Truth is stranger than fiction so there is never a shortage of sensational news stories but it used to be that those were left to True Detective Magazine and the dime novelists. The fact that Andrea Yates and Chandra Levy are household names speaks to how far we've fallen from an accurate representation of our world. The term "Congressional Intern" conjures images of sex and violence even though the reality is far more mundane. If you follow the television news you have reason to believe that your sister with postpartum depression is a baby killer in waiting.

The best illustration of the destructive effect of sensationalizing isolated tragedy is the stigma suffered by employees of the United States Postal Service. The first image generated in our collective mind when someone is introduced as a postal worker is a disgruntled civil servant teetering on the edge of homicidal mania. The statistical reality is that there have been only eight such recorded incidents since the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin Postmaster General more than 225 years ago. Add to that the knowledge that the Postal Service is among the largest employers on the planet with some 800,000 presumably non-homicidal people on the payroll and you begin to appreciate the breadth of the baseless slander.

The Post Office has always been a fair and decent employer and to combat the negative image of overblown tabloid attention they have redoubled their efforts to create a serene work environment. A job at the Post Office is a great gig if you can get it, comprehensive health and life insurance, a retirement plan and an additional savings program augmented by a generous employer contribution. The service even offers something called "flextime," that allows employees to divide their shifts around personal necessity.

The disgruntled postal worker is by and large a fictional creature and it might surprise you to learn that applicants often spend years on a waiting list to join their ranks. The American Postal Workers Union is among the most powerful and well-financed trade unions on Earth so it is unlikely that employees would suffer for long under the thumb of a capricious Postmaster.

Once you have secured a job with the Postal Service it is all but impossible to get fired.

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Mandy wanted to be a letter carrier in the worst way and she finally got her wish. She had worked on the assembly line of an electronic component factory since her graduation from high school and pined for the freedom of movement and relative independence of a mail delivery route. When she told her friends at the factory that she had taken the test for a position at the Post Office they teased her mercilessly about "going postal" and warned her that she was making a terrible mistake.

She received a score of ninety-five out of a hundred on her examination and was tentatively accepted for employment but had to wait nearly two years for the first job opening. When she finally got the letter in the mail that invited her to interview for a carrier route she felt as if she had won the lottery and put in her two week notice at the factory before the new job was even secured.

Mandy despised the spirit crushing monotony of the assembly line at the factory job and came to refer to it as "Henry Ford's Curse." She wanted to take pride in her work but every effort that she made to that end was greeted with hostility from the floor supervisor who desired that she remain a featureless cog. She had, at one point, been written up and suspended for two weeks for adding the words "with love" to the little adhesive stickers that said "inspected by #10274."

Her greatest frustration at the factory was that the management made it all but impossible for her to feed her gnawing nicotine habit. They closed the employee smoking lounge several years before and told the employees that they must endure the elements and smoke outside near the loading dock. The foreman on the dock was a virulent anti-smoker and soon became irritated with the huddled fumigants and their debris and they were further exiled to the parking lot. Mandy's breaks were only fifteen minutes long and it took nearly seven minutes to make the trek to the Siberian smoking area, which left only sixty seconds to hotbox the heater before the long walk back to the loveless assembly line.

When the Postmaster asked if Mandy had any questions about her new route the only thing that occurred to her was the care and feeding of the monkey on her back. Negative publicity about the working conditions at the postal service made her new employer eager to please and they assured her that the mail delivery vehicle came equipped with an ashtray and that she was free to smoke between deliveries.

Mandy finally found her happy place.

______________________


A veteran postal worker accompanied Mandy for the first week on her new route and his supervisory report indicated that she was the most conscientious employee that he had ever encountered. Mandy arrived early every single morning and on her own time separated the mail for her route into neat little piles tied with a shoestring bow. She carried a small notebook and jotted down all of the names on her route and by the end of her first week of training had memorized all one hundred and twelve of them. She wanted to be able to greet her patrons personally should they ever meet her at the mailbox.

