by Josh Bootsma
1. The Men
Paul Schultz squinted at the mail slot in the front door of the Lansing residence. He shifted his gaze to the coconut in his hand and re-read the address that had been carved into its round surface. Perhaps he’d just have to leave it on the porch.
He continued his route, the same one that he would walk for three decades. Take out the mail, make sure the addresses match, place it in the slot or box. And repeat.
Now 80 years old, Schultz spent nearly all his professional life working for the United States Postal Service, even before it was called by that name. Interrupted only by a four-year stint in the Air Force, Schultz spent his days walking the streets of the only town he’s ever called home until retiring at age 55.
When 20-year old Schultz first heard from his aunt that the Post Office was hiring, Lansing boasted a population of only 3,000 and had only six mail routes. Schultz began with the post office as a part-time employee, where three times a week he was tasked with making sure the outgoing mail made its way into Chicago. To accomplish this, he would assemble the mail into a bag and head to the train tracks where he attached it to the mail crane and used the pulley system to hoist it to just the right height. As the train chugged past, a mail car with a specially designed hook would snatch the bag from the crane as it traveled towards the city.
It wasn’t long before Schultz became a full-time mail carrier for the USPS, walking the business district of Ridge Road, the same street where he would one day lead tours as Village Historian, over half a century later.
* * *
Aldo Sulli flashed a smile across his face. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll do my best.”
The words were true, but the smile was fake.
As he left the Post Office to begin his route, Sulli swallowed his anxiety and resolved to try his hardest to get his mail delivered on time with no mistakes, though he knew it wouldn’t be good enough. As he walked from mailbox to mailbox, he was mindful not to talk too long to any of the residents he encountered, something he used to enjoy doing. He avoided food and drink in the morning so he wouldn’t have to make a restroom stop during his day on the streets. There just wasn’t time for any of it.
Sulli started working for the post office in his early twenties and delivered mail in the Gary, Indiana, area for 32 years. Close to where he grew up, his first routes were in the Glen Park area of South Gary. After walking the streets for 16 years he was moved north to Miller Beach, where he delivered mail near Lake Michigan, splitting his time between walking and driving. He ended his career in Lake Station, where he began his battle with multiple sclerosis—which eventually made his job too difficult to endure.
A Lansing resident since 1989, Sulli spent many of his days as a mail carrier longing for his next vacation but dreading the mess that might accrue while he was gone. In a perfect world, he would look forward to walking through and interacting with the community, but the ever-increasing burdens of productivity he had to bear every day made carrying his mail bag that much harder.
2. The Mail
Years before Sulli would take to the streets, Schultz came into the post office once a month on Sunday to “get the dispatch ready.” This entailed amassing the mail from any collection boxes in Lansing and separating it by state, or, in the case of Chicago-area-bound mail, separating it into one of a couple dozen Chicago regions. Around 1960, Schultz moved on from his part-time job as a dispatch clerk to become a full-time carrier, starting his day the same way every mail carrier has started his or her day for decades—by “casing” the mail.
“Casing” refers to the process of dividing out the day’s mail by address and bundling it. Using a large grid stippled with dividers, carriers divide up the day’s mail by address, in the order in which they travel their route.
“Every letter carrier knew what eighteen-and-eight meant” Schultz said. This was the casing per-minute standard referring to letters and flats. A mail carrier was expected to sort 18 letters per minute or eight newspapers, magazines, or other large mailers.
After the mail was cased, Schultz would bundle each house’s mail using string, though the USPS would later switch to rubber bands. “I noticed when we used to use string, every bird’s nest in Lansing had post office string in it,” Schultz recalled.
Decades later, Sulli’s usual day began much the same way—casing the mail. As the Post Office moved away from “many hands make quick work” to “many computers make even quicker work,” an increasing amount of mail came in pre-sorted through an automated process, eliminating the need to sort through it. Other pieces didn’t have an address at all, intended to be delivered to every address on Sulli’s route. Although this shortened his sorting time in the morning, it complicated his duties on the streets. In addition to carrying his 20-pound bag and avoiding sidewalk hazards and garden hoses, he now had four bundles to check when delivering mail to a house (compared to Schultz’s one large bundle): “residual mail” (a letter from a friend, for instance), automated letters, small parcels, and sales papers. After a difficult day on the job, Sulli once told his wife Cindy that the ideal mail carrier would be an octopus.
