A reminiscence about the FDR Station post office in New York City
Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel
The village post office in America’s biggest little village stands on the east side of Third Avenue at 54th Street in Manhattan, New York, N.Y. It is a 32-story tower of the brutalist style, built in the late 1960s, that presents what the NYC Urbanism website calls “an audacious facade” that “emphasizes its presence using both its volumetric mass and the practical subtle use of light and shadow along its facade.”
In other words, it’s a rather grim goliath of a building, with a windowless three-story podium that conceals the retail counters, and a blockwide loading dock for the dozens of United States Postal Service delivery trucks that make this hulk their home.
But for four glorious summers more than half a century ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt Station, ZIP code 10022, was the workplace of a skinny college boy from Brooklyn (me) and the gateway to some of the most famous office buildings in the country and some of the poshest residences in the world.
To pass the civil service examination and be hired as a seasonal parcel post carrier out of FDR Station was to be awarded the chance to glimpse the city’s entrails from the freight elevators to the penthouses, and to be paid quite well by 1967 standards.
Our routes took us to Sutton Place, Tudor City and the elegant brownstones of the East Side; to the Chrysler and Lever and Seagram buildings; to Grand Central Station, the Copacabana, Tiffany’s and Bloomingdale’s; and even to the school for aspiring stewardesses at the headquarters of Pan American World Airways.
Fifty years ago, Manhattan was little different from what it is today: relentless, ambitious, deafening, unforgiving, teetering in a constant state of tearing down and building up both skyscrapers and careers.
For a 17-year-old, a badge, an arrow key (to unlock mailboxes) and a blue shirt with a Pony Express patch were tokens of a deep sense of belonging, of being an integral part of the city’s rhythm.
Now it is 2024, and the good people at FDR Station invited me, an elderly alumnus, back for a visit.
At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in January, the trucks that bulged with the morning’s precious packages were sliding back to the garage, empty.
A man named John Gulino was one of the incoming drivers. He said that he used to work as a computer technician but switched to the Postal Service “because I thought it was a steady job.” It sure was; Gulino has been uniformed in USPS blue since 1993.
“I once delivered a package to Greta Garbo on East 52nd Street,” I boasted as the conversation turned to the celebrities who adorn the neighborhood.
Gulino replied that he once made a delivery to “Scarlett Johansson on East 53rd.”
I exclaimed that I once delivered mail to “Johnny Carson and Irving Berlin!”
“Donald Trump,” said John Gulino, ending our duel. “I went up his private elevator.”
Behind the audacious facade were thousands of square feet of sorting and handling space, barcode-reading robots, and conveyor belts and packages piled to the sky.
(Nobody was seen playing basketball or soccer with a parcel, which is not to admit that anybody did that in 1967, either.)
Dorethea Bradshaw, customer service manager for the FDR Station post office, came to the Postal Service 19 years ago as an entry-level mail handler because she was “a college student with bills to pay.” Her comment reflected my own situation all those years ago.
“It was good money,” Bradshaw said, “and that’s all she wrote.”
Now she commutes from the far side of Philadelphia because “I still have it in my crazy mind that I can effect some sort of change,” she said.
“What needs to change?” she was asked.
“Young people’s outlook on the Postal Service,” Bradshaw answered. “Understanding the demands of the job that you take on when you sign up for the job.”
“If I succeed,” Bradshaw said, “then everyone would have elevated their own careers.”
“I’ll tell anybody that this is a job where you can start at the very bottom,” she said. “I’ve been here 19 years and I’m in charge of one of the biggest buildings in this city. But I still have aspirations to go higher.”
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