When I moved to Ann Arbor, into an old, leafy families-and-faculty neighborhood south of the University of Michigan campus, I felt like I’d time-traveled into one of those neighborhoods that only seems to exist in political rhetoric: a place where the neighbors hold block parties and screen movies on their lawns in summer. People stopped me on the street to offer dog-sitting services. My boyfriend got lost while running; an old Greek woman drove him home, invited us to dinner, and set him up with a few of her architect friends.
Within a week of moving in, I became acquainted with Mike, the mailman, or as he’s known around the neighborhood, “Mike the mailman.” A 60-year-old man with a round face and round glasses, Mike is friends with everybody, and serves as a sort of unofficial message board for our neighborhood. He recently had surgery after tearing two muscles in his shoulder, and I visited him at his house in Ypsilanti—a lower-income foil to collegiate Ann Arbor—to ask about his convalescence, his job, and the future of the postal service in America.
Jia Tolentino: Mike, how have you been?
Mike The Mailman: I’m doing okay! It’ll be six weeks before I’m back at work, and I start physical therapy tomorrow, which is when the pain will really start. Right now I’m not in too much pain. The drugs they gave me after surgery, they’re just fabulous.
Jia: Did you file this injury to worker’s compensation?
Mike: Oh no, I’m avoiding worker’s comp. I’m using FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act. I learned my lesson about worker’s comp after the last time I got injured at work.
Jia: What happened?
Mike: I’d taken my glasses off—I needed new ones—and a rubber band shot off a packet of letter and cut me right in the eye. My bosses said they’d take care of it, file it for me, but it took about a year and a half to go through. The hospital in Ypsilanti actually banned me from the eye care department because I wouldn’t pay the bills. I have really good credit, and I didn’t want it screwed up.
Jia: Do a lot of people get injured on the job?
Mike: It’s more that the job is so physical that it just wears people down. There are very few carriers over the age of 60, 62. And the ones who are still there are generally on light duty, or have lots of restrictions.
Jia: Was there an incident that caused this injury, or did your shoulder just get worn down over time?
Mike: Well, I’ve always had bad shoulders. It took about five years of carrying mail for my other shoulder to get totally shot. I switched to this one about 15 years ago, and then my son, who does backpacking, showed me that you’re only supposed to carry 10% of your weight on your shoulders. So I used a strap so I could carry the weight on my hips, and that helped.
But now it’s tough, because there are so many parcels! I’ve tried to set up my route so I don’t have to deliver so many parcels, but now there are all of these books and things, and the automated system that delivers flats—our catalogues, etc—organizes things inefficiently.
You’re reaching in and out of your bag seven times for each house, straining your shoulder against the weight of the mail.
Jia: Oh, the books have to be so annoying. Over time, what other changes have you noticed in the physical nature of the mail?
Mike: So, I’ve been doing this for 19 years. First-class mail is definitely down, which is part of our revenue problem. And now bulk mail stuff, it comes in all these bizarre shapes and sizes. Everything used to be more uniform: just letters, postcards. And of course, the books and the Amazon purchases. I once carried 50-pound dumbbells to someone’s door.
Jia: Do you sort of dread the Amazon packages because of the perpetual possibility of having to carry dumbbells and huge cases of diapers and stuff like that?
Mike: Yes, but Amazon is our salvation. Back in the first dot-com craze, UPS and FedEx didn’t want to deal with Amazon, so they came to us. Now online purchases and last-mile deliveries make up so much of our revenue. It works out very well for them: say that they have just one book to deliver in this neighborhood, and it’s not worth their money to deliver it themselves rather than contract it out.
Also, books are still mailed at a media rate, which is a holdover from I don’t know how long ago. Books are delivered at cost, and these private companies can’t compete because they’re just not willing to do anything at cost.
Jia: Yeah. I didn’t realize until recently how cheap our postal service is, compared to other countries! I recently read in an Esquire article that it costs more than twice as much to mail a letter from Tokyo to its suburbs as it does to mail a letter from Seattle to Boston.
Mike: Absolutely. Most Americans that don’t travel don’t ever get the chance to see that we’re the best and cheapest postal service in the world. The other thing most people don’t realize is that most of our losses are just due to pre-funding of benefits. We were already much more pre-funded than the vast majority of companies, and now we’re supposed to have pre-funding 75 years into the future, for people who haven’t even been born yet.
