From the shoulder of the road, without ever getting out of his car, Ernie Turner knows things about people in Pasadena Park that even their neighbors might not.
Birthdays and anniversaries, postcards from abroad, upcoming dental appointments and even when the family dog is past due for a distemper shot. Turner sees things.
Books one cannot judge by their covers, but the mail, the mail gives some of its secrets away, whispers where it’s from and who it’s for.
A mailman of 50 years learns that the most interesting part of the job is not what’s being dropped off, but rather where it’s going.
“You get to know people and if you work the same route long enough, you see things change,” Turner said. “You might even get to see children grow up.”
Turner, 75, pays no mind to his cargo’s “poker tells” as he rolls down the street in his blockish Grumman LLV – the initials stand for long-life vehicle. The vehicle is made to last 20 years without an overhaul. There’s no in-dash radio, no air conditioning, just a propeller fan to churn the warm air. A few weeks ago, one mail carrier nearly torpid from the heat packed a thermometer in this Grumman just to see what he was up against. The temperature in the truck reached 105 degrees.
Turner doesn’t mind the heat any more than he minds the January cold, when the window’s down and what little heat there is escapes at every stop.
He keeps a boom box on the floor beside his feet, keeps its radio dialed in to 103.9 FM “The Bob,” whose motto is “80s … 90s … & Whatever.” Turner sticks with music that keeps the dawdling Grumman trundling forward, like some oversized loaf of Wonder Bread, at speeds approaching 15 mph.
In Turner’s 50 years of walking and driving routes, America’s neighborhoods have changed. In April 1958, when he first carried the mail in Yucaipa, Calif., there was still somebody home at midday at most of the houses where he stopped. The two-income family was relatively new. The price of first-class postage had just gone up a penny to 4 cents, the first increase in 26 years.
A decade later, the divorce rate was climbing, and once again from the curb you could see society changing. Turner said he was slow to observe it. He missed the arrival of the single-parent home until he acquired a route that included an apartment complex. By that time, he was delivering mail in Spokane. What struck him was gazing upward at the apartments and seeing single women with young children living in quarters more commonly associated with college students.
And the mail changed. Americans lost their inclination to blush at receiving magazines with high-gloss cover shots of skimpily dressed models. There are magazines dropped in mailboxes today – not adult-only publications, but plain old mail order catalogues – that 40 years ago would have required a brown paper wrapper.
In a sense, mailmen are very much the window shoppers of American life, agreed Dan Hoover, Turner’s postmaster. There’s a detachment because carriers seldom go beyond the box, but enough of a connection still for mailmen to see things others don’t.
In recent years, it has become Postal Service policy for carriers like Turner to keep tabs on the elderly and report anything out of the ordinary. Sadly, mail carriers are often the first people to notice when an elderly person’s home no longer exhibits signs of life, either because of a stroke, injury or death. Children aren’t the only people mail carriers observe growing older.
Turner knows his customers, said Shirley Ahern. The longtime administrative assistant at Pasadena Irrigation District relied on Turner to reorganize his route twice a year for the water company’s billing statements. Like clockwork, Turner always made the change, usually with a softspoken word and an easygoing smile, said Ahern, who recently retired. She really didn’t even have to ask Turner to change things up, Ahern said. Somehow, he just knew to do it.