He walks hurriedly down the sidewalk, his tattered navy bag swaying back and forth, stuffed with letters, magazines, and small packages.
“You’re still the mailman!” says a man in his 60s, nursing a cup of coffee by the bustling Upper Darby street.
“Yessir!” he replies. It’s Monday, the carrier’s first day back on the job after a week off, and the neighborhood has missed him.
He’s proud to be a mail carrier — a position he’s held for two decades — but now that his job has been put at the center of a national debate, he’s been told by his bosses not to talk to reporters. He wants people to understand the pressures of being a mail carrier right now, but out of fear that he could be fired, he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his name.
Though residents have their own names for him. “Hey, boss!” one man yells out his car window. The kids on the block call him “OG” — original gangster.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds, reads the Postal Service’s motto. It’s a creed embedded in his system, visible in the exhaustive breaths of walking 10 miles a day in the summer heat. But he never falters or stops.
People need their mail.
He pats the man with the coffee on the shoulder and keeps moving. Talking with residents has always been his favorite part of the job, but now, with twice as much mail to deliver, there’s little time to spare.
“How come you’ve not been promoted yet?” the man asks as the carrier passes.
“I’m here to stay,” he nods back, continuing to the next house. “I like being with the people.”
But, as funding necessary for the Postal Service’s survival stalls in Congress, he wonders how much longer he will be out here.
It’s only 10 a.m. and it’s already 93 degrees in the area filled with immigrant-owned businesses, cramped rowhouses, and few trees. After 15 years on this route, he knows it backward and forward — the hidden alleyways, the calico cat perched on the wooden steps, which elderly residents expect a package every Monday.
He scans the bins and boxes neatly stacked throughout his truck, stamped with the U.S. Postal Service logo. He sighs. Just a year ago, this would be his day’s work. But with twice as many packages and half as many carriers on duty, he has more items to deliver than ever before.
Like many post offices, his has been short-staffed for a while. Then came the coronavirus, and with it, a surge in packages. Then the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, was appointed in June. For the first time, he was being told to leave mail behind.
“They’re just physically and mentally exhausted,” said Joe Rodgers, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Keystone 157. “These carriers are working so hard just to try and keep up, and they just simply can’t do it.”
Last week, President Donald Trump openly admitted that by withholding funding for the Postal Service, the agency would not be able to handle an anticipated surge of mail voting in November. The USPS has warned Pennsylvania that some mail ballots might not be delivered on time based on its current deadlines.
But Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was calling the House back into session to vote on a bill prohibiting the postal service from implementing any changes to operations or level of service.
“We are being politicized,” the carrier says as he hops over a railing between homes to save time. “I don’t think [DeJoy] actually has a clue what we actually do.”
The politicians don’t understand, he says, the mental and emotional toll these changes — office hours slashed, overtime eliminated — are taking on the postal workers and residents to whom they deliver. He can’t even turn on the news anymore. After working 70 hours a week, the last thing he wants to hear from the president is that he’s not good enough.
Some days he calls in sick.
He wipes down his face and pours cold water into his floppy brown hat. Then he grabs what he needs from his truck and locks it.
Four hours down, eight to go.
When people see him coming, excitement flickers in their eyes. Faces peek from behind blinds and hands jut outside the door as soon as the letters clink into their metal box.
What did he deliver? A paycheck? A bill? A birthday card?
“For some people, this is about life, about existing,” he says.
In this zip code, where 75% of residents are nonwhite and 19% live in poverty, he understands the importance of his service to people who might not consistently have an internet connection or computer.
He stops in the shade and breathes. “They don’t understand how just holding one piece of mail can affect someone’s life,” he says, speaking of DeJoy and Trump.
His residents know he’s trying. They wave out their windows and offer him water. Amid the coronavirus, he worries his residents may feel more isolated. Visitors can’t come, but their mailman does.
He thinks about the lonely senior across the way whose wife just died.
“We may be the only person they come in contact with for days at a time,” he says.
His calves are strong, seasoned by the work. Sweat rolls down his head as he squints at the house number on the letter to confirm that he’s dropping it at the right place.
“Have a blessed day, my brother!” he shouts as he trots down the steps. As he delivers each piece of mail, the bag on his shoulder grows lighter. But the pressures of the job are heavy.
It wasn’t always this way. Sometimes he would finish his route early. But now that’s never the case. Today, one of his coworkers took a personal day, so he has to make up for the absence. If he doesn’t, the mail for those homes will go undelivered. Once he empties his truck, he’ll return to the office, fill it up again, and head back out.
He grabs the last bunch of letters in his bag and walks into the corner store. The door jingles and the woman at the counter claps with joy.
“Need anything today, honey?” she asks.
“I’m OK, but thank you,” he says. “See ya tomorrow, baby!”