There are several times in our lives that we feel invisible. At the starting line of a large marathon and at the finish with people whizzing past every second or so. Another of these times is when we are unemployed against our will. Someday astronomers will discover a former black hole that has become plugged up with poetry submissions, resumes, promises and good intentions. I remember waiting to set the date of my second marriage because of this exact problem. I had found a part-time gig servicing gas furnaces and it barely paid the bills on my small suite in the third floor of an old house on 48th and Fraser in Vancouver. I had just left a $100 a month rooming house and my Texas grandma had paid my first months rent after resorting to tears when I initially refused her gift.
The landlord was a German man who was divorced and worked at the TRIUMF facility at UBC making mesons with Teutonic precision. He also calibrated rifle scopes by mail-order for a sideline. He was a jolly, arrogant fellow and for awhile we enjoyed a sort of father/son relationship. The suite I occupied was simple and the only draw-back was that the house was so old that the four-footer tub was down a common hall and the toilet was in a closet that was shared with another guy who lived in the loft.
This young Englishman was an alcoholic and many were the times I heard him crash to a heap on the long staircase in the wee hours. As I assisted him to his door I would be treated to the repeated story of how his relatives were related to the royal family and that through some complex turn of events had been cheated out of their proper place in the Peerage. When sober he was quite polite and when in his cups he was just like the Man Who Would Be King's unfortunate cohort.
One morning I heard a cacophony. There were drums, loudspeakers and thousands of voices singing and chanting in Punjabi. I went to my small balcony which commanded a view directly South down St. George St. to 49th Ave. There exactly between the Buddhist Temple and the Kingdom Hall a mere hundred yards from the old house Jimmy Pattison had lived in as a boy, I saw my first Vaisaki Parade. At the time it was the largest crowd of people I had ever seen outdoors except for one of Willie Nelson's three day concerts in Texas. As I watched the long procession, the noise caused several mice to scurry from the living room to the back bedroom.
In the basement, underneath the main floor where the owner lived, was a young junkie. He was affectionately called Schmedrich by the German. His rent was paid by the Welfare Department directly to the landlord and he spent ninety percent of his time nodding off. The other ten percent was spent tapping his foot and heating up Kraft dinners on an old hot-plate. Once, the boss was away in Germany and the wispy boy had accidentally locked himself out and away from his next hit. My fiancee was at my place and I was at work.
I received a distressed phone call a from her that he had run amok, so I returned home immediately. When I got there he was calmly sitting in his chair by the door, nodding off. When roused he told me that my fiancee had refused to use the master key I had been given to let him in to his suite, so he had smashed out the window. I couldn't blame my gal nor could I fault the poor addict, who mentioned that he had also left his hot-plate burning and was worried for fire as well as for his dose. Two days later, a pipe burst in the ceiling of the landlord's suite and I had to rip out a huge section of gyp-rock to patch the pipe. It was summer and we patched up the window with plastic.
I was at a service call some time later and in a basement sipping coffee with a nice old man as we stared at the zillion pieces of his furnace spread out on the concrete. I was giving the burners a thorough wire-brushing and cleaning all the jets when the phone rang. The man went up to get the phone and my jaw dropped when he said it was for me. I took the phone in my sooty paw.
It was Canada Post and they wanted to know if I could proceed downtown to take a driving course and test. I had been out of real gainful employ for eighteen months and had soaked the universe in resumes during that entire time. As I rushed out the door, I promised the old fellow that I would return to reassemble his furnace later that day or night but I could not say when. I had important business and we shook on it.
I passed the test and returned to rebuild the furnace that late afternoon. The old guy had never doubted me and they don't make 'em like that anymore. He was overjoyed at my happiness and we had another coffee while I talked of my pending marriage and the family I would start soon. It was dark when I left and Autumn winds had piled a foot of yellow leaves along the curb. I was feeling good and I gave them a kick.
When I checked my mailbox, I had a letter from the Vancouver City Police. It was an order to appear at 5:30 AM at a building in the PNE complex for orientation, if I wanted a career as a cop. After a year and a half of fruitless, desperate job hunting I now had hours to decide the next thirty years of my life. I rolled a smoke and sat on the back balcony where I kept the Bonsai trees I had raised from seed. I had worked a small job with the Police to re-qualify for Unemployment Benefits and thus had spoken to many of these men. All of them had told me that their work placed a heavy strain on any marriage and to be fair warned. My up-coming marriage was inter-racial and we had all the strain we needed. I decided on being a mailman within two smokes.
I went for mailman school and passed with a hundred percent score. I went for on the job Letter Carrier training on the South Slope delivering many letters from India to the sons and daughters of the old saw-mill workers who had bought up the abodes facing the river there around the Blue Boy Hotel. My teacher was a young, capable and patient woman. I was winded after thirty minutes but I wanted my future with all my heart. I set the marriage date for three days after getting the job and announced this to my friends, relatives and new in-laws. For many months before I had wrangled with priests of every Christian denomination in the Yellow Pages and every single one of them had refused to do the ceremony due to my having been divorced and for not actively attending any church.
