  I made several suggestions of places they could visit nearby that were off the beaten track and were known only to locals.  “You won’t find these suggestions in any tour book,” I said, “but if you love nature, you won’t want to miss them.”  Still, I realized that many of the places lacked signage and were accessed by hidden dirt or gravel roads, and he was unlikely to find them based on my directions alone.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I will take you to some of these places if you’d like.  You can just follow me in your car.”

I guess I looked trustworthy, because they were game.

I had a great time taking them all over the place – – I probably used up $20 out-of-pocket in gas.  I would stop my car every so often and they’d pull up behind me.  “Look – here are some moose hoof-prints!” I’d point out.  Or, “Check carefully along the road – last year at this time I saw a bear cub foraging here for blueberries.”  And:  “This little library was a one-room schoolhouse from the 1800s until 1963.  Now it’s used as a library, and the author Stephen King, who lives nearby, helps to fund it.”  And:  “This area used to be a heavily forested valley, until 1983, when a severe storm with 100-mph winds created a blow-down. The entire forest was destroyed.  Then the beavers took over, and gradually the dammed area became the desolate bog you are looking at now.  Isn’t the power of nature amazing?”  I also took them to a hidden glen with a beautiful stream and small waterfalls.  “Salmon spawn here in November!” I gushed.  They were impressed!

Again and again, they thanked me profusely at each new stop for being able to see things and learn things that would otherwise not have been possible.  Together we ended up spending about 90 minutes touring the area.  We developed quite a rapport.  I discussed everything from logging and woodsmen, to moose and bear hunting, hiking, fishing, locals’ acceptance of strangers, politics, racism (the lack thereof), local education and jobs, cuisine, odd Maine laws – – you name it.   I said that the motto of Maine should be “live and let live,” since people are quite accepting of letting people do their own thing, as long as they don’t try to stuff their personal agenda down another’s throat.

“Oh, you mean everyone in Maine is very liberal!” the man exclaimed with glee.

“Well, I guess that depends on how you’d define ‘liberal,'” I replied.  “I mean, just about everyone here owns a gun,” I said.  The poor man’s eyes grew wide as saucers.  Then I realized:  who knows what they were thinking as I led them with my car through narrow mountain passes, through pocked and pitted gravel roads, through forest lanes so laden with foliage that you needed headlights to turn the shadows back into daylight, in places where no other people or buildings were in sight?  And now that I had said that everyone in rural Maine owns a gun, they probably felt like they were in a replay of “Deliverance,” only I was the one who could have been the bad guy!

Alas, it was now 6 p.m. and I still hadn’t made it to the library.  I recommended yet another isolated mountain road that would ultimately lead them back to their point of origin in New Hampshire, and after ensuring that their GPS recognized my suggested route, we wished one another well and said our goodbyes.

I don’t know what made me offer this impromptu goodwill tour to a family of complete strangers from a distant land.  I know they loved it – – they told me so, repeatedly, and remarked many times how fortunate I was to live in such a place.  But I confess, I do not know who enjoyed it more:  I had a wonderful time sharing the beauty and lore of my surroundings, and making my experiences a part of their experience, however vicariously or fleetingly.

Amazingly, after we parted, I realized that neither of us had told one another our names!

Only a week before I had read a wonderful book called “All Natural:  A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier” by Nathanael Johnson.  The concluding paragraph reads,

It wasn’t the Yosemite sunsets that had filled me with such hale energy as a child, it was watching those sunsets with my family, the four of us huddled together, windbreaker against windbreaker.  It wasn’t the close clarity of the stars, but Mom pointing out the Milky Way, that gave me the vertiginous feeling of falling into the vast heart of our galaxy. It was not only the place that mattered, but the fact that in that place the family was together and uninterrupted. I’d gone looking for Eden in the places where human fingerprints disappeared, but paradise was empty without the human touch.

