|9/11 Memorial at Night|
For some reason that didn't happen today. Another clerk stood at the window. As usual, I set my package on the scales, announced that it contained only a book and that I wanted to send it media mail. She began the required litany of questions.
"It's all 'no's today," I said. "It's only a book, and I want only media mail. Nothing else."
"I'm required to ask all these questions," she said, an aggressive note creeping into her voice, as if I were an unwanted pest. "Ever heard of Nine Eleven?"
This might have been the wrong thing to say to me today. I'd been thinking about 9/11 since I'd hopped out of bed, thinking that Patriot Day was coming on fast. I knew I'd want to say something about how that day still haunts me.
"I can understand that you have to ask the questions about hazardous materials," I said. "But there's no need to ask me the other questions when I've already said that all I want is media mail."
"I'm required to ask. Some customers have complained that we didn't offer an earlier delivery."
"My answers still are...no, no and no."
"Then I'll have to start the questions all over again. It's my job to ask, and that's what I get paid for."
And she did. She didn't miss a one.
I'm a frequent flyer, and for years I've felt sorry for the TSA workers who've had to pat me down, dust my fingertips and ask me questions about a little computer that's been issued to me by the State of Washington for my work as on the medical board. I hadn't realized how annoying the postal workers have been required by their employer to become.
I suppose it's been because my usual clerk is so gracious and sweet. She even looks sympathetic as she runs down the questions she's required to ask. Or maybe it's because I'm in a better mood than I was today when I visited the office.
In September 2001 as health program and training specialist for the United States Peace Corps InterAmerica/Pacific Region, I'd flown to Haiti to conduct the first training for Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts. We'd just opened our training session that morning, in a seaside hotel about three hours north of Port-au-Prince. The Haiti health program assistant Peace Corps Director beckoned me over.
"I've got bad news," she whispered. "I just got a call on my cell phone from the office. Two planes have crashed into the Twin Trade Center buildings in New York City, and another has hit the Pentagon."
My husband and I lived in Silver Spring, MD. He was a late sleeper and I wondered if he'd turned on the news yet. I wondered if my office at 20th and L, near the Farragut North Metro station, had been evacuated. I wondered how in the world I'd ever get home, since my program manager told me she'd heard that JFK airport had been closed.
Somehow we got through the next three days. When the counterparts arrived the Volunteers were prepared to follow the training schedule on incorporating youth into HIV/AIDS programs. I walked through the exercises, worried about my husband, my coworkers, and the future of the United States.
And somehow I indeed got home just a few hours later than I'd anticipated, despite urgings on the part of the U.S. ambassador to remain in Haiti until more news was forthcoming.
"Your American Airlines flight from Miami to JFK will have been cancelled," he explained.
"I'd rather get to Miami and figure out what to do next." I'd felt relieved when the Haiti Peace Corps Director reported she'd sent an email to my husband and he'd responded that all was quiet in Silver Spring.
Fortunately when I got to Miami American Airlines told me they had a seat remaining in a midnight plane that they'd diverted to Dulles in Virginia, from its original JFK destination. I got aboard. The plane crew all wore black armbands and American flags in their lapels.
Thirteen years later, I speculate about what we've done here in the States to provide an illusion of safety. Were all the TSA and postal clerk tactics really effective in preventing further acts of terrorism on American soil? Or have they only lulled us into a sense of comfort? I grew up in the days of the 1950s "drop drills," which attempted to convince students we'd be safe from a nuclear attack by huddling under our school desks.
I remember that when I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Seychelles in the mid-'90s, a coworker confided her suspicions about why the government there didn't institute a way to control the mobs that pushed aside and trampled on the smaller and weaker passengers, in a frantic rush to fight one's way aboard the infrequent buses.
"I suspect it's to keep us diverted, to keep us worried about the little things, such as will we get home in time to cook dinner for our kids, rather than the big things, such as why our freedom of choice about what profession we'll enter is so curtailed."
In that country at that time, the Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs pretty much determined what line of work young people would be trained for. It wasn't a choice the eventual employees could make for themselves.
So I think about Homeland Security, about FEMA, about TSA...and about USPS clerks. Do dealing with these bureaucracies somehow distract us from larger worries?
I'm glad I don't have to be aggressively hostile to customers in order to keep a job and draw a paycheck. I wish common sense weren't so uncommon. I wish I sometimes had more patience when it's absent.