Friday, May 16, 2003

Postal blog.

Nothing like a little walk after dinner, so I set out westward a bit just as the sun was setting on Tuesday, from Eighth Ave. to Ninth, noticing a number of new diners in that area. One, the Tick-Tock Diner, was attached to the New Yorker Hotel, where I was staying. Two others were west near Ninth Ave., and another was a bit south. That last one was the Cheyenne Diner, which was the only one that looked like it had any age to it; the others gleamed with recentness. A trend in Manhattan eating? A coincidence? Who knows? But there they were.

My path took me around the enormous James A. Farley Post Office — enormous because it needs to be, since it was built to be Manhattan’s main post office, taking up the rectangle between Eight and Ninth avenues and 31st and 33th streets, two full city blocks. Often in my travels, I seek out post offices, and sometimes I’ve been pleasantly surprised, such as by the main post office in Saigon, which is a well-kept French colonial structure, adorned inside with a large portrait of Ho Chi Mihn.

The Farley post office mostly impresses with its size. Its highly visible Eighth Ave. elevation is in a pre-World War I beaux-arts style, with a wide set of steps leading up to a multitude of doors. Above the doors, carved in the stone: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Not actually the motto of the US Postal Service, or even its predecessor Department of the Post Office. But it’s been so visible in this spot for so long that the phrase has become associated with the Post Office and then the USPS. Apparently the phrase was chosen William Mitchell Kendall of the firm of McKim, Mead & White, the architects who designed the Farley building, as well as the original Penn Station (which was beaux arts, too). The man knew his Herodotus, who was describing the message-runners of ancient Persia. One wonders if the modern Iranian post office lives up to this ancient communications marvel, of if anyone could.

“There is nothing in the world which travels faster than these Persian couriers,” wrote Herodotus in Book VIII of the Histories. (My Penguin Classics translation is certainly not the one Wm. Kendall consulted.) “The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes — a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time — neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.”

Since these couriers served the King of Persia, I’m certain there would have been severe punishments for dilly-dallying. On the other hand, it probably wasn’t a job that attracted dilly-dalliers, and very likely esprit de corps was high.

I digress. Along the south side of the Farley building (31st Street), which is fenced in and faceless, a ragged man passed me by and said without warning, “You can get a meal over there.” It wasn’t immediately clear what he was talking about until a few moments later. A couple of mobile soup-kitchen vans were parked just west of Eight Ave., with a few clusters of down-and-outers standing nearby, taking sustenance.

It was an odd feeling, walking by that spot, my stomach full of soft-shell crab. It was a twin set of bourgeois sentiments (bourgeois since I can’t claim to be anything else). One sentiment was sympathetic: Here I am, as prosperous as the well-fed fellow on the Chance and Community Chest cards, and the all these poor bastards probably got growing up were regular beatings from a drunken father, when he was around. The other sentiment was pure Dr. Laura: And just what were these bums doing while I was paying attention in school, and then getting up every day for 20 years to go to work?

I walked on. I’d gotten up at 4:30 a.m. to catch my flight, and could reasonably have expected to call it a day at that point. But when I’m traveling somewhere, I’m not reasonable. The thing to do, I decided, was to go to Greenwich Village.


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