Of all the queues we must join, the post office line is by far the most character revealing. Try as you might to avoid it, sooner or later you are going to need to mail that crappy sweater you sold on eBay for far less money than was worth your hassle, or the Mother’s Day card you are sending a day late. (By the way, your mum knows it wasn’t the postman who slacked off, despite what you might have told her. She knows you bought the card the day after mother’s day because it was on sale, and you are a cheap bastard. She birthed you and wiped your ass. She knows.)
Unlike other goods and services we’re required to queue for, such as takeaway coffee or the bus, the post office has no magic level of customer service or schedule they’re striving to meet. No-one who works at the post office looks at the desperate, sweaty line of sad sacks wasting their lunch break and thinks; “I am going to stick more stamps than I’ve ever stuck before and expedite these important packages!” The post office workers don’t give two rat’s asses about you or your mail. They don’t care because no matter how many packages or letters they send, the mail will never stop coming. Theirs is a Sisyphean task, endlessly laborious and futile.
Nevertheless, you wait in line, your package clutched to your chest. To pass the time, you engage in conversation with the person in front or behind you, smile at the mother with her baby in a stroller and offer her your place further up in the line. You wave and coo at the baby, and the baby smiles back, gurgling and laughing. You make the most of your time, responding to emails and sending text messages on your phone.
But the room is becoming unbearably stuffy with so many people in it, and you are cordoned off and corralled by a rope barrier like a heifer waiting for slaughter. The collective patience and human civility lasts about 7 minutes. At this point people start to sigh audibly. The suits roll their eyes at the unstaffed counters and well-dressed women mutter incredulously that there should be more staff during such a busy time. Each member of the line swiftly becomes the authority on the correct operating procedure for the post office.
Then, having officially abandoned all social niceties and composure, the line begins to unravel. Coats and jackets are unbuttoned; bags are dropped loudly to the floor. Someone stamps an indignant foot. Everyone is a petulant, pissed off toddler, with a need more urgent than anyone else’s. You glare at the older lady ahead whom minutes before had filled you with fond memories of your gran, and shake your head at her excessive number of packages. No-one is making cooing noises at the baby in the stroller any more, and the baby is no longer cute; it is screaming and red-faced and trying to claw its way out of its wheeled prison.
The baby embodies how you feel but you are not sympathetic to its discomfort. You blame its mother for bringing it here and taking a place in the line, a place that was yours before you gave it up, before the post office line had robbed you of your ability to feel compassion.
More people enter the post office and join the line. They are civilized at first, but turn quickly, ready to throw the first stone at whoever is holding up this godforsaken line. A man lingers at the counter, buying stamps after he has already paid for his package. A woman asks drawn-out questions about different rates and shipping times as she fishes around in her purse. Can’t they see there are people waiting? Can they not feel the hot glares and seething impatience as they dilly dally with their change purse or forget to fill out a customs declarations form for their international package? You glare a silent warning at the people in front of you: try and buy a single stamp and this angry mob is going to descend on you like a biblical swarm of locusts on a crop field. Three of the counter windows remain unstaffed.
The situation is nearing its apex, the fabric of society so thin it threatens to snap completely. Only a fragment of order remains, and it is the counter worker who holds the last frail thread, for she is what stands between you and your package being mailed. You no longer even care about your package, but you have invested this time and you are going to see this through. Finally, you arrive at the front of the line, and taste a long-awaited victory.
But you have grown accustomed to the line mentality and forget what you are here to mail. When the counter worker asks about the contents of your package you pause and stutter, unable to form words after so much non-verbal grunting and seething. You take too long to answer and the din of the mob grows louder behind you. You mutter something unintelligible and then remember you didn’t fill out the international customs form still clutched in your sweaty palm. In an urgent whisper you ask to borrow a pen, and the counter worker raises a knowing eyebrow and pushes a pen through the window. Hastily you fill out the tiny boxes on the form, hoping the line doesn’t notice your misstep, but they do. Twenty, thirty people strong, the line bellow their dissatisfaction. You shove the completed form back through the window, and pay for your package.
The counter worker eyes you blankly. “Do you need any stamps today?” she asks. “Yes,” you reply, suddenly remembering, “Can I have a book of first class please?”