Rural Post Offices and the Hidden Productivity of Common Space


January 19, 2007


Browse in Commons Community

One of the great allies of the canny dictator is the human tendency to forget. Bring about a new normal with sufficient skill, and people gradually forget that things ever were any different. The corporate economy makes use of this fact of human nature as well. When it seizes upon a life process and turns it into a commodity – that is, when it sucks out the the natural or social content and leaves the dead husk of stuff — we soon lose track of that as well.

Tomatoes used to taste better? People hung out with neighbors on side porches and front stoops? You could take the kids to a ball game without being barraged by electronic ads? When was that? We are left with vague yearnings, hungers that do not have names, and so are easily re-channeled back into the commodity culture, which depends on chronic appetite for its “growth”. There must be something we can buy to make us feel better. Our kids have not a clue that anything else ever existed.

The other day my son and I walked past one of those chain mail-drop stores at a mall. Josh, who is four, saw the wall of brass mailboxes and asked if it was a post office. I tried to explain to him why it was not. The legal part was easy to put into words, though I’m not sure the he grasps fully the difference between public and private. Harder to explain was what gets lost when the one becomes the other, in the case of post offices at least.

One day soon I will tell him about the town in which I spent the latter part of my boyhood. It was a hamlet really: a gas station, a post office, a general store, and a scattering of houses. In summer it bustled with tourists; Memorial Day to Labor Day defined the income-earning year. But the winters were barren and dreary. You would stare out the window and see nothing but gray.

The mail was the bright spot in the day. It was a bit of motion, expectancy, even suspense. Would there be a letter from a friend back in the city? The new Sport magazine, or the barbell ordered from the Joe Weider magazine? More than that, the mail was the occasion for social contact. There was no delivery; you went to the post office to pick it up, twice a day back then. It was a ritual, a metronome in days lacking in events; and it was a chance to be around other people.

For the older people people in particular it was business to attend to, a reason to be up and about. Those trips to the post office kept them in contact with their neighbors and in the flow of life. For an adolescent such as myself, it was a breach in the ghetto wall that has come to enclose that stage of life. I’d hear talk about fertilizers and septic systems, the ebbs and flows of business and the lower grade of tourist that had been coming in recent years — all pieces of the puzzle that was the adult world.

America obsesses over a commoditized service called schooling. This was education of a kind that has become all too rare. The post office also was a generator of neighborly help. People thought that Wes, the postmaster, was nosy. He was second only to the telephone operator – there still were party lines when we first moved there – in his acquaintance with things he was not supposed to know. Some people said he peeked at mail from time to time.

But Wes also was an information hub. When someone hadn’t been in for a while he noticed, and inquiries went out. If the person was ill, dinners would appear at their door. Community is not hydroponic. It does not grow in the vacant air of preaching about community. It requires concrete settings in which to take root. Rural post offices are one of the best of which I know.

It is common today to dismiss such thoughts as nostalgia. To entertain the possibility that a previous state of affairs might have had advantages over the current one, is to be deemed psycho-emotionally deficient. But I have yet to hear a convincing defense of this. Why is it progress when children play with manufactured video games instead of games they invent themselves? Why when people yak on cell phones instead of sitting quietly and reflecting on their own thoughts?

Why is it progress when people take pills for loneliness and isolation instead of partaking of built-in social settings – such as rural post offices — in which to find companionship and support? If you were to read tomorrow that people were doing less of the former and more of the latter in these contrasting pairs, would you say, “Drat. Things are moving backwards?” I’m not so sure.

This is not just about rural post offices. It’s true of settings of all kinds in which people interact on a regular and informal basis. Public squares, traditional main streets, front stoops, park benches – these all can be generative in ways the economic mind (which is the dominant mind) does not know how to see. The Atlantic this month cites a recent study by economists that purports to show that the suburbs actually are bastions of social cohesion, based on membership in civic groups. It is a classic case of confusing available data with reality. The life of a community lies less in formal organizations than in the informal interactions that bring a sense of cohesion to daily life.

Rural post offices are not entirely gone. I am fortunate to live in a town that has one. Every day the mail is a social occasion as much as a business one; I rarely pick it up without bumping into someone I know. One retiree mentioned recently that were it not for the post office, she probably wouldn’t talk with anyone most days. If the question were put to a vote I suspect most of us would come down against home delivery; the convenience would have too high a social price.

This is what is lost when the post office becomes a private postal store – or Fedex, UPS, or email too for that matter. Yet there are chronic calls to abolish those rural post offices on the grounds of ideology and economy, which in the end are the same thing. Take away that built-in social center and soon there will be calls for senior centers and the like. Ideologues will rail about government spending and ignore how their own privatizing, pro-corporate policies contribute to the need for that spending in the first place.

Not every government function is like the post office in this regard. There may be a case for public employees picking up the trash instead of, say, Waste Management Inc; but that case is not the need for shared social space and the practice of community. By the same token, private businesses can provide this cohesive role when they are small and owned locally. But the people who want to eliminate rural post offices and privatize everything in sight don’t want to promote locally owned business either. They talk community but walk Mammon; and this another instance of the chasm between genuine conservatives and free market corporatists on what passes for the political Right.

Once the post offices are gone, and the local coffee shops, the memory of them eventually will follow. A new generation will find it hard to conceive of anything other than malls and chains. Perhaps we need a repository of such memories to do what the monasteries did in the Dark Ages, and keep alive a flame that is going out in the society at large. If you said we are in a second Dark Age already, you wouldn’t get an argument from me.