The Civil Servant Meets the Prince and the Pauper
As a Letter Carrier for the U.S. Postal Service back in the early 80’s I had the opportunity to meet a variety of characters while working in the lower east side of New York City. Although my Post Office's delivery zone was only a total distance of 20 city blocks, the demographics were diverse as it contained both the infamous poor of the Bowery, as well the mega-rich aristocrats of Gramercy Park living in their multi-million dollar townhomes complete with maids, butlers and chauffeurs.
My job was interesting to say the least. Each day would bring a whole new meaning to the term culture shock. One day I would be delivering mail in one of the toughest areas of New York known as “Alphabet City” where I would be exposed to drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless and the very next day I would be working in Gramercy Park, meeting some of the richest people in the world.
Being an impressionable 20 year old kid, these experiences would sculpt the way I viewed and judged people for the rest of my life. During this time I would meet the poorest of the poor as well as the elite of our society and everyone in between.
While working in the poor part of the zone, I found out there was nothing to fear. The community was unadulterated and hard working. The people understood and respected that I was there to do my job and most of the time I even sensed that they were looking out for me. When someone said “good morning” or asked “how are you”, you got the feeling they really meant it.
While working in the “elite section” of Gramercy Park I quickly learned that I was not considered an equal, not even by the doormen, as I was often directed to make my way to the freight entrance along with the other “servants”. I remember my first encounter with a cranky concierge who made it very clear that the civil servants had no business being in such close proximity to the tenants of the building. At the time I was more confused than angry but complied with the orders not to use the same entrance as the building residents.
As months rolled by I learned the ins and outs of navigating the beautiful apartment buildings and townhomes strategically surrounding Gramercy Park. On rare occasions some of the residents would actually seek me out to inquire about a package or have a question about forwarding their mail to their summer homes.
One day while sorting my mail in one of the beautifully decorated mailrooms, I was approached by a middle-age man named Bill who decided to strike up a conversation with me while waiting for his mail. I would later learn that this man owned the Penthouse apartment. He began by finding some common ground between us and explained that while in college he actually working for the postal service as a “temp” employee. Eager to hear more I momentarily stopped working and turned toward him. Wow, I thought, here is a self-made man. He obviously must understand the working class as he himself apparently worked his way up the ladder and now has a ton of money!
Much to my surprise and dismay, Bill proceeded to brag to me how, after college in 1963, his Grandmother gave him $150,000 to start his first business venture and the rest was “history”. Holy cow I thought - $150K in the 1960’s! What kind of money did this guy have now? He ended his story by stating how proud he was that he made something of himself and did not have to work for anyone. Then he turned and flashed a descending smirk. Bill did not bother to tell me any more of his story nor did I care to hear it.
As I completed my appointed rounds my annoyance dealing with Bill slowly turned to sadness as I started thinking about a different type of man I had met a few weeks before. Frank was a World War II veteran, living alone in a meager 2 room apartment in the poor part of town. Although his apartment was located just a few short blocks from Gramercy Park it was in essence a world away. Frank was proud and independent man. He enjoyed telling stories about the old neighborhood and his old friends who were now long gone. Serving as an unofficial “mayor” of the block, Frank would sit on the steps outside his building for hours at a time watching and monitoring the neighborhood. Frank knew everyone and everyone knew Frank.
During the first of the month, Frank would also be joined by dozens of other people strewn up and down the block anxiously waiting for their sustenance checks. Some waited for their pension checks while others waited for welfare checks. Almost everyone in that part of the neighborhood lived check-to-check so the mailman was a welcomed site and almost acted as a life-line. Remember back then we had no direct-deposit.
Where was the justice? How could there be so much disparity of wealth in such a short distance? As time went on I began feeling more comfortable working in the ”working class” part of town where one was not judged or looked down upon. I learned a lot about giving and receiving. I also learned a lot about the Bills and Franks of our society.