3. Out on the streets
Sulli arrived at work at 7:00am every morning, cased his mail, and loaded up his mail truck for the day’s work. Though he walked exclusively for the first half of his career, his time at Miller Beach and Lake Station were spent in and out of his truck. Many of his routes were called “park and loop” routes, meaning Sulli would park the truck at the end of the street, deliver the mail down both sides, move the truck to a new area, and do it all over again.
During his time near Lake Michigan on his Miller Beach route, Sulli became friends with many of his postal customers, some of whom invited him to bring the mail into their homes.
“I’d walk right into their kitchen and set their packages and their mail down, and the guy’d be downstairs [and say,] ‘Hey, how ya doing, Aldo?’ ‘I’m all right,’ I’d say, ‘you don’t need to come up to sign anything.’…I got to know a lot of people,” Sulli said. An added perk, Sulli, Cindy, and their two sons Anthony and Dominic never had to worry about finding a place to park if they visited the beach—his friends on the route always came through.
Later in his career as the USPS took steps to be more efficient, Sulli had to scan barcodes on certain mailboxes along his route. The Post Office said these intermittent scans were part of an effort to make sure each postal customer got his/her mail at about the same time every day. Sulli thinks it was just as much an effort to make sure the carriers were on schedule. As productivity numbers became more important, management implemented stricter timetables for the carriers’ routes, ones that Sulli knew he would have trouble sticking to. He dreaded having a ride-along from management, for fear that more addresses would be added to his route if they thought he could work faster.
“Literally every minute, every second, was accounted for,” Sulli said, “the stress was unbelievable.”
But long before such stringent time demands, there were other stressors for mail carriers. Take the holidays, for example.
In Schultz’s early days as a mailman, a person could mail a Christmas card for three cents, and the envelope didn’t even have to be sealed. With the ability to send dozens of cards for less than a dollar, people inundated the Post Office with Christmas cheer, though the carriers didn’t always feel so cheerful about it. The Post Office would hire extra help to case mail during the holidays, a job that might last all day for just one route.
“Christmas was nuts,” said Schultz, “I remember getting Christmas cards addressed to dogs and rabbits and canaries. Everybody sent Christmas cards to everybody.”
Though perhaps more remarkable than delivering to animals was delivering animals themselves.
One day as Schultz was making his delivery rounds, he heard a sound he hadn’t heard before—a subtle scratching from inside a package. He was carrying a box of turtles. A second reptilian package Schultz delivered came from Florida and housed a baby alligator.
Once, a nearby school ordered a large quantity of crickets for a science project. The crickets escaped and plagued the inside of the Lansing Post Office for hours until the vacuum was brought to arms.
“I remember three or four years after that, every once in a while you’d hear a cricket in the back of the bags chirping,” Schultz said, “There’s probably still a few crickets around that Post Office.”
When delivering such oddities, the mail bags didn’t stay with Schultz the entire day. He left the Post Office with about eight bags and a pushcart and made his way down the Ridge Road business district. As he finished Ridge, he stopped at a storage box along his route to pick up his next bag. The distance between storage boxes on a carrier’s route was called a “relay.” These boxes looked similar to the USPS boxes of today, though they didn’t have a slot for incoming mail. Some of these can still be seen around Lansing today, like the one on the corner of 178th and Oakley.
Schultz had nearly 500 stops on his route, which started on Ridge Road and stretched west to Burnham Avenue, south to Ann Street, and east to Sherman Street. During his time carrying, he told his kids that the average house on his route had six steps leading up to the porch, and there were about 430 houses that he delivered to. Assuming his estimates are correct, Schultz would have climbed and descended over 30 million steps throughout his three decades on the job.