Jon Krakauer, in his book “Into the Wild,” writes about Christopher McCandless,  the young American adventurer who (naively and tragically) planned to live alone with a minimum of supplies in the Alaskan wilderness.  His body was found dead of starvation only 4 months later, along with a meticulously kept journal.  In one of his last entries, trapped there as he lay dying in isolation, he scribbled:    “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.”

And Speaking of the Post Office . . .

Back in my hometown, the post office line is 15 deep, and it takes about 20 minutes to take care of whatever postal business one needs taking care of.  Here in rural Maine, business is not exactly booming.  There is no line, but it takes the same 20 minutes, because “N,” the postmistress, has lots to tell you.  It’s rarely relevant to post office business, however.

“N” is great at multi-tasking and like most Yankees, she is thrifty, too.  One time I waited patiently while she had a phone conversation with a girlfriend, while cutting up scrap paper into smaller pieces.  “Just a minute,” she said to her friend on the phone, when she saw me waiting.  But I was wrong to think I would be served anytime soon. “D’ncha just hate it when people print stuff on theyah computah on only one side of the paypah?  What a waste!” she said to me in her thick Maine accent, and she then went back to her phone conversation while tearing up more paper.  When each paper in the stack was finally in fourths, she arranged it all neatly in a pile, and only then said to her friend, “okay, I have to go!” and turned to me.  “I just really needed to get that paypah done!  Now… how can I help you?”

Within four times of visiting our post office to pick up our mail (more about that later), I found out the following:

“N’s” father put all his money into lakeshore farmland back in the days when land was cheap.  They own a few hundred acres of which 550’ is waterfront property on a premier lake – worth big bucks even in today’s floundering economy.

(This is not an uncommon phenomenon in Maine:  people own land that’s been in their family for generations that is worth a fortune, yet they are lucky to be making $20,000 a year and just barely getting by.  Selling off family land is, l’havdil, like asking a 7th generation Yerushalmi to sell you his apartment in Mea Shearim.  Only in the most desperate of situations would he sell – – but it would be to another 7th generation Yerushalmi.)

In his later years, N’s father deeded a portion of the acreage to his daughter, our postmistress, and there she built herself a house of her own.  After her father died, N’s mother couldn’t really manage the farm by herself and alas, the winters were too hard, so N’s mother spends November through May in Florida.  That means N must manage not only her own property, but the family farm as well – when she’s not at work.

N enjoys her independence, and is proud that she is so self-sufficient.  But she realized right away that a simple pickup truck with a plow blade attached would be inadequate to plow her 2000’ long driveway in the winter.  “I saved up for eight ye-ahs, until I had the cash,” she says with pride.  “I did it by not taking off for lunch while I was at work for eight whole ye-ahs.  And finally, after the eight ye-ahs was up, I went out and bought myself one of those big John Deere tractahs.”

I quickly did the calculations in my head.  Three dollars saved a day, multiplied by 5 days a week, is fifteen dollars a week, multiplied by 50 weeks, is seven hundred fifty dollars a year, multiplied by 8 years:  that comes to six thousand dollars by not eating lunch on the weekdays for eight years.

Now, big John Deere tractors do not cost $6000, they cost more like $30,000.  The other thing is that our post office is closed for lunch every day from 12:30 to 1:30.  I wondered if during those eight lunch-less years it remained open?  But Maineahs do not like to be interrupted with petty details, so I let “N” continue:

“Buying that John Deere tractah was the best thing I evah did.  Of course, it didn’t come with any attachments.  So I had to buy the plow blade and snow throwah extra.”

“N” continued to impress.  “I get up at 3:30 a.m. in the pitch dahk and staht plowing because otherwise I won’t make it to work on time.  It takes 2 hours to plow the whole dahn 2000’ feet of driveway . . . and then I staht in at my mom’s place.  Luckily she only has 500’ of driveway to plow.”

