Saturday. April 11, 2015.
Just back from the post office where I watched a postal worker turn into a machine right before my eyes.
I’ve seen this happen before. Many times. And not just to postal workers. You’ve seen it too, I’m sure. Postal workers, store clerks, low level functionaries working the counter any place where your needs and interests collide with those of a public or private bureaucracy---all at once a seemingly nice and helpful human being or at least a not overtly hostile one ceases to be nice and helpful and becomes if not overtly hostile maddeningly passive-aggressive and instead of doing what you thought was their job, being of service to you as a customer or client or taxpayer, robotically starts quoting rules that prevent you from getting done there what you came to get done.
I was there to renew my post office box for another six months. Turns out I was a day late. I was supposed to have taken care of this by the close of business at five o’clock yesterday. According to the rules, because I hadn’t paid up on time, my box had been “closed”. If I wanted to re-open it, I would have to pay an extra $21.95 in “handling fees.”
This was annoying but it was also absurd because as she was reciting the rules I realized that whatever bureaucrat up the line had come up with the idea that customers should be penalized for making clerks reopen a closed box and assessed the fee had counted on customers wanting to keep their boxes or, rather, their box numbers---this bureaucrat, no doubt seconded by a committee, figured it would be so much of a pain to notify friends, family, work, creditors, magazine subscription departments, etc. of an address change that customers would willingly pay to save themselves the headache.
But for me it didn’t seem as much of a pain as having to come up with the extra twenty-one ninety-five.
“What if I open a new box?” I asked.
The clerk looked baffled but she recovered quickly and told me that opening a new box would cost forty dollars, the same as renewing the old box would have cost if I’d done it on time. No handling fee.
“Then I’ll open a new box,” I said.
This involved some paperwork, of course, and while I was standing at the counter---leaning on the counter. I want to stress that because it’s going to come into this rant in a minute.---I made the mistake of pointing out the absurdity of the handling fee. More handling was taking place in opening the new box than would have been involved in renewing the old box. This sent her back to reciting the rules again but this time she included an official lecture, basically reminding me of the terms of service which were either not given to me when I opened a box a decade ago or I’d filed away or lost or thrown out but which I was apparently supposed to have memorized just as I was supposed to have the rules memorized and around which I was expected to have arranged my life.
“You had a ten day grace period,” she said, in that flat tone people think disguises the scolding they’re giving you. “You should have come in sooner.”
I told her that I in fact had. I’d come in almost a month ago but the computer was down and of course whoever was working the counter---I don’t think it was her---hadn’t offered to help me by doing things the old fashioned way, with paper and pen, probably because there were rules against it, although opening a new box required filling out paper forms and, as far as I could tell, no immediate use of the computer. Not only had I come in, I said, but I tried to take care of things online a couple of times and the website was down both times.
She only recited the rules again along with the official scolding, making the point again that I should have come in before the deadline.
This is when I lost my temper and here I have to tell you that when I left there it was my intention to write a post on living with a disability and the general lack of awareness on the part of the what Steve Kuusisto calls the temporarily abled---because we are all fragile creatures and we all get injured or sick at some point in our lives and we all get old and our bodies break and break down to the point we’re not able to do what we had just yesterday, it seems, been able to do. We become disabled. And by the way, fuck you, Rand Paul.
The clerk had seen me hobble in with my cane. She’d seen me leaning heavily on it while I was waiting in line. She could see that I was holding myself up by propping myself against the counter.
“You know what?” I said. “I’m in pain. It hurts to stand here. It hurt to walk in. It will hurt to walk out. This is constant. I’m in pain all the time. There are days when I can’t walk father than a few feet at a time. There are days when I can’t stand up. Days I have to spend lying flat on the floor because that’s the only position that doesn’t hurt. Yesterday was one of those days. Don’t look at me and tell me I should have done what I wasn’t physically able to do.”
