Postie Perspectives: Reflections

By Andrew Wernette

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A shred of turkey lay sprawled on the red tile floor, footsteps jostling past it. I piled the product on a slip of tissue paper and placed it on the scale. The digits rose; print, bag.

“Anything else, ma’am?”

“London broil, please. A pound.”

The slicer is not that daunting after a few tries. One develops a rhythm: back and forth, hand outstretched to claim the precious slices that trickle down from the blade. After awhile the process imbues itself into the brain, not really leaving room for second thoughts. The great union of man and machine.

I did not hate it, no. Deli work is a job that is made for some and entraps many others; I sat somewhere in the middle. Whereas I heard hushed grumbles about low wages, I worked without needing to support myself or to improve my lifestyle. I suppose I was there simply to work.

And observe.

People came and went in surges. “I’ll take a pound of potato salad.” “Two chicken breasts, please.” There were faces of the young, the old, the wealthy, the foreign, the strange. All sorts of personalities behind them:

“Where do you come from, ma’am?”

“Moscow.”

“Oh! I want to go there someday.”

“Go! Definitely, go! But not alone, in a group. You speak English alone, they see you … too dangerous. Go with friends.”

The deli crew was a troupe of various characters bonded into a team. A few had been there for years; some, only months. From them, I heard stories about different sides of life, stories of past experiences and lessons learned. I, in turn, asked where they came from and if they had ever traveled anywhere.

There was a fair-eyed Shakespearean actress who worked among us. She usually stood out from everyone else with her rosy-red lipstick and stylized glasses. A veteran of the store, she constantly balanced work with theater. Almost every week she had a performance, occasionally coming to work exhausted afterward. Sometimes she softly sang her parts as she chopped something at the counter.

I was constantly scheduled as one of the closers. We decided who cleaned up what beforehand, and I normally volunteered to do the sweeping and mopping: I’ve always thought those activities to be Zen-like. As the customers dwindled, we’d wipe everything clean and take the last temperatures of special foods. Then we would leave. I’d drive home in the dark.

One of my coworkers is a guy who I assumed was African American, but I noticed that his last name was Spanish. So I guessed that he was half of the former and half Mexican. Just last night we finally broke into conversation. Turns out he is Filipino.

I think race-guessing is one of those things that we find morally questionable, but yet everyone secretly does it anyway.

On my birthday there was nothing planned, so I decided to hop into my car and just drive around. I drove outside of the subdivision, across the road, and into the country.

It is very hilly and green outside the town of Almont, and if you travel far enough you will swear you have entered the English countryside: sweeping pastures and great horse stables abound everywhere, tucked into corners only accessible by small, wooded roads. As I drove, the memories seeped into my head of all the times I had leisurely driven through this part in the past. Those days were long ago.

On a narrow road I spotted two tall figures up ahead under the trees, which turned into a couple of horse riders as I came closer. There was no need for me to slow down; I was already rolling at a slow pace in order to take in everything around me. I moved to the side as I came to the equestrians, one of them waving and saying what I thought was “thank you.” I suppose she thanked me for taking it slow.

It is easy to imagine earlier times within this landscape, when horses were the sole means of transportation and technology was more primitive. Century-old barns dot the hills alongside century-old farmhouses, and centuries-old forgotten cemeteries are hidden away between the fields. I could see myself here in a previous life, a dandy lad in simple clothes wandering down the horse trails by foot. And maybe I did; whatever is written.

I emerged onto the main road heading back to town, out of the backcountry and all the sleeping dreams that linger there in the air. My hand pulled the shifter up as I gathered speed. I have a bad feeling that the beautiful parts of the world are disappearing.

I passed a boy on a bike as I strolled through one of the neighborhoods in town. He just looked straight ahead and pedaled onward.

A year ago I crossed the border near Reno, Nevada and rode into the hills of northern California.

The first curiosity I ran into was an agricultural checkpoint. I pulled up to a booth where a blond woman in sunglasses smiled and asked if I had any special kinds of fruits or vegetables. After clearing my box of trail mix and examining my trunk, I was handed a yellow slip of clearance and permitted to go on my way.

The spotlessness of the roads was the first thing that dawned on me. I suppose it is hard to describe just how clean and clear a road can be, but I felt that my wheels were passing over some of the finest stretches I had come across on my trip thus far. And the sun … it smiled over everything: over the crisp pines standing on the roadside; over the rolling rivers that washed beneath the bridges; on the cars that passed by in the opposite direction.

I took the suggestion of my uncle to take a detour along Lake Tahoe, at which I saw a face of water as blue as the clear sky, separated by a sweep of rugged evergreen. As the road wound high into the hills over the lake, it all became only more breathtaking. This was California.

“It’s all just so shiny here,” I said to my uncle later as we enjoyed a Jamba Juice in his town.

“The cars here are usually kept pretty clean,” he replied. “They don’t really rust here, either.”

I don’t think he quite understood what I was getting at. 

During my first weeks in the AmeriCorps, we worked at an old Native village named Ah Pah. It was up the coast a bit; to reach it, one had to know the right unmarked trail to turn onto from the highway before driving many miles into the mountains. Nestled in the redwoods of Yurok tribal lands, it overlooked the mighty Klamath River. We had the task of trimming the grass around some traditional dance grounds that sat in a clearing. The Yurok man who looked after the grounds lived next door.

On one occasion, the man brought out a jar of smoked salmon. This was his own work of catching, slicing and hanging the strips of fish in his nearby smokehouse, an outhouse-sized shed with a pile of smoldering coals at the bottom. He placed it on the picnic table along with crackers as a thank-you gift for our work, and we eagerly partook.

Homemade smoked salmon: there was nothing like it. It was oily and fatty and salty and laced with that rustic touch of smoky goodness. It was the type that melted in your mouth, where you didn’t have to think too hard to enjoy it. We all gladly helped ourselves to those dark red, savory strips as the Klamath glittered in the distance.

“It’s funny how simple a process it is to make this,” I said to the man as he later showed us more salmon being smoked. I was trying to reference how, with just the use of smoke, one could render a rather tasty treat. He understandably took it another way and proceeded to describe all the hard work and time it takes to catch, fillet and smoke the fish. I politely nodded my head.