by Samantha Graves, 04/30/2020, Hoosick Falls, NY
In 2011, the United States Post Office was forced to close several offices across the country in an effort toward solvency. North Hoosick, the third smallest office in the US, was one of the offices on that list. Our community rallied and the office was spared. But in neighboring Schenectady County, the Alplaus Post Office was not so fortunate and closed January of 2012. During the community effort to keep that office open, one resident referred to the lobby as the “town’s living room.”
As Postmaster Relief for North Hoosick, NY, no phrase rang truer. Things have been tough lately. There’s a very real anxiety that falls as shadow with every step and I’ve often cried in the time between the office and home. Sometimes it is for the feeling of vulnerability, but also for the beauty that emerges in those quiet moments interrupted by a phone call from a customer just checking in or asking if I need a homemade mask. I see those around me demonstrating enormous courage and compassion for others, from those on the frontlines in hospitals to the grocery store workers to my own co-workers and husband, a rural mail carrier.
But sometimes it also hits me – the memory of the day I interviewed for the position at North Hoosick. In which the Postmaster leaned over his desk and said, “Are you sure you want this? You’ll have a lot of people who just show up because they have no one to talk to.”
And it is this small truth that makes my job so rewarding. The stories at the heart of community, in the proverbial living room of the town. Just this past Christmas or New Year’s Eve, we stayed open past close, the tiny lobby filled with customers shoulder to shoulder, laughing and sharing story. It was a magical time, especially as I reflect on those cozy evenings now.
For my family, newcomers from northern Michigan, the experience of working for North Hoosick has been more about forging friendships and sense of community than about work. The experience has taught me that there are two post offices; the one that functions as a business and the other, a network closely tied to community. It’s that second part I love. The one in which we make sure medications reach those in need or that letter from someone special reaches a loved one.
When the pandemic struck, I was given the option of a temporary leave. My own parents even offered to pay me to quit the post office. There was a Sunday recently when I seriously considered it. The risk, the fear; it’s all very real. But the reward in the connection I feel each time a familiar face walks through the door; it’s so much stronger a pull to stay. Just the other day a customer told me she thought people needed this place as much as they need a pharmacy or a grocery store; it’s a comfort, something familiar that reminds them of what normal felt like.
Today, North Hoosick may not look as it did just a month ago, plastered in signage warning people about Covid-19, divided up in sheets of protective plastic and me wearing that now-familiar fine mist of disinfectant, donning a mask and gloves.
We get visits from the Health Department making sure we’re operating in compliance because frankly, our smallness, is to our detriment during this virus. And yet, juxtaposed with the physical smallness, is the enormity of what we represent to people. And I take that seriously, each day cleaning every surface, including the 110 tiny boxes that line the wall.
It’s been lonely but has given me time to reflect back on all those wonderful stories. The story of why Box 81 is located between 66 and 67. Of Box 7 and the owner, in failing health, who recently left for Arizona to live with her son. She, as many of our customers, had inherited that box from her parents and had been checking it regularly since she was old enough to reach the dial. Like old friends, we hugged and cried the day she brought in her forward just weeks before the pandemic struck and like a sentimental fool, I couldn’t bear to discard her receipt, so instead I date stamped it “North Hoosick 12133” and left it in that sacred wooden frame behind the glass stamped “7.”
So many stories, so many generations, so many ghosts…
The post office has long been known for its perseverance: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds…” And in the gloom of this pandemic, we recognize our part in keeping our customers feeling safe and connected. And moreover, what I’ve come to realize is that as much as our community needs this place, so do I. It is a home away from home. And a place where someday we will once again crowd into the cozy lobby space on the eve of holidays and look back at this time realizing just how much it revealed. Yes, our vulnerabilities, but also enormous strength, perseverance, and reverence for story. It really is a kind of living room shared by all, where our stories, like people will always have a home.