4. Rain or shine…or dogs
The work was made more difficult for both Schultz and Sulli when mother nature’s schedule didn’t align with the Post Office’s. For years, the USPS has been synonymous with the popular mantra, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Though by no means the official motto of the Postal Service, the phrase is inscribed on the James A. Farley Building in New York, which spans two city blocks and boasts the largest retail space of any post office in America.
When there’s more than a foot of snow on the ground, however, the mantra is easier said than done.
One winter day, Schultz started his route on Ridge Road pushing his mail cart through an inch of snow. By the time he had finished his route, he looked down and was shocked to see the snow had risen to his knees. He walked in a quick circle to make sure he wasn’t standing in a hole.
The next day, Schultz surveyed Ridge Road, a ghost town town blanketed in feet of white. As he trudged along, delivering the little mail that had fought its way through the weather, he noticed Rispens Seed store (which moved to Beecher, IL, in 1999) was open, the only business along Ridge that had braved the elements. He chuckled at the irony of a planting and gardening store being the only one open on a day when the frozen ground was covered in a layer of snow.
“Marv, you expecting business today?” asked Schultz as he entered.
“No, I came to shovel my roof out,” he replied.
Schultz delivered his mail and trudged on.
As the post office’s system became more automated and the time restraints on each carrier became more stringent, weather became an especially troublesome factor for mail carriers.
“Management treated every day like it was 75 and sunny,” reflected Sulli. When he saw a forecast with a low windchill, he could already feel his fingers growing numb. Though he bundled warmly for the weather, he was unable to leaf through the mail with gloves on. As a solution, he cut off the fingers in his gloves, leaving his fingers unprotected against the cold—the same chilling strategy Schultz had used years earlier.
If the weather did anything good for Sulli, it made him a remarkably accurate amateur meteorologist. “He could tell me by looking at a radar, ‘You’ve got one hour outside,’” recalled his wife Cindy, “and dang if he wasn’t always right.”
But it wasn’t just the weather that gave Sulli and Schultz difficulty. Sulli once returned sheepishly from his route near a forest preserve with mail he was unable to deliver. In the line of the form asking the reason for the mail’s undeliverability, he wrote simply, “impending deer attack.” After facing down an intimidating deer, Sulli had decided the mail could wait till tomorrow.
It’s not deer, though, that are the bane of a mail carrier’s existence. It’s dogs. If dogs are man’s best friend, then that man is definitely not a mail carrier.
With a few exceptions, Sulli was generally able to use his mail bag and pepper spray (and hours of annual training) to avoid getting bitten, though he estimates he was charged at least a dozen times.
“What people don’t realize is the mailman or lady is the only person that comes to your door six days a week and never comes in,” Cindy said, “and that’s why dogs bite them…. They’re doing their job; they’re protecting the house.”
Apparently, dogs haven’t changed since Schultz’s day, when he estimated that a dog bit him roughly once a year—one of which left a scar on his leg that’s visible to this day. Once, an unfriendly German Shepherd charged him from inside a house and tore through a screen in its effort to get to him. Luckily, the dog got caught halfway through the screen, giving Schultz time to scamper away.
Schultz made a few four-legged friends in his 30 years, however. One shaggy dog would keep him company for a couple blocks as he walked. Another, a Dachshund, lived on a corner property and would bark at Schultz every day as he walked past. “He wouldn’t bite me or nothing, he’d just bark like hell,” he said. After a decade of this routine, Schultz turned the corner to find the dog was doing more wheezing than barking. “He was getting so old that he couldn’t do it anymore…. He had to lie down,” he recalled.
5. The Lifestyle
Sulli sat back and tried to enjoy his Sunday. He did his best to ignore the nagging feeling of dread that Monday would bring—the heaviest mail day of the week. He tried to focus on the positives of his off day, like being with his family and serving the community as the president of the Lansing Soccer Club, but by the time nine o’clock rolled around, he became severely anxious and difficult to talk to as he anticipated the burdens of the next week.
