I pulled up in front of my local Post Office at 7:45 a.m. I wanted to be at or near the front of the waiting line when it opened at 8:00 on this Saturday morning. I had debated in my mind about whether I should risk going out in public after the “Stay at Home” order issued by our governor, Janet Mills, on April 1st. Could I consider this errand something urgent and essential, or was I putting myself at risk unnecessarily to mail this small package to my friend in Cambridge, MA?
My friend is very ill. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance the week before COVID-19 exploded in Boston, so near to death that the emergency room staff placed her on life support. When extubated a week later, it was a miracle she began breathing on her own and, within a few days, was discharged home. During her hospitalization, someone stole the watch I had given her for her birthday. She was heartsick at its loss. Over the phone, I promised her I would give her another one just like it, and this morning I was venturing out to put the new watch in the mail. Why, my significant other asked, was I risking going out in public now, instead of waiting until the pandemic winds down? I fear my friend is near death, and I want her to know how much I care for her. The watch is a symbol of that care.
When I arrived at the PO, a postal worker was struggling to raise the US and MIA flags on the pole in front of the building. She was wearing a mask and a latex glove on her right hand. She complained that wearing a mask is difficult if you also wear glasses because they fog up. She had a hard time seeing to hoist the flags. I commiserated. I was not wearing a mask, but I do wear glasses, so I am well aware of the phenomenon.
Another senior citizen stood in front of me at the door. We were careful to say six feet apart, but we chatted pleasantly for a few seconds and then began exclaiming at the horror of the Coronavirus pandemic. As we waited in the lobby for the inner doors to open, the flag hoister emerged from some inner sanctum with a roll of paper towel and a spray bottle of cleaner (sanitizer, I presume.) She commented that the PO was not able to provide any disinfectants, so she was bringing her supplies from home to clean the door handles and counters as best she could. I thanked her warmly for her service and said I appreciated her efforts to keep us safe.
A few others entered the lobby. Two men wore face masks. The one six feet behind me had a neat diamond-shaped mask that covered his nose and chin with the upper and lower points of the diamond and fit snuggly to his cheeks. I thought this looked particularly effective and asked him where he had found it. “China,” he said. “We know people in China, and they sent us a supply. I am here to mail some to friends and family. I’d better not broadcast that, though. Someone might steal the package. Imagine, we are getting this stuff from China!”
At exactly 8:00 a.m., a male postal worker opened the inner door and invited us to approach the counter. He wore a brightly colored and patterned face mask that was hand made. I noticed there were bright yellow stripes on the floor to indicate where to stand on line keeping the prescribed distance from other customers.
While the woman at the front of the line mailed her parcel, I looked around at the sales counter. A plastic barrier, held in place by blue painter’s tape, rose from the counter to the ceiling. Small openings were cut in the plastic wall to allow for the passing of boxes and envelopes. It certainly looked jerry-rigged to me, as if postal clerks had assembled it in a hurry with scraps of materials at hand. I supposed it would be minimally effective in protecting the workers behind it.
When it was my turn to approach the counter, the clerk apologized for the wait. I assured him there was no problem. He asked the usual questions about my parcel: “Anything liquid, fragile, perishable…any lithium batteries?” I owned up to the watch and the possibility of a lithium battery in it, but that was not problematic, he assured me. Then he asked new questions: “Any hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes?” I said, “No,” but wondered what would have happened if I had said yes. He was all business, trying to keep the line moving, so I dared not ask. Are there penalties for attempting to mail our new “contraband” across state lines? My parcel was not big enough to contain toilet paper, so he did not inquire about that.
The dreaded moment came when I was required to insert my credit card into the machine. How I wished I had worn latex gloves! I had a small package of 10 at home that I had purchased a while ago for use while housecleaning. They, too, are contraband now, along with masks and anything that sanitizes.
Transaction complete, I thanked the clerk profusely and exited quickly. I did not return my credit card to my wallet. When I reached the car, I pulled a small bottle of hand sanitizer from my pocket and rubbed it on my hands before touching the door handle or the steering wheel. When I arrived home, I carefully wiped off my wallet, my credit card, the car keys, and the doorknobs.
I told my spouse about the experience. I wondered at the Federal Government’s decree that Post Offices provide an essential service and must, therefore, stay open, while leaving the postal workers to fend for themselves and improvise as best they can to protect themselves and their customers.
“It’s a crazy world out there!” we seniors say to each other as we pass on our campus streets, breathing fresh air through improvised masks, and feeling relatively safe. Next time I venture into that crazy world (not any time soon, I hope), I will wear a face mask (we have those blue industrial ones used for woodworking) and two of my precious stash of latex gloves.