October 1, 2012

My new job

Last week I began training to be a Rural Carrier Associate with the United States Postal Service. As an RCA in Wellington--a town about eight miles south of Oberlin--I'll be the substitute carrier on a route that covers daily mail deliveries to residents living both in town and out in the surrounding countryside. Because rural routes are typically so long, many rural carriers have to use their own vehicles, but mine (measured at about 43 miles), is just under the upper milage limit, so I'll get to drive an LLV (a "long life vehicle": one of those cute little postal trucks whose daily stop at your mailbox is such an anticipated event).

My training so far has focused most on safety (watch out for DOGS!) and ethics (no, you may not moonlight at FedEx), as well as defensive driving techniques useful for light delivery trucks (keep your following distance to 4+ seconds), but on thursday last week I spent the day shadowing Dee (the regular carrier for whom I'll sub), to get my first real sense for what the job entails. My first impression is that the job is lots harder than I originally assumed...and I'm actually a little nervous about getting started. It didn't help much that my shadow day also happened to be the retiring day for a lady whose been with USPS for 30 years. She went about her duties with a beaming smile on her face saying things like "I can't wait to enjoy the snow for the first time in forever!" and "I'm actually going to like mornings...and CHRISTMAS again!" I suppose every job has its challenges.

In the back room of the post office, a carrier's day begins with "casing": sorting stacks of mail into the proper delivery order for each customer. Each carrier has a set of shelves with dividers labeled by house number and last name into which all the mail, from first class to magazines to political mailings (and in Ohio we have a LOT of those), is sorted. I watched Dee as she'd glance quickly at each piece and then shove it in its proper slot a second later. There are lots of things to watch for (holds, forwards, duplicate #s on different streets, mail sent to the wrong route, etc.), but Dee, who has been a carrier for over 20 years, found each piece's proper place without a moment's hesitation. After a while she asked me to start casing my own stacks and I nervously joined her inside the little cubby and did my best to keep up. I didn't even come close.

This is forgivable for a newbie. In the years she's been doing this route, Dee has come to know most of her customers well, and can easily remember that slot number 44356 is Mrs. Jones, who needs her medications delivered to the doorstep in the wintertime, and that slot number 36621 is Mr. Smith on this-or-that street whose mail is easily mixed up with Mrs. Burns' who has the same number on such-and-so street, and the list goes on. My first impression of Dee is that she's a tough cookie with a work ethic as strong as my mother's (who is hands-down the hardest worker I know), an appreciation for integrity and loyalty, and a genuine affection for people. Oh, and by the way, she was awarded Ohio's "rural carrier of the year" for 2012. As her sub, I have some big shoes to fill!

In the past year or two Dee's route has gone through a number of RCAs. One lady quit because the job was too much to handle, another guy was doing some inappropriate things out on the route and was too slow anyway, and the most recent lady loved the job, but had to leave after only a few months when her husband's work took them out of state. If a carrier doesn't have a sub, they are required to work 6 days a week...rain or snow, sleet or hail, birthday or vacation time be damned. No excuse is a good one. The mail must be delivered. Dee hasn't had a single day off in ages. Once I complete my training (what's left is 4 days in the "rural academy," a day-long driving test in the LLV, and 3 days of doing the route in pieces under Dee's supervision), I'll be working the route on Mondays (Dee's preferred day off), and whenever Dee needs a sub for whatever reason. 

After we finished casing, we hand-trucked the mail out to the LLV and went out to deliver. The LLV is not comfortable. It's cramped and noisy and, aside from about 5000 mirrors mounted on its frame, has terrible visibility. I was belted into a seat in the back of the truck which only allowed me to see out the front windshield and forced me to crane my neck forward in order to hear Dee's notes and instructions. The first part of the route covers an area in town and is pretty much your generic "suburban USA." As we drove the LLV, lots of people were already waiting by their boxes, and every one of them got a warm "Hello! How are ya!" from Dee. She waved at every cop, utility worker, and truck driver we passed, and often had stories to tell about them, what great folks they are, and specific details about how they like to receive their mail. I took all the notes I could on the little pad of post-its I had in my purse.