I tried to keep my voice level but I couldn’t keep the anger out of it. I knew I was being an asshole too. I was breaking one of my own commandments: Try not to make anyone’s day worse than it probably already is. But she was making my day worse and I couldn’t help resenting it. On top of that, though, was what I feel is my responsibility to stand up---so to speak---for others who are disabled. I wasn’t the first and wasn’t going to be the last person with a disability who could not easily follow rules that were written by indifferent bureaucrats working on the assumption that all human beings are the same. I felt I had to tell her off so that maybe in the future she would try not to make other disabled people’s days worse than they almost certainly already were.
But I went on, “Beside that, I have a job, I have a family, I have other responsibilities. I have other things that need to be taken care of and there are only so many hours in a day. I can’t live my life as if the most important thing I have to do is comply with the Post Office’s rules. And that’s true of everybody who comes in here, whether or not they have a disability. We have lives to live. We don’t work for the Post Office. It’s not our job to save the bureaucracy the trouble of actually helping us. I understand there has to be rules. I understand you don’t make them. I understand that you probably don’t have the authority to make exceptions. But that doesn’t mean you get to lecture us on what we should have done and tell us how it’s our own fault you won’t help us.”
If life was a movie, the customers in line around me would have broken into applause.
There were only three other people there and they just stared at me.
I left feeling like a jerk.
I still feel like one.
But I also left with a new address---P.O. Box 1197, New Paltz, NY, 12561. Cards and letters much appreciated.---and a packet full of discount coupons because it’s also a rule that new box holders are treated as if they’ve just moved into the neighborhood and the Post Office is in partnership with businesses who want to help with the move by offering deals on things like new furniture, home repair, cable installation, and home entertainment systems and computers. One of the coupons was from Best Buy and when we apply it to the purchase of Mrs M’s new laptop tomorrow it will offset the cost of my new post office box. In short, instead of getting a handling fee out of me on top of the forty dollars for renewing my old box, the Post Office essentially gave me a new box for free.
How nuts is that?
But that’s really beside the point.
The thing is I do understand that there has to be rules. And I do understand that that clerk doesn’t make the rules and probably doesn’t have the authority to make exceptions. If she hadn’t decided to include the lecture along with explaining the rules I would have grumbled inwardly but kept my mouth shut. And I still wish I had done just that anyway. She could have been more tactful. She could have been more sympathetic. She could have acknowledged my physical problem and offered to find a chair or a stool or even a cardboard box for me to sit on while I filled out the paperwork. She could have been more…human.
But she couldn’t have done the human thing which would have been to waive the rules because it would have cost her her job and her job is to represent the bureaucracy and take care of its interests ahead of those of the customers. Her job, in other words, is to be the face and voice of the machine.
Which makes her part of the machine.
Which is the job of too many people in too many jobs.
When I say there are too many of these jobs I don’t mean that there should be fewer and that people doing them should be laid off. In fact, it bothers me that many of these jobs are being outsourced or are being handled by computers or are being done by one person when they should be being done by two or even three people. I mean that it’s a shame that so many people have to spend their working lives functioning as not much more than parts in a machine.
These jobs don’t pay very well, comparatively. Benefits are often minimal. They confer little status and inspire little respect. They rarely offer opportunity for real advancement. They don’t encourage or reward and in fact penalize individual thought, initiative, and creativity. They mainly put the people who hold them in the position of being adversaries to the public. Most of the day in and day out encounters between the workers who do these jobs and the public are superficial, impersonal, and only perfunctorily polite. Real engagement occurs only when the customer has a problem and the workers aren’t allowed to solve problems on their own. They are only allowed---directed---to make those problems go away as quickly and expeditiously as possible. And in these encounters the poor workers have to take the heat and the blame for the bureaucracy’s indifference and intransigence.
These can be mind-numbing, heart-hardening, and soul-deadening jobs and it’s a wonder that the people who do them manage to find any satisfaction or enjoyment in doing them or take any pride in their work. But they do.
Many do, at any rate.
Intransigent and soulless bureaucracies which function as if their sole purpose was to perpetuate those bureaucracies are as old as civilization and have probably been integral to civilization going back to the days when forms had to be filled out with hieroglyphs.
Can’t think of what to do about this except keep reminding myself to keep the commandment and try not to make anyone’s day worse than it probably already is.