He woke up five minutes before the 5:30 a.m. alarm buzzed its annoying buzz. It was still dark. On autopilot, the letter carrier went down to the kitchen, made himself a cup of instant coffee, which he liked despite the eye-rolling his daughter always aimed at it, and toasted a piece of bread for his usual breakfast. He got dressed in his postal service mail carrier uniform, which his daughter did approve of since everything matched and, looking sharp, headed to work to get there at 7:00 a.m.
He liked all the parts of his job. The first thing he did when he got to his desk was to rack the mail. Large bags of mail were dumped on his desk, which he then put into slots or pigeon holes in a large wooden wall system, for each address on his route. He then took out each address, put a rubber band around it, and packed them into his leather bag.
Around 9:00 a.m. he headed out to deliver his route. He took the small Jeep, a tidy little vehicle with just a driver’s seat and an empty back for the mail. The Jeep was invented in World War II for the army and it still served proudly. Out in the sunshine, tooling along in the fresh air, what could be better than this? He loved his routine and its sense of freedom. One of the things he liked to do was read the Smithsonian magazines while on his coffee break. He took care not to bend them, so the subscriber never knew when he finally delivered them.
When it was lunchtime, he’d park the Jeep somewhere, eat the sandwich that his wife had lovingly packed for him, top it off with his daily apple, and head to the library. He was so efficient at his job that he often finished his route early and had time to kill. Otherwise, if his crabby boss found out he had extra time in his day, he would assign some onerous duty like special deliveries, so he needed a place to hide for an hour or so. No one ever thinks of looking for you in the library, he chuckled to himself.
The library was his favorite place to accomplish this. Plus he could sit there in the quiet and read the daily newspapers without his kids yelling and carrying on or his wife telling him what had broken that day. It was his oasis, despite the stern librarian at the desk, who often gave him what he called the “stink eye” for no reason that he could discern. He thought her strict demeanor, boxy skirt suits, chunky heels, and cat glasses were a true cartoon representation of a librarian.
This particular day, he went to his usual table in the small branch library in the south end of this factory town in which he lived. It was not a fancy library like the gargoyle-appointed gothic recreation up there in Quincy or even the Andrew Carnegie-funded main library downtown. The downtown library was an architectural gem, with marble floors, beautiful woodwork and mouldings, and stacks for the reference books. He liked to visit that one sometimes but this simple branch library was fine for extended lunch hours, plus it was on his route.
As the letter carrier sat down he was instantly joined at the table, to his chagrin, by a shabby old man. The old man was wearing a worn brown suit, a shirt whose collar was frayed beyond respectability, and a wide brown and orange silk tie in some kind of Picasso print. He smelled of mothballs. He was carrying a paper grocery bag that also looked well worn. Even as the letter carrier took all this in, he noticed the old man’s shoes. They were dark brown leather wingtips, with a marine’s shine and in perfect repair. The shoes’ excellent condition was jarring when compared to the rest of the man’s wardrobe.
The letter carrier tried to read his newspaper but the shuffling and throat clearing by the old man caused him to read the same paragraph over and over.
“Mr. Postman, what time is it?” the old man asked in his raspy voice.
“Uh, it’s 1:00 p.m.,” the letter carrier said without looking up.
“Grazie. Er, thanks.”
The stink eye from the stern librarian was already in operation as she turned her head towards them like a hawk and surveyed them. The old man and the letter carrier took no notice. The letter carrier tried to go back to his newspaper.
“Mr. Postman, what do you think of the presidential election?”
“Who do you think will win?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really follow politics. I’ll just vote for whoever the Democrat is.”
“Yeah, yeah, good boy.”
The librarian shushed them at this point. Again, the two men took no notice of her.
“Mr. Postman, do you have a cigarette I can bum off ya?”
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“Have any gum? My mouth is awful dry.”
Letter carrier fished around in the pockets of his crisp blue uniform and found a stick of gum, which he offered to the old man. He went again to the front page of the paper, as that was as far as he had gotten in his reading.
“Mr. Postman, do you have anything to eat? I haven’t eaten in two days.”
The letter carrier was taken aback by this sad statement and lowered his newspaper.
“Sir, have you tried the food pantry? Maybe they could help you.”
“No, no. Maybe I should try that. Where are they?”
“They’re located at—“
The librarian stomped over to their table and told them to keep it down. The men thought this was excessive, as they could see that they were the only people in the library.
She continued, “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll have to ask you both to leave,” she said imperiously and with a straightening of her ample shoulders, she marched back to her desk, her chunky heels reporting loudly on the linoleum as an affirmation of her power.
“Maybe I’ll just leave now since no one will help me,” said the frustrated old man to no one in particular and he got up, grabbed his paper bag of whatever, and walked dejectedly to the door. The letter carrier watched him leave, grateful that this worn-out man smelling of mothballs was finally leaving him in peace. At the same time, though, he felt guilty. Maybe that would be him someday. Sure, he was a fit 37 years old with half his life ahead of him now, but the old man was 37 years old once, too.
Letter carrier folded up the newspaper and put it back on the rack, grabbed his mailbag, and caught up with the old man as he got outside.
“Sir, the food pantry is actually on my mail route, just two blocks from here.” Something was nagging at him. The old man seemed familiar.
“What’s your name?” asked the letter carrier.
“Leone. Raymond Leone. I used to work in the shoe factories in this town. I come from Italy where I was a shoemaker.”
“Did you know my dad—Michael? He worked in the Knapp factory before he started his own shoe shop.”
“Yes, Mr. Postman, I did. I thought you looked familiar, only all grown up now. You’re Jon, right?”
“Yes. You’re the man who lent my dad the $1,000 he needed to start his own shoe repair shop, right?” said the letter carrier.
“Yes, I am. And your papa paid me back in only a year. Good man, your papa.”
“That changed our life. Thanks so much for helping him at a time when he really needed it. Why don’t you walk with me to the food pantry? It’s my next delivery. I know a woman there in social services who can probably help you out.”
The two men walked down the street together, two individuals who came together at random times in their lives to help each other out.
# END #