Old Post Office

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 2:06pm


The sign on the building reads “Old Post Office” and I am surprised, every time I see it, how quickly the facility that occupied that site for more then three decades has faded from memory. This time I can offer with assurance it is not my aging mind; the building never captured the imagination as it predecessor had.

What is the newest of several “old” Post Offices was a flat roofed building with a brick facade on two sides, as utilitarian on the outside as it was within. The doors, I realized only this past summer, were little works of art, with a combination lock that needed to be turned in one direction then another and back again. I was surprised that it took only a few tries before I was able to stop thinking and let pure memory work its magic. It sprung open.

The Post Office was a depot for a tactile channel of words linking us to the outside words. We still run into people when we pick up our mail, but there are far more bills than the letters I used to send and receive, and far more junk than letters and bills combined.

It was only when we — that collective “we” — moved to the new Post Office, another utilitarian space but in a lovely building (although after a summer of “the big gray building on the hill, the one with the turret and flag” being met with “the church?” I wonder if it is too lovely) that I came to appreciate those locks I so took for granted; now I have to carry keys.

The first Post Office I knew was in the space above and next to, respectively, Finn’s Seafood Bar and Ernie’s Restaurant. The building had belonged to a former Postmaster, dead before I was born. It had been his father’s General Store at the foot of the hill below the Adrian (now the Harbor Baptist Church) and had been moved across the street after his father’s death, after he wrested it, but not the land on which it stood, from his father’s second wife, the one Scripture tells us to forgive, but even her most mild-mannered grandson was loathe to grant the title of step-grandmother. The Post Office remained there, leased from the family, twenty years after that Postmaster’s death.

It was a wooden space. Two interior partitions divided the lobby and the working area, each with varnished wood rising to a row of vertical transom windows. The panels were accented by column facades and moldings, all darkly finished, and the floor was worn wooden planking.

It could have very a dark lobby but for the wall that faced the street, and south, and held big windows. Not shaded by the porch that graces the front of the building today, they invited the sun. Tall tables were by the glass and people stood, as they do today, sorting through their mail, throwing the junk into high wastebaskets. Children sought “mail” of their own, trying to pilfer from the trash what their parents were discarding.

The two interior partitions held the business of the facility. The shorter held two service windows, both bordered with black grill work and defined by overhead signs, white lettering on black glass. The narrower was for the processing of Money Orders, the wider, more frequently visited, for Stamps and Special Mailings. In that time, longer ago than mere years would allow, stamps were generally of a solid color, blue or purple or green and the price to mail a letter off-Island was a penny more than to mail it on-Island, fifty percent more to sent a letter off!

The longer partition was broken by mail slots at one end and toward the middle a Dutch door with the work “Postmaster” written on the upper panel that was not swung open until the mail was sorted, or “open” as some of our parents called it. Mainly, thought, it was a wall of rows and rows of boxes and drawers, only the latter with the blank faces and keys locks that are the norm today. The boxes, like those in the facility in the “Old Post Office,” had little windows on which the numbers were painted; we didn’t even need to open them to see if there was mail inside.

And, yes, I have the same number my family had when I was little. It is not a Rhode Island Special Low Number, neither single nor double digit, but unchanged over the relocations, for which I am grateful.