I mean, can you imagine going up to a business person and saying, “About your pension program, we’d like you to pre-fund it to the point that you’ve got money not only for every employee you have currently, but also the next two generations of workers.” And now we’re on the brink of collapse.
What I fear is that the USPS will be privatized and someone will say, “Wow, look, here’s 80 billion dollars just lying around! I am such a great investor!”
Jia: How do you feel about the loss of Saturday delivery service?
Mike: I think that every business needs to be able to change and adapt, but the Postal Service is a tricky case because the law and political interests don’t allow us to implement anything but one-size-fits-all solutions, and of course these don’t always work. I’m actually amazed at the Saturday delivery thing because there are a lot of companies who already want us to deliver on Sundays. People want everything instantly.
But losing Saturday means different things in different places, and this is where I think postal management is at its weakest, not being able to account for this. Take Ann Arbor versus Detroit. In Detroit, the managers tell me that they can fit all their mail for a day in their pouch. They don’t have parcels, because there’s just no income in that city. In contrast, here in Ann Arbor, I handle probably 200 pounds of mail each day.
And when we lose Saturday, my route on Monday is just going to be terrible. Because parcel sorting is going to keep going on Saturday and Sunday too, and the weekend load is really going to pile up. As it is, I can barely get Monday done in under ten hours. I doubt that the post office is going to change our routes to help us out with the additional volume.
Jia: How’d you end up working for USPS?
Mike: When I was a kid, I actually wanted to be in the automobile industry. I went to college for automotive marketing. But I sort of woke up one morning like “Oh gee. The people who own dealerships are kids whose dads own dealerships,” and suddenly it seemed much more difficult to break into the industry.
So I did this whole schmoo of management jobs, mostly in restaurants. I was good at it, but I got to be 35 and said, “Hmm, I need something with a pension.” And I had never had the type of personality to be comfortable going up to my boss and saying, “Listen, I need more money here.” That’s where the unionism of the postal service appealed to me. Someone would be doing that for me: someone would be going up to a higher-up and saying, “These people deserve decent money and benefits.”
Jia: How much do USPS pay and benefits vary from place to place?
Mike: This too is a one-size-fits-all thing, except in places like New York City, where they get paid at a higher rate. And I know the rural carriers have a separate union, and I think that in some cases, rural carriers don’t qualify for a pension, just a paycheck.
Generally, in rural areas, it’s a different ballgame. I’ve heard of rural carriers getting killed just so the next person in line could get the job. If you’re in a place where your choices are 1) work for the government 2) work a tourist job 4 months a year or 3) be unemployed, this job starts to look pretty attractive.
There are also different ways of being employed by the postal service. You can be temporary or part-time flexible for years. I had just switched to full time when I got custody of my son, and the judge said, “How are you going to take care of your son now that you’re working full time?” I said, “Now that I’m full time, I only have to work 50 hours a week—when I was part time, I worked 65!”
Jia: Do you think mailmen get paid enough?
Mike: Once a year we fill out a survey, and that’s always one of the questions, but they used to deploy it against us, like, “Look at how many people think that their pay is fine!” So now we don’t fill that question out.
Hmm. Do we make enough money? I would say that, in the grand scheme of things—in terms of the middle class taking such a hit over the last few decades, in terms of the net worth of six members of the Walton family being equivalent to the net worth of the bottom 30% of America ten years ago, and the bottom 41% of America today—the answer is no. I don’t have the financial freedom that my parents did. I don’t have the ability to go on vacations, because I need to get this house paid off.
I have a niece who’s a physician, and she’s just barely in the 1%, and she was telling me, “I can’t believe the taxes I have to pay,” and I was just thinking, “Okay, so you’re telling me you have to cut short your vacation in Greece from two weeks to one week because of these taxes, and you’re buying a Lexus because it was ‘only’ $8,000 more than a Toyota. And even though your dad was blue-collar, it’s all escaped you. You’re thinking like a one-percenter now.”
But my to-do is not with her, these people that make $350,000 a year. It’s with the Walton family, which has billions in their back pocket, while so many of their employees are on some sort of federal aid because they can’t afford to live. If I was getting the wage increases that used to happen in my parents’ time, I’d be making something closer to $90,000, rather than $55,000, which is what I make now.
Jia: Do you hang out with your coworkers?