The second part of the route took us into the thick of northern-Ohio farmland. It is beautiful country, and getting to see it is one of the big reasons I applied for this job in the first place. Yesterday, Rob and I spent the afternoon driving the route together so I could become better acquainted with the lay of the land, and all the little details of where to turn around, where to double back, and how to spot the roads hidden behind stands of drying corn. It also gave me the opportunity to take some photos...something I'm assuming I won't have the luxury of doing while I deliver...at least until I get the hang of things. Most of the farms around here grow corn and soybeans and from the looks of things, we're right in the middle of harvest time. I stopped to take a picture of a soybean plant in particular because I'd never seen how it grows. The shimmering texture of dry soy fields reminded me a little of the roughly painted ground in Andrew Wyeth's iconic Christina's World...

Here are more views of the countryside I'll be driving through...

This part of the the route follows the western edge of Findley State Park.

I suppose I might eat my words this winter, but yesterday I couldn't believe my luck at finding such an incredible job! I mean, check out the view from my office! It's going to be a big challenge, for sure, but I'm looking forward to being able to do important work with and for some great people, in a position that pays well and still allows ample time for me to pursue my trumpet work, as well as other interests. I suppose it's one of those times I can sit back and acknowledge that things are pretty good.


  1. Do you still work as an RCA? Great writing!

    1. Thank you! No, I no longer work as an RCA--enjoyed it for a while, but other things came up. Now endeavoring to find work in the National Parks. Best of luck to you!

  2. Kelly, I was thrilled to find your RCA post. It is wonderful to read some positive and believable facts about the job. I am located just east of the Connecticut River valley in Massachusetts and will begin USPS/RCA orientation in Springfield Mass. in two days. The office I will be working from uses LLV's for most or all rural routes but my home town office still may require personal vehicles. I applied at both places and was not super happy about having to modify my Blazer somewhat for delivering. I took out the central "console" and it would work OK but now I can use an LLV instead.
    I will be a challenging job but I agree with your optimism and appreciating that there is a lot of good to counter the bad. We'll see. -- Carl

  3. I'm about to interview for this position in a section of Arizona. What a beautiful outlook you had for a job so many complain about! I love that you saw the artistic opportunity when so many others complain about how hard the job is. The most shocking is the complaints about weather. What did they expect? You're outdoors. -Stacey E.

    1. Thank you Stacey! And good luck with your interview:)

  4. Kelly

    Great blog regarding RCAs. I have one day of ride along training to go. Went to case mail several times for free to get experience with it (free was my suggestion). The route in Kansas I will be subbing for is about 100 miles in length.

    My question to you is how long did it take you to get over being intimidated by the mail case? The route I am learning has 256 stops and I am learning the case slowly. I did make a spreadsheet and sorted the addresses in different ways and that helped, but it is slow going. Also I think the USPS does not allow enough training as 3 days ride along is just not enough. Any suggestions are appreciated. Sorry you are not still in the business.


    Bob in Kansas

    1. Hi Bob. Thank you for your comments. Yes, I remember, learning the case was a REAL challenge! And you're expected to do it SO quickly! I was astounded watching my regular carrier throw the mail with hardly a second's glance at the names or numbers. I drove the route a couple times on my own, and made a graph-paper diagram of my case with notes on it to help remember names and numbers. I did a lot of studying at home, and just pushed through it as best I could at work. I guess I did ok, because they soon had me learning and delivering other routes as well.

      I want to stress that I have SO much respect for the work mail carriers perform. Until I worked the job I had NO idea the kind of skill and commitment that was involved. I'm going to go further and say that as I've spent the last few years reordering my career, with each new job I've tried--from grocery store cashier, to RCA, to NPS park ranger--I have gained new perspective on the behind the scenes challenges that are faced by workers in every field.

      Best of luck as you learn your route. It sounds like you've got the desire and the dedication. I'm sure it'll be feeling like home in no time!

  5. Hi there again, Kelly! I actually got the job since I posted last. My first day was last Saturday. The only problem is the person training me said it was a light day, so I so far don't know how hard this could be. We got done in 6 hours. Since I haven't been trained on right handed vehicles, I drove a minivan while she delivered things. I helped put stuff into the complex boxes (multiple ones all gotten to by way of a key) I know there's a term for it, but I'm not sure what they call it, yet. Just about everything has a sort of code word for it, including people who train you. It turns out, this area is so small that absolutely everyone is a rural carrier. I expected to have a route out in the middle of nowhere, but it's mostly right in town. And what's even better, I won't have to drive my own car to deliver it. Maybe the other routes they'll let me do will be scenic. I like driving and I like working alone. This might be almost a perfect job for me. -Stacey E.