A few weeks ago I found myself in the post office, standing in line.
There were only about a dozen of us, but we were not moving. There were two clerks working the desk, but neither of them seemed concerned with us in the slightest. One of them appeared to be in his sixties, with a mustache that exploded from his nose, a shotgun blast that ended well below his top lip, curling into his mouth and covering his teeth. He was awkwardly flirting with a woman that appeared to be about his age, and who appeared to be enjoying it very much.
The other clerk was helping a couple get a passport, or something very official like that, and it wasn’t going well. They were at the desk for the better part of July.
It was hot in that post office, the kind of hot that makes you angry. The woman directly behind me was wearing a bright pink tank top that was too big, and shoes that seemed too small. She kept sighing and looking around, unable to contain her frustration. Her lanky hair framed a face that might have been pretty once, in her youthful days, before being forced to stand in that dreadful line.
I scanned the walls. Someone had designed an overly large stamp display, with Elvis’ face staring down at us. It wasn’t his young, lean face; it was his older, bloated face, the one framed by the overly large white, bedazzled collar. It was the tired face, the one that had had enough. The one with the eyes that couldn’t look you in the face anymore.
It was perfect for that post office.
As we inched forward, none of us spoke. I noticed an older woman in line who was holding a tiny dog, who couldn’t have weighed more than three pounds. She was holding him impossibly high, so that its nose was nearly touching her nose. She kept whispering to this dog, comforting it, and I kept wondering how it was that she was holding him so high. Her arms must be aching, I kept thinking. Then I wondered about this woman, this woman with the tiny dog who accompanied her through dreadfully long post office lines. Where else did he go with her? To church? To the grocery store? To the race track? To the bathroom?
The air in the post office was worn out and used up. Like us, it wasn’t going anywhere. We shared it, consumed it, and regurgitated it, only to consume it again.
We all silently celebrated our birthdays in that line, it was so long.
When I finally made it to the desk, the man with the shotgun mustache greeted me (oddly, he didn’t even attempt to flirt with me). I needed to get into the PO Box that we use for our church, but I had forgotten my key. I figured if I showed him my I.D., he could walk “back there” and get my mail.
“Can’t do it,” he barked, without any hint of solace.
“You can’t walk back there and grab my mail for me?” It seemed a small price to pay for the several years that I spent in that line.
“Federal law. We can’t hand customers their mail over the counter.” That seemed odd for a post office, I thought to myself. He looked down at me, and I’m not sure, but he seemed to be enjoying this as much as he was enjoying flirting with the woman earlier.
“So I can’t get my mail today?” I can be persistent.
“Federal law.” He then looked past me toward the next person in line. My moment was over. I would not be getting my mail that day, or any day after that, without my key.
And so I walked out of that post office, and I thought about that woman with the tiny dog. I wondered where that couple was going, and whether they’d ever get that passport. I wondered if that woman in the pink tank top ever put those tired feet up, and I wondered if there was anyone in her life that might rub them.
What a beautiful, fascinating world.
Writers: Writing is first of all about seeing. If you do not know how to see, you will not know how to write. Learn to look around. When you’re in line, when you’re driving to work, when you’re bored in a meeting, what do you see?
Write about what you see. Notice the red rimmed eyes and the aching feet. Notice the tiny dogs and the women who love them. Tell us stories of old men with shotgun mustaches and the women with whom they flirt. Remind us that ours is a beautiful story, even when we are stuck in lines and we’re not moving anywhere. Help us to meet each other, and to be less lonely.
Don’t tell us what to do. Don’t write about the used up things. Don’t regurgitate.
Write about what you see. We want to see it, too.