Mike: Well, it’s hard because everyone gets off at a different time, and our one haunt—the Stadium Tavern—got turned into a bank. And I wouldn’t say that mail carriers are loners necessarily, but when you get done with your route you just want to go home, and none of the mail carriers own a house in Ann Arbor. It’s so expensive! This neighborhood I live in is very similar to yours, but it’s probably $250,000 cheaper to get a house here.
Jia: How often have you seen a weather cancellation of delivery service?
Mike: Not once in my 19 years!
Jia: Are you serious?
Mike: Right before I started, they cancelled a day of delivery because there was a terrible cold snap, to the point where people’s hands just didn’t work. Maybe they cancelled delivery during the blizzard of ’78, I’m not sure.
Jia: Does it add hours on to your route when you deliver in the snow?
Mike: It does add time, mostly because there are more safety issues. You have to be careful that the snow isn’t hiding a big patch of clear ice. But it actually doesn’t feel that cold, because you’re moving constantly, and clothing has gotten so high-tech. I can’t imagine how they used to do it without Gore-Tex.
My biggest problem during the snowy season is eating enough. I climb the equivalent of 100 flights of stairs every day because of the old 1920’s buildings on my route, and I think I walk around 7 miles. In past years I’ve gotten down to 125 pounds doing the route in winter. So I try to eat 3,000, maybe 4,000 calories—but it’s sort of hard to do that. I literally get tired of chewing.
Jia: What determines a good or bad day at work?
Mike: Volume, mostly. Things that are hard to grab with your gloves on, hard to fit through mail slots. And my least favorite season to deliver in is this one—January through March.
But my favorite time to work is the period just before Christmas, because the post office automatically cuts off all the catalogues, so your load is lighter, and kids are so excited about packages: they see you at the door and they’re screaming, “It’s a package from Auntie Grizelda!”
Jia: What’s it like to be able to see what’s happening with people in your neighborhoods? You get to see the unpaid bills, the college acceptances, the magazine subscriptions, all of it.
Mike: Well, sometimes I get preconceptions of people and end up to be totally wrong, but I have to say that—now that I know most everyone on the route—generally, I end up being right. You can tell a lot about a person from their mail.
What I don’t like seeing are the houses that have Republican stickers all over their cars, signs in their yards, and then you deliver their mail and see that they don’t pay their bills, that they belong to all these country clubs, buy tickets to all these events. And their lack of personal responsibility compared to their political rhetoric is just infuriating.
I’ve also seen that, when we do food drives, the lower-income areas are the ones who clean out their fairly empty larders to give food to people who have even less than them. And then you go past all the big houses with the Republican signs out front and you get nothing. Maybe once a year you get a box of macaroni.
It really reminds me that people who’ve had it tough, they know, they understand. They understand that this brouhaha that we’re still getting fed every day—“I work harder than you and that’s why I make so much more money and I deserve to keep every penny I have”—is just not true. The people who lived through the Great Depression understood this, and I truly believe that their understanding of poverty and the resulting spirit of community made America the great nation that it became.
Jia: Everyone in our neighborhood calls you “Mike the mailman.” Do you think of yourself as Mike the mailman when you’re off the job?
Mike: Well, I’m not Mike the mailman at home, but I do see myself as a sort of catalyst for the community. I meet the new people who move in first, and I can tell them if other people might be interested in meeting them, if other people have kids their age. There are some people I check in on, like this elderly gentleman who lives alone. He’s always doing his thing—on Tuesday he dusts—but I just think it’s important that someone’s looking out for him.
And the neighborhood has been so sweet to me after this surgery. I’ve been getting a lot of emails.
Jia: Do you think that this sort of relationship between mail carriers and community members is common?
Mike: In Ann Arbor, sure. In the neighborhoods with old houses and porches. But once you get into the suburban areas, it all changes. People drive straight into their garage, close the door, turn on the heat, and seal themselves in.
Jia: If the postal service does end up privatized, what would happen to your job?
Mike: I’m not sure it would exist in the same way at all. They’d probably set up cluster boxes, which is where everyone just walks to a box to pick up their mail, and they never see their mailman at all.
Of course this is a situation that, for some people, would not be a problem. In the Boy Scout troop I work with, there are just so many conservative parents, conservative kids, who truly believe that government is bad no matter what. That we should cut, cut, cut it. And that includes, I guess, the postal service.
Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor.