I read in the paper recently that they’re moving the old post office a couple of towns over from where I lived as a boy. It used to be on the tiny, tree-tined main street, with the drug store and the grocery. Now they’re putting it into a shopping center out by the highway.
The story got me thinking about how our own post office served as a hub for the daily life of the community. The town was really just a hamlet, with the post office and library at one end, general store and garage at the other, and a scattering of houses around and between. There wasn’t much going on. In winter in particular, the days could be flat and bleak.
The mail broke the monotony. It was something to look forward to, something to do. It came in twice a day, and was distributed by 8:45 AM and 3 PM, more or less. Folks would be there first thing in the morning, sipping coffee in the front seats of pick-ups, or reading the paper, or lamenting the Red Sox or the way the tourists were becoming totally disrespectful. Why, did you hear how those college kids tore up the old Peters place?
The postmaster was second only to the telephone operator in his acquaintance with the affairs of the populace, which meant there was always some new development to discuss. Often, after picking up the mall, folks would stop by the general store for a paper and a quart of milk, completing the circuit and becoming thoroughly informed of the news of the day. A lot of it was gossip. But then too, word got around pretty quickly when someone was sick or in the hospital, or needed help in some other way.
Getting the mail provided a social ritual that was especially important to the older folks. It gave them business to attend to, a real reason to be up and about. It made them functioning parts of the world along with everyone else.
Young people like me got to be part of this daily business as well. Picking up the household mail, or buying a postal money order to get a basketball hoop from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, we could overhear the gossip and banter, pick up bits of information about fertilizers, the rental business, or the town zoning board, pieces of the puzzle that was the adult world.
For years they’ve been talking about closing this and other rural post offices. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. But what they’re doing two towns over worries me nevertheless. I wonder whether the old folks and kids will be able to get to the shopping center as easily as they can get to main street. And I wonder what will happen to their sense of community if they can’t.
The culprit here is the peculiar mental disorder we call “economic thinking.” The economic mentality sees only what it can count — in this case, the cost of delivering X number of letters to Y number of locations. Everything else is frivolous, an “externality,” to be worried about by somebody else.
But if they do close these post offices, loneliness and isolation will increase. The glue that holds such localities together, already brittle, will erode that much more. Sensing the fragmentation, from this and other causes, the towns or the state will likely determine a need for a “Senior Citizens Center” or some such thing, to replace what post offices and local groceries and the like have provided as a normal part of life. And then people will scratch their heads and wonder why taxes are so high and why people don’t seem to fend for themselves the wav they used to.
Something very similar happens to a community when a factory closes or small farms shut down. These serve social functions as well as purely economic ones. In fact, they are the matrix of what we call “community.” This doesn’t mean we should subsidize icebox factories or keep post offices open when there are only two people left in town. It means only that our reckoning of cost and gain has to include more than it does now.
This is a country that has more things than it needs (in most cases), and lacks increasingly the institutions that give texture and cohesion to life. So it hardly seems radical to suggest that we give more weight to the social loss before deciding to close a farm or a factory — or a post office – down.