Mail carriers and the ties that bind
by J. Christopher Hippler
Every neighborhood in America has a mail carrier, and Ann Arbor's are no exception. Six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, carriers fan out from the city's three post offices to walk or drive its 137 delivery routes.
Carriers epitomize a blue-collar work ethic, and like characters in a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, they frequently step out of the frame and touch our lives. They witness the growth of our children, take part in annual block parties, and deliver cards of sympathy after a death in the family.
But what do our neighborhoods look like to the workers who walk the routes? And who are the people beneath those powder-blue uniforms?
Walking in the land of Oz
Ozzie Williams may have the toughest mail route in Ann Arbor: off-campus student housing. Wedged between State Street, Packard, and Hill and in the shadow of the U-M Law School, his route is a hodgepodge-fraternities, sororities, 1960s-style apartment complexes, older homes now chopped up into apartments. Most of the residents move out at the end of the school year in April, to be replaced by new faces each fall.
“I almost quit when I first got the job,” Williams remembers with a chuckle. “I didn't know all of the details it included. I thought you just picked the mail up and went. It's not like that.”
Williams learned he had to sort the mail on his route and forward or return material addressed to residents who've long since moved on. On this route, that means learning hundreds of new names annually. But Williams has grown to love it.
“The main thing I have,” he says, “is a great memory.”
Williams, who just turned fifty, lives in Detroit with his wife, Susan; they have two grown sons. He's carried the mail in Ann Arbor ever since he got out of the service in 1986. On this bitterly cold winter day, he's wearing four layers of clothes under his Postal Service jacket and sweatpants beneath
his blue uniform pants. Lined nonslip boots and a Yukon hat with a USPS eagle emblem on the front panel complete the ensemble. With the winter sun glistening off his small gold earring, Williams walks with a quiet confidence.
Student neighborhoods are notorious for unshoveled sidewalks. Today Williams skips a house whose steep front walk is covered with ice. “I warned 'em yesterday: if you want your mail, you have to shovel the walk,” he says.
Despite his hard line on shoveling, Williams's easygoing style and quick “How y'all doin'?” make him popular in the neighborhood. “This is the land of Oz,” he says with a grin. “Everybody knows me, and I know everybody.”
He says the route is totally different in other seasons: “The guys are throwing the ball; girls are out lying on the grass . . . and game days are wild!
“In about five years, I'll have thirty years in,” Williams says, “and that's a good thing. I'll probably stay one or two years after that. Hopefully I'll be the one to call it a day.”Where even dogs are well served
“I'm a dog lover,” Dave Smeton says. “Always have been.”
At a house on Lincoln, Smeton lifts the lid of the mailbox, drops the mail in-and then, as the lid lowers, deftly places a small dog biscuit on top of it.
Does he do that every day?
“During the winter I try to,” he says. “I don't see Roxie as much; I want her to know I'm thinking of her.”
Smeton is soft spoken with a friendly face, full mustache, and large brown eyes. He started carrying mail about fifteen years ago, after a three-year hitch in the military. For the last six years he's been on this route on the north side of Burns Park. Houses range from stately single-family homes on Lincoln to large fraternity houses on Oxford to run-down student rentals on Cambridge Court.
“My route turns over quite a bit-a lot of new families. When a
new baby arrives, you can't help but be touched. Before you know it,” Smeton jokes, “I'll see the kid's credit card application!”
Born and raised in Ypsilanti, he and his wife, Cathy, have two children themselves, one at home and one in college.
As Smeton reaches to deliver the mail to a house on Olivia, the door opens suddenly and a woman appears.
“Oh, hey, Suzie, how ya doing?” He notices she's on crutches. “Oh my goodness . . .”
“Surgery. I'm stuck here-can't drive. How was your Christmas?”
“It was fine; I don't want to keep you . . .”
“I just wanted to say hi because I haven't seen you in a while.”
Smeton introduces me, and I tell her about the story I'm working on. She breaks into a warm smile. “Oh, we adore our mail carrier,” she says. “He knows everything that goes on in the neighborhood. He never lets on . . . but you know he knows it all!”
Smeton looks embarrassed. “People are very thoughtful,” he says as we walk away.