The last place I had tried was a Salvation Army on Lonsdale in North Vancouver. After I told the Major my story, he agreed to preside over the union if I agreed to take a pre-marital course offered by his church. We had already been to several meetings and I remember sitting in the parking lot listening to the bitter verbal fights of the other participants as they strode to their vehicles after class. Apparently young couples do not spend any time discussing their religious views, their child rearing opinions, their financial theories and such like. Of course they don't, they are too busy kissing and that kind of talk would make a river run backwards. In some parts of Louisiana a couple can place a broom over the doorstep of a house and jump over it in the presence of their friends and family and they are as married as any wine glass smashing dandies. We were wed in a lovely ceremony in a Heritage Park in Burnaby amongst a reconstructed nineteenth century town.
Soon, a Safe Driver Course and second driving test was ordered. This was because a Courier job had opened up. It wasn't what I had applied for but it was a start. I wanted to walk. I attended and after the class I was told that I alone had failed. I asked why. I was told that I hadn't committed any error but someone had to fail in each class for statistical purposes so the man had decided to write me up as having been too careful and thus too slow.
My appeals fell on the deaf ears of a “just business” kind of guy. I asked what was to become of me and was informed that the driving tester did not know. I asked if I was fired already and was answered in a vague manner that left equal tastes of doubt and hope on my tongue. Burdened with unbearable anger, sorrow and confusion, I limped on in to my Headquarters. I rolled a smoke and asked the mice not to tell my wife just yet.
I went early the next morning to the Post Office and asked around for the head of Letter Carrier Personnel. He turned out to be a big, gruff Ernest Borgnine lookalike. I told him my predicament. He was an ex-Navy man and he asked only one question. He asked what job I had applied for in the first place. I told him I had applied for Letter Carrier. He smashed a hairy fist on his oak desk and caused me and the phone to jump in unison. He grabbed the receiver and dialed upstairs. I won't repeat his language but it would have stripped the paint off a battleship. After some heated oration, he cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and asked me in the friendliest tone where I lived. I told him on 48th near Fraser. He grinned, ranted into the phone and hung up hard.
He shook my hand, smiled and said, “Mike, you are a Letter Carrier and your home base is Station O on 47th and Fraser. Congratulations, son. Go see Bill at 6 AM.”
“Thank you Sir. I am mighty grateful and I won't let you down.”
Buoyed with unbearable relief, happiness and hope, I floated on in to my Headquarters. I couldn't wait to share the news with my beloved. I checked my mailbox and there was a letter from Victoria. It told me that my driver's license had been suspended for six months due to too many speeding tickets. At this point I couldn't tell if I was drilled, punched, bored or screwed. I told the mice not to worry just yet. I can't remember what I told my wife. I made a mental note to re-read the myth of Sisyphus.
The next morning I walked the several blocks to Station O and met the Boss, an old-time fiddler named Bill. He gave me a copy of an album of fiddle tunes he and some musical friends of his had recorded for the Haney Old Time Fiddlers Association after I told him I was a guitar picker from Texas. His desk stood on a little raised platform so he could view the entire show and no one was allowed up there other than he or his assistant. When I told him of the six month driving prohibition, he took my Vehicle Operators Permit and called me up to his desk. He slid open a little drawer and hid it under some papers and told me that I was allowed to go in and retrieve it in six months time. Meanwhile he would see that I was only scheduled for foot walks. He retired and subsequently died before the time was up and I cried tears of gratitude when I retrieved my card that Spring.
I worked overtime daily for three years and bought a mortgage. I was blessed with my first son. I fixed up the house and was divorced five years later. That is another story but thus went the first few years of my career as a Letter Carrier. The years pull one downstream like a log in a river and the currents do the rest. I re-married and was blessed with my second son. Towards the middle of my career, I wondered what my last days at the Post Office would be like. Around forty years of age, I experienced that old invisibility again that I mentioned earlier.
A co-worker who was several years older, educated me to the phenomenon. It turns out, he said, that in our current culture, once a person reaches over forty years of age they disappear. No one notices you when you show up to work each morning and when you look at a recent photo of yourself at that time and compare it with a photo from when you began to carry letters, it is easy to see why. It is a bit hard on the ego and with more birthdays something worse is yet to come. Near fifty you again become visible to the people you work with but this time as an old person. Your Elvis has left the building, he is still the King and you are now his grandfather.
Your own children will cause you to experience invisibility yet again during the time I mention. It is a tricky road indeed. One thing that helped me was realizing early on that young people learn from actions more than from words. This becomes evident to the youngsters when they experience the phenomenon of feeling like they are becoming their parents as they mature. Mammals learn by mimicry and the unspoken lessons of their parents are the strongest and subsequently rise to the surface after the veneer of acquired attitudes and habits is worn away by the sturm und drang of life. The lesson here is the importance of setting examples even when to all outward senses you are being totally ignored. You are being watched intently in reality.
