You’ve got fermented fish!

Wouldn’t that have been a nice, amusing option for AOL’s mail announcement?

A long time ago, when I was in my fifth year of college and taking three languages at once, I had a part-time job delivering mail in Mercer Hall at the University of Washington. Mercer was part of what was called the South Campus complex of Terry, Lander and Mercer Halls. Mercer was smallest, housing perhaps four hundred residents. It was a quiet dorm with two separate wings, and had a high population of rather laid-back Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. In 2011, UW demolished it to make room for a larger dorm (scroll down, look for a short brick building).

The South Campus central mailroom was in Terry Hall (also now demolished), which also provided front desk services to all three dorms, so that’s where the mail landed. The gal who did the Terry mail had a great gig, and the Lander mail was also pretty good–you could get from Terry to Lander without being rained on, and there was only one mailroom to service. The worst job of the three was the Mercer mail. When the Lander job opened up, I asked to transfer, but the supervisor refused. Mercer had long been a source of acrimonious complaints about the mail and its bearer; my arrival had ended them, and he didn’t want to risk the complaints coming back. I learned an important lesson about management: they don’t care about rewarding you. Management does what is expedient for management, and if that means rewarding good work by keeping you in a worse position, that’s fine with management. This is why ‘loyalty to the employer’ means nothing unless personally earned by a given manager.

Doing mail in Mercer required sorting it by wing, carrying 1-3 plastic bins of mail about half a block through the rain, then delivering one batch while either a) closing oneself in a stuffy little mailroom, or b) leaving the top of the Dutch door open, enabling students to ask one to just hand them their mail, and having to tell them no. (Many thought it was asking too much to expect them to use their keys to unlock their own boxes, and felt I should just hand it to them.) Repeat for the other wing. Trudge back to Terry in rain.

Handing them the mail was an issue, because the management impressed upon us that we’d better obey the rules. Specifically, the rules of the almighty U.S. Postal Service, which gets to be a business when it wants to market itself, but a government agency when it wants its rules enforced. In particular, we were advised, we had better deliver every scrap of the voluminous junk mail that often burdened me with two extra bins of nothing but crap, lest we face hefty fines and potential imprisonment. I believed them, and I almost never just handed anyone their mail.

Thus, I delivered everything. For parcels, I left package slips. I checked the mailroom shelves, and if residents did not pick up their parcels, I made out reminder package slips. I didn’t know how to send anything back, nor if we could, and in any case I was more than a little intimidated by the warnings. As long as I kept attempting conscientious delivery, I wouldn’t be in trouble. No one expected me to be responsible for people’s refusal to pick up their care packages.

One autumn day, I believe, a padded hard-cardboard mailer arrived from a town I recognized as being on the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon. I filled out the package slip and delivered it. For days, then weeks, the package was still there every time I checked the shelves, and I continued to prepare and deliver appropriate package slips. After six weeks, a brown and reeking fluid began to seep out of the parcel. At that point, I was pretty sure it was smoked fish of some sort, and that it was now well past the lutefisk state. I didn’t ask the boss what to do because I didn’t want to risk being accused of unwillingness to deliver the package, or of obstructing the mail. Seems stupid at this remove, but that was a good gig to have, and I was young. I didn’t want to lose it, or even to risk it. It was easier to just keep filling out the package slips, and for three months, I did so.

I also picked up some work substituting in at the Terry desk, and one fine day a young lady showed up with a package slip: she of the many notices. At last! I saw no point in mentioning anything about the past package slips. I retrieved the mailer, its leakage having dried up to a disgusting brown stain on the underside. She signed the slip, accepted her parcel, and began to open it as she headed for the elevator bank.

The expression on her face when she opened it was not one of pleasure. Seems she released and inhaled the full confined force of the goodness. I tried not to be heard or seen laughing, but it didn’t last long. She soon tossed the wretched mess into the handy trash can by the elevators.

The moral of the story is to check your mail now and then. What if someone sent you smoked fish?

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