After two weeks of supervision Mandy was scheduled to run her route solo for the first time and she could barely sleep the night before for her giddiness. She stayed up later than she should have, scrutinizing the map of her route and testing her memory to make sure that she knew the name associated with each address. The bit of restless slumber that she did get that night was seasoned with surreal dada-esque dreams of jumbled names and numbers.

General nervousness and lack of sleep that first morning on the job took their toll and Mandy very nearly ran over the dispatcher when she backed her delivery vehicle out of the carpool. The near miss and the scowl that followed made her more nervous still and her hands were trembling on the steering wheel as she pulled away from the postal depot. Her own heartbeat was thumping in her ears as she merged into traffic and realized she had forgotten to bring along the bundle of mail for her route.

After a dangerous U-turn in rush hour traffic and an awkward exchange with the man she had nearly run over in the postal garage, Mandy was on her way to her appointed rounds. When she reached in her pocket for a cigarette to soothe her nerves she realized that she had left them on her kitchen table, right next to the map of her route.

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Mandy steeled herself against the urge to break down and cry and pulled into a convenience store to buy more cigarettes. A line of people formed behind her at the busy counter before she realized that her purse was on the table at home, right next to her cigarettes and map. The Post Office uniform must have inspired confidence or the tears welling up in her eyes engendered pity because the young man at the counter let her have a pack of generic cigarettes in exchange for an IOU.

When the nice old man at her first stop on Maple Street greeted her cheerfully by name she felt that the worst was behind her.

"Howdy, Mandy, you're out on your own today, huh?"

"Yep, Mr. Chamberlain, flying solo today for the first time. Sorry I'm running a little late with your mail."

"Gee, I don't mind. It's all bills anyway. You can keep them for all I care. Say, I didn't know that you smoked. That's a terrible habit for anybody, much less a pretty young girl like yourself."

Mandy forgot that she had the lit cigarette in her hand and was mortified when he reminded her of it. Her supervisor made it clear that she was to confine her smoking to the vehicle and was never allowed to smoke during her actual deliveries. Her first impulse was to drop the cigarette right then and there but she didn't want to mess up Mr. Chamberlain's sidewalk so she ran back to the truck without a word and butted it out in the ashtray.

"I'm sorry Mr. Chamberlain, I'm not supposed to be smoking on my route. I've had such a mess of a morning and my nerves are shot. I didn't even realize I had it in my hand. I hope you won't say anything about it."

"Don't be silly, I wouldn't rat you out but you really ought to kick the habit."

"I know I should, my mother rides me about it all the time but today isn't gonna be the best day for me to quit smoking."

The kind old man could see that Mandy had already had her fair share of stress for the day and offered to walk along with her on the first block of her deliveries to keep her company. He stayed by her side through three more blocks, until her mailbag was nearly empty. He was such a joy that she wished she could drag him along to the next neighborhood to help her finish her route.

As they rounded the corner of Mr. Chamberlain's block and saw the fireball engulfing her mail truck, Mandy realized that her route was probably already finished.

______________________


Government contracts go to the lowest bidder and mail trucks are not immune. The decision to include any ashtray at all was likely a reluctant one so when pennies could be saved by rendering them from plastic, the die was cast. Mandy wasn't really to blame for the loss that day but she put the lie to the urban legend that it's impossible to get fired from a solid union gig. Apparently the postal service is a little touchy about setting the mail on fire so there wasn't any collective bargaining over her immediate termination.

Mandy wanted to make her mark on the new job but she couldn't have dreamt that her short term of service would have such a far-reaching impact. The United States Postal Service operates tens of thousands of similar vehicles and every last one of them had the ashtray removed on Mandy's behalf. Contracts for new vehicles must conform to the new Mandy standard.

The next time you meet a mail carrier on the street, you might want to keep the "going postal" remark to yourself. There's a pretty good chance he's having a nicotine fit and is not to be trifled with.


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