I guess it’s become cliché to talk about it, but the stasis of Midtown Manhattan in the age of coronavirus has made me very, very sad. It’s enough to make me ask if New York is not already gone, just a series of structural echoes where a city used to be.
I try to make it to Midtown once a week, to get mail at my PO Box, which I usually refer to as my 181. Most times I walk both ways, via the Ed Koch/Queensboro Bridge. But yesterday an obnoxious blast of rain had me taking a subway back. It’s the first subway I’ve used in probably two months. I made no direct epidermal contact with any surface but I can’t lie, being in that kind of confined space made me a little nervous.
I’ve had the PO Box at Rockefeller Center for about 29 years. It is no longer the necessity or even convenience it used to be, but after all this time I find it hard to let go. Usually I renew for a full year but only did 6 months this time. I don’t know if I will let it go once and for all this summer.
There is talk of shutting down the USPS altogether. Some branches now have reduced hours and staffing. The main area of Rockefeller Center post office yesterday was staffed by one person. Usually a dozen or more workers man those posts. With deliveries on the rise you would think the USPS might be busier, and maybe other locations are. But with virtually all businesses in the Rockefeller Center’s area closed this particular office felt like a ghost town. I should not have even expected it to be open, and in fact I arrived just a few minutes before the only person I needed to see took her lunch break.
Wandering around midtown for about an hour while that person took her break is hardly the worst sentence one could get, except that it was raining and virtually everything was closed. There was nowhere to sit except on the ground in a covered space near one of the entrances to one of the buildings. The only humans present seemed to be the Rockefeller Center security guards, a small number of postal workers, and police officers.
The Rockefeller Center post office became an epicenter of the post-9/11 anthrax mailings back in 2001. This is also where the Hillary Clinton Foundation gets its mail, or at least it used to. I know this because I once spotted a bin filled with mail, and a hand-written note that just said “HILLARY”. I half-jokingly asked a clerk if that was Hillary’s mail. He confirmed that it was.
I’ve long felt that a bit of mystery inhabits the PO Boxes. None contain names or outward-identifying information. I have barely a glimmer of an idea who else uses them, having occasionally received misdirected letters and such intended for adjacent boxes.
Recently I started getting lipstick catalogs for someone named Jennifer Bishop. Somebody by that name evidently did have a PO Box at this office from 2007-2011, but its number was not even close to 181 and it’s lost on me why I would receive her stuff now. These catalogs are addressed to her name, at PO Box 181, so they’re getting delivered to where they are addressed, though I would expect postal workers to catch things like this.
One of the oddest features to come down the USPS pike was the introduction of Informed Delivery. The way it’s supposed to work is that the USPS emails me a photograph of any piece of mail destined for my PO Box. It sounds handy and it might be if it only worked. I rarely get emails containing images of incoming mail, and when I do get one of these emails it either does not include a photo of the mailpiece or else it simply informs me that I had no mail delivered that day. Not very useful.
They also introduced lockers, intended for use as storage of parcels too big for your PO Box. Instead of a pick-up slip in you box you’d get a key for one of the lockers. I signed up for this years ago but not until a few weeks ago did they actually deploy this little feature. It made sense in the context of preventing spread of the virus, and I thought it might signal ongoing usage of the lockers. If yesterday gives any indication their usage was short-lived. I had to get my package the old-fashioned way.
I was happy to see one particular postal worker yesterday. She is mean as hell to most any customer I’ve seen her interact with but always nice and respectful to me.
One time I approached her counter to find her screaming full tilt at a customer who had evidently been rude to her. As I approached she pointed at me and said “Why can’t you be like Mr. Thomas? He’s a nice, decent man, never rude like you.” I did not want to get involved in whatever was going on here but her comments stuck with me.
Yesterday she did not recognize me at first. Not surprising at all since I was wearing a facemask and a hat, and she was also behind a newly-placed sheet of plastic intended to prevent breathing or any type of spit type contact between clerks and customers.
In lieu of me handing her the pick-up slip and potentially passing germs along she just asked for my box number.
“181”, I replied.
She said “Oh, it’s you, Mr. Thomas. How you doing?”
She knew me by my box number. That was kinda cute.