The only time she finds plowing challenging is if it snows while she’s at work.  “Then I have to pahk on the road, snowshoe in the two thousand feet, and hope the dahn tractah stahts up so I can plow back to the road so I can get my cah into the garage.”

“N” has been encouraging me to buy a tractor for our driveway, as well.  Not to mention her suggestion that we must buy spare rims for the tires so they’ll be easier to switch out when we replace our current radials with snow tires.  And we’d better make sure that whatever tires we buy are studded, she adds.

Now all of this well-intentioned information, which really sounds like Greek to me, comes by way of a simple question I posed four visits ago:  what are the requirements for me to get a mailbox in front of my house, so I don’t keep having to drive the eight miles to the post office to pick up my mail, and can save on the expense of a rented post office box?  “N” tells me that the only way to know for sure is to place a mailbox somewhere near the driveway, fill out a form to have the mail officially forwarded from my rental PO box to my street address, and then see if the rural mail carrier can deliver it.

In order to put out a mailbox, I have to buy a box, construct a post, dig a hole before the ground freezes with a post-hole digger, and mix cement to fill the hole.  I ask “N” if it wouldn’t be easier to just tell me what the regulations are before I go to all this trouble so I can see if it’s even doable, but she says she doesn’t want to tell me the wrong thing so I had better just go ahead and give it a try.

But, she adds, the rural mail carrier uses her own car to deliver the mail, and she will not climb the driveway or even get out of her car, so I had better be sure that the box is not only at the correct point off the road – “not too fah and not too close” – and that it had better be the correct height, too, so the mail carrier can slip it right from her car window into the mailbox.

I ask what type of vehicle the rural mail lady uses to deliver the mail, because if she has a pickup truck the window will be at a different height than a sedan.  To which she replies that currently, the mail lady has a station wagon, but “come to think of it, she was talking about trading in her cah,” so she can’t be sure of the correct height of the box and anyhow she wouldn’t want to tell me the wrong thing . . .

Unfortunately even the very bottom of our driveway is too steep for the mail lady’s vehicle in winter; and on either side of the driveway’s entrance there is both a ditch and a culvert, so I cannot think of where we might possibly place a mailbox in any case.  That’s when I start to hear about N’s 2000’ long driveway and her John Deere tractor, and a whole lot else.

One day it occurs to me that if the local mail is delivered in the mail carrier’s private vehicle, and she will not get out of the car, then it must be quite a feat to put the mail in the mailbox through the right side of her vehicle.  So on my next visit I ask “N” if the U.S. Post Office pays to have the mail lady’s vehicle altered or adapted to make this process easier, by installing right-side drive.  “Oh, no, they don’t change anything in the cah,” she said.  “Basically, the mail lady sits between the two front seats, with her left foot on the gas and brake pedals, and her right foot on the passenger side.  Her left hand guides the steering wheel, while she leans ovah with her right hand to open the window and stick the mail in the box.”  This is accomplished without stopping while driving down narrow, remote dirt roads that are twisty, icy, and full of ruts!

“Isn’t it kind of uncomfortable sitting between the two front seats, using both pedals with the left foot and steering with the left hand, while stretching to reach out with the right to put mail in the mailbox from the car window?” I ask, incredulous.

“Oh,” N says nonchalantly, “you get used to it.”

Women from Maine are tough!

So for now, I am picking up the mail about two or three times a week from our rented post office box, eight miles away.  I try to make sure it’s on one of those days when the dump is open, because it’s only 1.5 miles further up the road.   Call it multi-tasking.

You Know You’re in Rural Maine When . . .

(click to enlarge)


Although this is not the post office in my little town (population 250 – the town’s population surged when one couple had triplet girls), it could be!

In rural Maine it is not so unusual to find an official US Post Office that also happens to be the place where you buy your beer, your bread, your lottery ticket, your hunting license, worms for your next fishing expedition, and pay your car registration and property taxes!  Gives a whole new meaning to one-stop shopping . . .