When I reached my final few days at Canada Post, there were people I had worked beside for thirty years in the building but most of those immediately physically near me at that time in my work row were very much younger and some but not all I only knew by their first names. We call each other row-mates and that may sound like a prison term but it probably does have some parallels to the dynamics within any set of walls occupied by groups of humans for long durations. Some people who served as mentors, guides and friends along the way were already retired or passed away and I hope to describe them in future stories. They have my everlasting thanks for their wisdom, encouragement and inexplicable interest in my life.
It is common to talk of food and other topics during the morning sort. I remember waxing forth in my last year, describing a gumbo I was making for visiting friends from Texas. Unable to get enough oysters and fresh crab, I had found a good affordable supply of frog meat to supplement the magic broth. My wife and I made forty quarts. This led to discussing Southern cuisine. This in turn led to my discussing my grandma's cooking. During my last two years it had been my custom to play MP3s of my favorite tunes while processing my flyers each afternoon. It was a mix of Seventies, World and Southern music for the most part with some eclectic items sprinkled in. One of my favorites was a twenty-one minute live version of Whipping Post by The Allman Brothers Band.
On my very last Friday, after thirty years carrying mail, I strode into my aisle. It was the 1,440th time I had done so, give or take. My row-mates burst into singing He's A Jolly Good Fellow. I turned red and waited it out. My emotions were running as high as my German and Swedish blood would allow. The Irishman and Welshman within were composing poems and sobbing and my Inner Cherokee was struck dumb. I could smell something that reminded me of my dear old grandma and all the guys were smiling at me in the weirdest fashion. I couldn't take my eyes off of them.
Presently, one young man who worked just behind me spoke. He asked me to lower my gaze a few feet. When I did, I saw a cart with a massive slow-cooked-fall-off-the-bone pot roast, rich gravy still steaming, carrots, roasted potatoes and onions, butter and bread and all the trimmings you would find on the best Southern table. The fellow smiled like a Bodhisattva and reminded me that I had talked about those very dishes as being my favorites one morning weeks before, unaware of what was up. Turns out he had personally cooked the whole shebang and was up all night doing it. I didn't even know the man's last name and had never been to his house.
Another young man, who worked just beside me a few feet to my left punched up a MP3 player he had rigged and as the first bars of Whipping Post wailed through the early morning carried on a beef and gravy breeze, he handed me a big chunk of banana bread he had made himself. He had been listening to and monitoring which songs I had played years before we were row-mates and I had scarcely known him. He had sat up all night searching out the play list and I couldn't have chosen any better than he had done. My spirit was sitting in my grandma's kitchen two thousand miles away and introducing her to my new young friends.
The man who had cooked the pot roast gave me the remainder to take home for the weekend. I had already moved most of my things upriver and my place was empty save for my computer and a few pots and blankets. On the strength of that delicious roast, I was able to complete the first set of these Bobcat Logic recordings and burn the first copies to give to those dear people on Monday morning.
During the final three days of the job, a young woman whom I had worked beside during my last two years, was covering the desk to my right and like an angel she helped me make my sort on time. She had learned more about me in those last months than anyone is likely to learn beyond whatever of these writings survive me. I can say with honesty that I would not have made it through the last few years with any dignity without her daily inspiration and companionship at work. Her name is tattooed on my heart and will remain there. Our pending goodbye felt like a broken rib. I couldn't even speak properly those last two shifts.
Four and a half months passed before I was able to write these words for fear of short-circuiting my keyboard with that ole salt water. A few days after I arrived in Lillooet, a book came into my PO Box. It was about hunting deer for beginners and it was from the young man who had made up my final play list. He had heard me talk of taking up hunting during my last few months at work. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.
To top this off, my boss for the last decade or so was the best I had ever seen the Company produce over thirty years. There were before him many fools and several idiots. This is no exaggeration and I remember once likening him to the young Captain of a u-boat in the movie Das Boot for his ability to show leadership, to instill confidence and his ability to quell fear in the crew while Union/Corporate depth charges were exploding all around. I can say now, I would not have lasted without his competent stewardship and the example he set for us all.
Adjusted for vacations, I had walked the circumferences of the Earth, then the Moon and finally from Houston, Texas to the Church's Chicken on I-10 just outside of North-East Side San Antonio. What a long, strange trip it was. So, there at the finish line were these random and unique people, each having had a special part to play in my reaching the goal of retirement or in acknowledging and celebrating that fact. All younger than me. I have learned conclusively that while we all may sometimes feel invisible, indeed we are not. Not ever. I sincerely hope that I set a good example for all those who were watching me as I ran my race whether or not I knew their names. Aaron, Ryan, Vivien and Mike ya'll are with me everywhere I go. This story is for you guys and it carries more gratitude than raggedy little words can convey.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.