Arthur Jackson double-parks near the back entrance to the post office a few minutes after 7 a.m., and together we haul in his retirement party treats like priority parcels: a chocolate cake, a cheesecake, and a tray of cookies. I try to keep up as my father speed walks through an alley between metal racks stacked with boxes from Amazon, past slots for mail to no one marked with “deceased,” “refused,” and “no such number.”
The air conditioner is off, and Arthur is miffed. It’s slated to be a hot day, one of the worst all summer, and it’s already almost 80 degrees by sunrise. Last summer he passed out on his route from dehydration. Along with dogs and blizzards, hot days like these are a mailman’s enemy.
He races around to collect trays of mail and packages for his route, #733, and pretty quickly, the curly vein on his left temple starts to bulge. On his desk, which is really a cubby surrounded by numbered slots, is a stack of 618 advertisements to join the New York Sports Club. Arthur spots them and grimaces. “Overtime.” It’s his last day of work after 35 years in the post office, and he’ll have to stay late.
By 7:45, the other letter carriers are buzzing around us. “Hey Artie’s daughter!” an old buddy of my dad says to me in the thickest Jersey City accent imaginable, so it sounds like “Ahtie’s dawtah.”
Now fully staffed and with employees sorting mail, the part of the post office no customer ever sees comes alive. Music blasts from speakers on the other end of the room. Today, they are playing the oldies in honor of Artie’s retirement. The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is on — with the refrain “life goes on, bruh.” Though my 66-year-old father’s hearing aid just barely picks up the tune, that song is his anthem today.
The postman is a “person in your neighborhood,” as that old “Sesame Street” song goes, someone “you meet when you’re walking down the street.” But the letter carrier as we know him is heading toward extinction. Digital communication’s rise has rendered mail carrier the number-one, most-endangered profession, according to the jobs site CareerCast.com. Invisible waves and technology are replacing people who deal in personal interaction and old-fashioned shoe-leather. By 2022, that workforce will shrink by 28 percent.
But my father started his career in another era, when it held the promise of stability and even growth. Since 1980 he has walked the equivalent of 2.5 times around the equator. On his route, he saw children grow up and delivered their college acceptance letters. He saw people flourish in their careers, retire, and await their pension checks. He saw the Twin Towers come down and the Freedom Tower go up, all from the almost treeless crest where he tred in Jersey City’s Heights neighborhood. He saw residents move out and in, and when someone died, he mourned with the family.
A newspaper reporter, I am also in a so-called endangered profession. Like my father, I was drawn to a career that requires me to talk to people, something the job market tells us isn’t relevant anymore. But walking with my father on his very last route, and seeing how much a part of people’s lives he’d become, made me trust that I’d made the right decision to follow in his footsteps.
Amid sorting, colleagues come up to my father (or as they’d say, my “fadda”) to say goodbye. He cycles through a series of farewells he prepared for the day: “sayonara,” “arrivederci,” “au revoir,” and “shalom.” As they stop by, the letter carriers eye my outfit — cheap flats from Target, a flowery sundress — as if to say, “Can you handle the walk?”
I wasn’t sure I could. I’d only been out there with him one other time, following him around and selling Girl Scout Cookies to his customers after he’d drop off their mail. (I won “Cookie Queen” that year.) My only memory from that day is a moment when I stood on the sidewalk and gazed up at a tall tower of stairs, immobilized and overwhelmed. I probably quit climbing up to the front doors after just a few houses.
Hiking those stairs is what has kept my father fit all these years, despite an absurd daily lunch of peanut butter crackers, chocolate chip cookies, and Mountain Dew. His very first ID badge, dated Aug. 23, 1980, and still in his pocket, shows the face of a plumper, 31-year-old version of himself. In the years since that photo was taken, he’s shed a double chin, 45 pounds, and a majority of his full, dark-brown mop, but looks just as handsome. Walking for a living has been good to him.
Before he departs for his last route, Artie has some advice for Awilda Santiago, a letter carrier he trained 16 years ago. “Have a good time,” he tells her. “Whatever you do, life goes on.” Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.
By 10 a.m., we are making our way down Central Avenue, a noisy stretch of apartments and eateries, with scents from the Chinese fish market and the pizza place wafting together. An old woman shuffling by with a metal wire shopping cart stops him.
“Your father, he’s a very, very good man,” she says in a thick Italian accent. “God bless him.” She reaches out and pinches his chin.
“Arrivederci,” Artie says, and the woman rolls away.
“Who is she?” I ask him afterward.
“She’s 59 Reservoir.”
Though he earned a degree in English education, my father didn’t know what he wanted to do. For a decade after college, he bounced around, working in a liquor store and living in a basement apartment. After he met my mother, Roberta, he decided to take the postal service exam. He passed, and started the job the week before they got married. I was born exactly two years later.
