Mar 242012

11 June 2011

How to post a letter

Here, friends, is the scene one might expect to find in New York City.

Strolling through Washington Park last night in the cooling summer breeze, after a disappointingly small and bland but conceptually elaborate poached prawn gnocchi, voila!

A man with a baby grand tinkling the ivories like he is Son of Gershwin and an old, old woman standing crooked and watching, mesmerised.

It was a beautiful evening. People sitting around the idle waters of the fountain, spread out on rugs and deck chairs, chatting, watchingthe French movie beamed onto the screen installed below the Washington Arch, built to commemorate George’s twin career peaks – general and president.

Or perhaps that ought to be capitalised: General and President.

I am in the greatest city on earth, among 8 million people who drive the modern world, elevate its ideals and dictate its fancies.

Yet I am among the ground dwellers and yesterday in Brooklyn, looking for a post office, I had the fleeting thought that this country, at least as I’ve experienced it in New York City, is dangerously close to third world.

That is an exaggeration, of course. But it is a long way from the sophisticated first world society I imagined it to be. Down here on the ground.

It all started in the Fedex office, where I was printing some documents and sending the book to a publisher in Georgia. What would take me 10 minutes at home takes me two hours and so much money I may as well buy a printer. That is a small part of this story. Because after all that, and standing in line, I forgot Fedex doesn’t do post boxes.

So I go looking for a post office.

No one knows where it is.

Then I see a man with parcels.

‘There’s a man who knows where the post office is,’ I grin as he realises that yes, I am talking to him.

The building is big and grey and beautifully old and, trussed up like a Christmas chicken, is a long way from its halcyon days.

I’m standing in line when I hear the following conversation.

Woman in 20s to post office assistant who is patrolling the queue to make sure we have what we need before we get to the counter:  ‘How many stamps do I put on this parcel?’

Patrol woman:  ‘How many did you buy?’

Woman in 20s:  ‘I’m not sure.’

Patrol woman starts to add up her stamps.


Woman in 20s:  ‘I’m sorry, I’ve just never had to do this before.’

Patrol woman, suddenly empathetic: ‘Oh that’s okay, I have a daughter your age and . . . ‘.

Women in their 20s who have never had reason to buy stamps? Or post a letter?

There are two things a parent has a responsibility to teach, a child’s basic survival kit if you like: how to read, write and add up – literacy – and how to swim. I’m adding ‘how to post a letter’.

I’ve heard this said before – Americans are kind, simple folk. Here on the ground, they most certainly are.

Hey! I’m off to Washington DC.

I have a train ticket for Monday, down and back in a day.

I feel like Lisa Simpson off to visit the Lincoln Memorial. Apparently a few older kids got arrested the other day for dancing there.

Memo to Self:  No Dancing At the Lincoln Memorial.

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