Field Research: Day 92
I am requested to mail out a small package so I walk four blocks south and find the post office. The building is a tasteful white stone structure with flush walls interrupted by tall steel windows. The top of the structure is adorned with subtle Greek Revival details and capped with a simple cornice that accommodates neat black letters:
United States Post Office Seattle Washington University Station 98105
I walk around the building looking for an entrance, but I can’t find one. Eventually, I see stairs leading down to the basement level. This is how the nightmare begins. I walk down into a scene of Satanist graffiti and deranged laughter echoing out from the sewers below. Sunlight does not make it all the way down here. Murky water drips on my head. I look for an entrance. I step over a few sleeping (or—let’s be honest—possibly dead) homeless people. I notice a grey steel door in a corner. There is no sign, but I have no other options. I try the doorknob. It is unlocked. I step inside. I am confronted with a disorganized crowd of people shuffling back and forth. What have I stepped into? My inner monologue takes over:
Who are these people? Is this the initiation rite of a hidden death cult? Wait, there’s a computer over there. This must be a defunded government program teaching sex-offenders and ex-gang members how to use email. This must be a place for people who have made horrible mistakes in life.
Then it hits me: This might actually be the post office. I see several signs with pictures of packages. The shuffling crowd vaguely resembles a line of people waiting to be helped by the lone grey-clad clerk behind the counter. But why would the post office be housed in this damp basement when there is a perfectly fine regular building above us?
I walk over to the free-standing computer with a touchscreen. A bright blue sign reads: “Use automatic checkout so you don’t have to stand in line!”
I start tapping on the screen. The words and symbols do not make sense. Each tap triggers an unwanted new popup window that can’t be closed. Each tap pulls me further away from what I want to do. I ask myself: What is this? Is this a nightmare? Am I asleep?
I am unsure of what to do, so I stand at the back of the fifty-person line. It does not move. Minutes pass. I see more and more people enter the post office. Each person engages in the same ritual. First, they are unpleasantly surprised by the line. Then, they notice the touchscreen and try to navigate the interface. Eventually they grow exasperated and surrender to the back of the line. You might imagine that we share a sense of fraternity since we all go through the same steps. This is not true. Instead, we remain alienated from each other. We cannot even make eye-contact. In the postal basement, there is no talking.
As we shuffle ever-so-slowly toward the front of the line, I cannot shake the feeling that this is not actually the post office. From a Swedish perspective—even from a Chinese perspective—it is unfathomable why a post office would look like this. The grey walls are dull and unadorned. The grey linoleum floor is cracked and dirty. The postal worker wears a grey uniform and her skin shimmers with an unhealthy grey pallor—interrupted only by a bright red rash. And somehow, useful signs are placed far behind the postal worker’s counter. They are legible only to customers at the front of the line. Therefore, the customers discover them only at the worst possible moment—right before being called up to the counter. All customers react the same way. They turn around with a look of terror and say to the person behind them, “Excuse me, could you hold me spot in the line while I repackage my stuff?”
But none of it matters. When we are called up to the counter, our preparations are never good enough. The grey-colored woman with the terrifying facial rash looks at me and says, “You have filled out the wrong form. Come back when you have filled this out.”
She hands me a new form and I move over to allow the next person to approach her. She looks at the new person and repeats, “You have filled out the wrong form. Come back when you have filled this out.”
At this point, we do not ask questions. We just stand there with our new forms. We look at our shoes. We shift our weight from one leg to the other. We stand there. Naturally, the front of the line is not so much a line as it is a ambiguous crowd of sweaty people praying for a second chance. Hoping to be seen. I study the scene behind the postal worker. I see a chaotic assortment of envelopes and packages falling out of giant metal baskets. Most of the mail—our mail—is on the floor. For some reason, they keep the mail in piles on the floor. These piles gently collapse as an older postal worker shuffles through them. I listen to the mail being crushed—quietly. I study his muffled movements. Somewhere in there—somewhere in this old man’s empty gaze—I look for answers.
“Next in line,” mumbles the postal worker. I step forward and hold up my freshly filled out form. The grey-colored woman looks at me. She does not smile, but she has seen me. She slowly shifts the blubber of her arm and her hand grasps my package. I pay $17 for a small strip of packing tape and she says, “You can go now. Have a nice day.”
I am allowed to leave. I walk past the ever-expanding line of people. I open the door. It is raining. I am free. The world outside is different, somehow. My experience at the post office has illuminated yet another dark corner of the American experiment. I now understand what the Americans talk about when they talk about government. I have seen “government” in its rawest form, and now I understand why they like to preface it with the word “small”.
I am reminded of a previous interview conducted with a young American civilian. He was telling me about the wealth of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. The young civilian explained that Zuckerberg had pledged to donate 99% of his wealth to charity and that “the remaining 1% is still almost $600 million!”
I told the young American about criticism of this pledge, because it grants a tax exemption to Zuckerberg’s vast wealth. It means that a private citizen—instead of a democratically elected government—will be in control of how and when this money is allocated for good. Zuckerberg can spend it all on architecture preservation and the health care system can be allowed to fail. Upon hearing this criticism, the young civilian exclaimed, “Exactly! How incredible is that!”
I heartily agreed, “I know, right?
But then I hit the pause button and asked, “Wait, are you saying that’s a good thing?”
And to my surprise, this young Seattle native—a man with piercings and strong Left-leaning tendencies—began explaining how this was a “very good thing”, because the government always “screws everything up”. Even this young man—a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter—still refused to support any government involvement in anything.
I tried to probe deeper into his attitudes, and eventually he told me, “Look, I believe that the US government will always mess everything up. But I don’t think that’s true for all governments. I think the Swedish government, for example, is doing a great job.” (possible Swedish Observer Error)
It can be very difficult for us non-Americans to understand these strong anti-establishment sentiments. On the face of it, we don’t understand how they can view Ayn Rand as a “thought leader.” We don’t understand how they can deny themselves universal healthcare or refuse common sense gun control. We don’t understand how things could end up like this. But it is instrumental to accept the following: All Americans believe that “government” means a low-ceiling basement—grey and terrible.
END OF REPORT