He started out driving a truck around Jersey City to pick up mail from blue boxes on unfamiliar corners. To help him navigate, his new wife studied a Hagstrom map and drove in front of him with her blinkers on. He followed and made his pickups.
But “my dream,” he said, “was always getting my own route.”
He did get one, and kept it for 28 years — a middle-class, ethnically diverse neighborhood at the edge of the Palisades with a view straight to Lower Manhattan.
“I learned it,” he said. “I know all the names, all the people. I hate to use the word, but it’s sort of like power. Once you really know what you’re doing, you feel good.”
For a while, my mom worked at a travel agency on Central that was one of Arthur’s daily stops. Each day when he’d bring the mail to her department, he’d come to her desk and they’d talk, mostly about what to have for dinner that night. When I was a kid working there part-time, I would wait for him each morning, excited to see him looking so official in his powder-blue and denim uniform.
I’d been a part of his route for a long time — through pictures and stories my dad would share with anyone who would listen. Though they may not have met me, most of his customers watched me grow up via wallet-sized photos, from the bespectacled kid with the Dorothy Hamill haircut to the tan girl with dark brown hair falling over her college graduation gown. Today, it’s a customer who takes a picture of me standing next to my dad. I look at the result on her digital camera screen: same height, same toothy smiles.
At 11:15, we turn onto Prospect Street, one of two long stretches with a bulk of the families my father has known for generations. At the first house, we run into Andy, a man in his early 70s whose belly is wrapped in a white undershirt and who speaks in thick Jersey City-ese.
“What girl is coming back here?” he asks, referring to who will be replacing my dad on the route.
“I don’t know, but I have a tall blonde, and I specifically mentioned you,” Artie says, grinning.
A few houses down is a favorite address of my dad because the Daubers, like him, are Jewish. Brother and sister Allan and Sheila live there now, but my dad’s been delivering here since their parents were alive. When they died, he sat shiva with the family.
The Daubers are the source of many of my dad’s terrible jokes. He’ll pick up a joke here, and repeat it to a dozen other households in the same day. “There are jokes I tell him and he tells me back,” Allan says.
“Shalom,” Artie says, his final goodbye as the Daubers’ letter carrier. He’ll see them again, he promises, at synagogue.
It’s 93 degrees, and we’re right around the spot where my dad fainted the previous summer. I watch him climb from one porch to a neighboring one, a hack to help him skip a few stairs. When he comes back down to the sidewalk, one of his calf-height, black socks becomes slightly askew, revealing his tan-line. I can see the toll of 35 summers; his exposed skin is practically orange compared to the shocking paleness under those socks.
From here we can see straight to where the Twin Towers used to stand. On 9/11, Arthur saw the smoke billowing from that spot as he went on delivering the mail. His only source of information that day were the customers, who would tear away from the news to give him updates. “The people on the street,” he said, “were my contacts to the outside world.”
As he continues delivering envelopes, he gets some in return — cards with cash and gift certificates tucked in. “Thank you for serving us,” the customers say. “I wanna shake his hand.” “He’s the best mailman.” He makes it down one side of the street and back up the other. Toward the end of the block, four customers stop him to take pictures and listen to the same jokes he’s repeated all day.
It’s like saying goodbye to family. “The feeling of the people out there, patting me on the back, shaking my hand, taking pictures with me,” he said. “This for me, personally, in my life, is the biggest deal that has ever happened.”
On Reservoir — the next and final stretch of his route — an older man named Bob walks up and hands my dad a $20. “You’ll be sorry you left,” Bob tells him.
“Life goes on,” Artie replies.
Outside the refurbished Victorian home that’s been in his family since the Civil War, Joe Stanziani gushes about my dad’s accuracy and reliability, how he takes a kind of old-fashioned pride in his work not seen today. It’s evidenced by the one-and-a-half years’ worth of sick leave my dad never used — a record in his station.
Artie has already moved on and I hear him shouting “au revoir” to another neighbor.
There are only a couple of houses left, with stairs made of crooked, broken cement. I worry about my dad’s gait as he shuffles up them now, dragging his feet over the uneven hazard that is his workplace on an exceptionally hot day.
The last address is an apartment building. He is in and out quickly and his postal career is suddenly over. His face is gray. We’re both sweating. My feet are aching, and a corner of my cheap canvas shoes has come apart.
“I’m washed out,” he says.
We head back to the office with a half-hour of overtime. The first one in, and now the last one out, Artie is still racing around, getting things in order for whomever works here next.
“I’m finished, literally forever,” he tells me as we finally walk out of the darkened office, leftover chocolate cake in tow, the music of the morning long silenced.
“It’s strange,” he says. “When you graduate, you’re never going back.”