Aside from the uselessness of the Informed Delivery service and the lack of use of the lockers my gripes about this post office have not changed since day 1. They have no weekend hours and access to the PO Boxes is not allowed after business hours.
I secured a PO Box to achieve a level of anonymity, as well as permanence. The latter seems a bit ironic now. In 1990 or 1991 I presented myself with a choice between getting a PO Box or a safe deposit box. Lacking any items of real monetary value I went with the PO Box, thinking I could use it as a form of storage, storage for what I no longer remember.
It proved a good choice. Had I gone with a safe deposit box I would have rented one at the Twin Towers. Oof.
The 181 also came in handy as a primary mailing address when I got a job working at Rockefeller Center some years later. I still think of Rockefeller Center as something of a home away from home on account of the 181, and also for having worked there a bunch of years. For this reason the closure of its public space caused more sadness in me than I might have expected.
My earliest memories of the Concourse date from 1986, when my mother and I came to New York for me to audition at Juilliard. One of the running jokes about that trip was getting two coffees and two brownies at a restaurant next to the skating rink. The total for those 4 items was $30. The price seemed ludicrous but she paid it, and we laughed about it for years.
For a period of months the PO Box section of the post office was closed for renovations. Customers picked up their mail at a room elsewhere in the Concourse, in a space around where Pret A Manger is now. That arrangement was a mess, but the postal workers seemed to find it hilarious that people’s mail routinely got lost or misdelivered during this time best described as “improvisatory”.
When the newly renovated PO Box section opened my 181 was about 5 or 6 feet to the left of where it had been before. To this day, I think it’s been over 15 years, I still have to mentally adjust my assumption about where the box is located. I still gravitate to the boxes that now occupy the space mine used to. I also think the 181 is presently a little higher up than before.
A similar postal tic for me involves the zip code of the house I grew up in in Tampa. When we moved in it was 33612. I don’t remember when but years later it was changed to 33613. As with the physical location of my 181 I find, to this day, that I have to remind myself that the zip code for the house in Tampa changed from 33612 to 33613.
When I first got the 181 the postal worker said to use 10185-0002 as the zip code. I continue to use that zip+4 today even as many mailers automatically change it to 10185-0181. I don’t know if one zip is more correct than the other, or if it matters. I continue to use 10185-0002 on my contact page because it signals if a letter came from someone who found one of my websites.
Web searches for “10185-0002” reveal some usage of that zip code in the early 1990s, but I probably rank among the last holdouts still using the -0002 +4. I see that downstairs from me, at PO Box 185, there used to be the Stara Cosmetic Corporation. Other defunct companies and ephemeral uses of the zip code appear here or there.
The number 181 remains a bit of a fixation for me, as well as a source of interesting connections. A woman with whom I used to correspond moved to another state and procured a PO Box. Without requesting or even considering it she was, magically it seemed, given PO Box 181. She sent epic-length letters and materials to me at my 181, but she did not have her 181 long enough for me to send anything there.
I also got a credit card recently on which the CVV number on back was 181. That card did not last long, unfortunately.
I also take note of the conspicuous number of times I see the number in all manner of contexts. It’s a perfect number, a mirror image of itself, the same upside down as right side up.
While waiting for the postal clerk to return from her break yesterday I discovered that the highest number box at this station is number 5578. Good to know, right? But it also appears that a set of about 400 box numbers were skipped in one corner of the place.
I am writing all this as a stress release. I’ve not handled this corona thing very well so far, though I will say that for once in my life I feel lucky to be alone. My anxiety levels cause physical pain, and a shortness of breath I can safely say is not symptomatic of the virus. Shortness of breath is a common side-effect for me when anxiety strikes. Writing these words has eased that symptom somewhat.
I have reconnected with the first people I met through the Internet. I never fully lost touch with them but for most of this crowd contact has been sporadic.
I first connected with them in 1993 or 1994. It was a twitchy scene back then, as early adopters of dialup BBSes and other online interactive services cut a far different profile from those who later poured into easier-to-use services like AOL and Prodigy. We considered those services training wheels for online access.
Today we convene on an IRC channel, a place where I for one had idled for months at a time over the years, rarely seeing any activity. Today it’s a lot of fun, though I remain unclear just who the hell some of these people were when I might have interacted with them back in 1993 and 1994, or what they might think they know about me.