He always wears a distinctive pith helmet, so “my customers can tell it's me doing the route.” On cold days like today, he adds a knit cap beneath it. He holds a fistful of letters in his gloved left hand. His right hand is bare, and he keeps it buried in the mailbag for warmth. That makes it easier to grab magazines, parcels--and small dog biscuits. Taking care of business on State Street
Walking with John Odegard as he delivers mail on State Street near Central Campus is like seeing the street for the first time. I see stairs leading to hidden second-floor apartments, enter stores I'd never noticed, and watch the faces of storekeepers light up as the mailman walks in.
The long hours and daily pressures of running a store are not lost on Odegard. “We try to help make their life a little easier,” he says. “If they have boxes that need to go out, after I'm done I'll pick 'em up so they don't have to go to the post office.”
Yet Odegard is on this route only one day a week. In postal vernacular, he's a carrier technician. “I cover five other carriers' routes on their days off,” he explains. “Some people like to do the same thing; I like variety.”
His dad was a mail carrier in Ypsilanti for thirty-one years. But “I wasn't expecting to do this,” Odegard says. “I graduated from Ypsi High in '90, moved away for a while, then came full circle.” He and his “beautiful wife,” Jessica, live in Ypsilanti and look forward to having a family.
At the Corner House Apartments, Odegard swings open a three-foot-wide aluminum door to expose dozens of small square mailboxes. As he fills them, a woman interrupts.
“Is it all right if I grab my mail? I've been out of town. Wow, there's a lot in there!”
“Well, welcome back.”
“Thank you. I'm really sorry.”
“It's all right--it didn't get full. Do you want a rubber band?”
“That would be fantastic! Have a good day.”
Odegard is also a union steward for the National Association of Letter Carriers. Under the current contract, carriers earn from around $20 to just over $26 an hour, plus benefits. Overtime is time and a half and is closely watched.
The postal service's mounting losses are causing anxiety among carriers, and Odegard hears about it. “People are fearful of losing their jobs,” he says.
Temporary and contract employees are the most vulnerable, but carriers with seniority are uneasy too. “What's safe?” Odegard wonders. “I feel more comfortable than a cat who's been here just a couple of years, but that doesn't mean they couldn't slash our wages, or affect how much health care we pay for.”
Odegard pauses and reflects, “All I know is that here in Ann Arbor, we're delivering mail.” He motions toward the letters and parcels that fill his truck. “And I've got a lot of mail to deliver.”328 houses filled with friends
On a summer Saturday afternoon several years ago, an unexpected event made Mike Bellaire realize how much of a fixture he's become in the Orchard Hills neighborhood.
“I was walking up the sidewalk and a family was taking wedding pictures on the front lawn. They said, 'C'mon, Mike--we want you in a picture,'” he remembers with a laugh. “I said, 'You don't need your mailman in your wedding pictures!'”
Though he passed on the photo op, it was a poignant moment: he'd been delivering mail to the bride's home since she was eight years old.
All the carriers I followed walk at a brisk pace, but Bellaire is the fastest, despite his small stature and extra weight. And the route he's walked since 1988 isn't short: “When the weather's good, my route's about eight and a half miles. I've clocked it. When the snow's like this”--he points to a two-foot-high snowbank--“I figure it's closer to twelve.”
His route is across Plymouth from the former Pfizer complex. The 1970s-vintage homes vary in style but have common features: brick-and-aluminum exteriors, attached garages, fake shutters on the windows, and--in the winter--sleds on the porches and snow angels in the yards.
“The neighborhood has changed a bit with Pfizer closing. I had a few people move out. But we have a lot of U-M hospital employees and quite a few retirees. There have al-ways been a lot of kids in the neighborhood.”
Before joining the post office, “I was a dogcatcher for the City of Detroit,” Bellaire recalls. “At the time there was a residency requirement. My kids were little, and we were leery about having them outside playing.” His two boys are grown now, and he and his wife, Sue, live in Plymouth.
Carrying mail to the same neighborhood has given Bellaire unexpected insights. “I learn a whole lot of things that they don't know I know,” he says. “You see the deaths, the new families move in, the elderly move away, because all of a sudden it's just one lady living by herself and she's in her early eighties.”
With twenty-four years of service in the post office, Bellaire will be eligible to retire in six years. “I figure I'll finish on this route,” he says. “I know everybody; I've got three hundred and twenty-eight houses' worth of friends.”
[Originally published in March, 2009.]