One temporary remedy Sulli found for this anxiety was vacation. The pay and benefits his stressful job offered gave him ample opportunity to travel with his family, though his Post Office instincts would sometimes kick in. On one family vacation to Las Vegas, Sulli couldn’t help but follow a strict schedule, much like his daily routine carrying mail. “He said, ‘we gotta be here, we gotta be there, let’s go—we only have X amount of minutes to walk to the next pirate show,’” Cindy recalled.
Even during everyday interactions Sulli’s mind would work on a precise timetable. “If you asked him, ‘I have to go over here on [Highway] 30, how long will that take?’ Most people’s response would be, ‘15–20 minutes.’ Aldo would tell you, ‘17 minutes,’” Cindy said.
Besides vacation, mail carriers get two days off work per week on a rotating basis, a schedule that has been in place for decades. When Sulli would receive a Monday off, he would receive Tuesday off the next week. Because the Post Office’s week technically starts on Saturday, every six weeks carriers would get a long weekend. They would receive Friday off as the last day of the week, Saturday off as the first day of the next week, and Sunday off by default. To account for this, the Post Office assigned six mail carriers to every five routes, five carriers delivering to the same route every day and the sixth, the “swing-man,” covering for whichever carrier is off—a role that Sulli held early in his career.
Years before, Schultz enjoyed the predictability of the long weekends that the Post Office offered him. Every six weeks he tried to plan ahead to make the most of his off time. But even though he valued his vacation, Schultz also thought positively about his time on the job.
“I really enjoyed what I was doing; that’s why it was difficult for me to retire,” Schultz said, “I enjoyed visiting folks and stuff like that.”
As a testament to his commitment, by the time Schultz retired, he had amassed around 3,000 hours of sick leave, the equivalent of nearly a year and a half of work. He was paid for these hours when he retired.
Even as early as the 1990s, however, Schultz noticed that things were starting to change in the Post Office.
“It was getting to be a chore.” Schultz recalled, “It seems like as the years went on, [the USPS] started hiring some people that really didn’t care anymore. They’d care about payday, and that was it—that type of attitude.”
Feeling his age, Schultz reluctantly hung up his uniform on September 30 of 1995. About three years ago Sulli did the same, though perhaps not quite as reluctantly.
In the final stretch of Sulli’s career, his multiple sclerosis was added to the list of challenges that faced him as he walked into work. Battling a disease that was damaging nerves throughout his body, he received some relief from Post Office management, who understood how difficult the job had become for him. Mostly working from a mail truck at that point, his condition worsened to the point where he could use only one arm to open mailboxes and deliver mail.
Both he and Schultz retired at age 55.
6. Retirement and reflection
Paul Schultz walked down Ridge Road and surveyed the businesses along it. Nearly sixty years after he made his first mail delivery along one of Lansing’s most historic thoroughfares, he finds himself holding a microphone instead of pushing a mail cart. As the Village Historian walks, he explains to the 120 people listening the history of the businesses that line the storied street.
As he squints in the early evening sun, he sees more than the interested folks behind him do. He sees his friends driving by in a Studebaker. He sees Marv trying to get feet of snow off the roof of his feed store. He sees friendly waves from the dozens of business owners that have come and gone over the better part of a century. He sees the only town he’s ever called home.
Schultz was born on Christmas day in a doctor’s office on Ridge Road and he’s never really left.
Perhaps it makes sense why such a man would choose to spend 30 years of his life travelling the sidewalks of Lansing. Is there a better way to invest in a community than to daily walk down its streets and talk to its people?
Perhaps, then, it also makes sense why Sulli, years later, would begin to dislike a job that sacrificed community in favor of productivity. Starting out, he enjoyed socializing with his postal customers and would come home with stories of meeting former Montreal Expo and White Sox coach Wallace Johnson and Chicago television reporter Harry Porterfield. These were displaced by stories about how stressful work was and how unreasonable the standards were that he was expected to meet. Even Schultz began to see this towards the end of his career, noticing that a shift toward more automated mail apparently also meant a shift toward a more automated mail carrier.
“Payday is what made it worth it,” Sulli said, reflecting on years of carrying mail. His cars were nice, his kids attended private school, he brought his family on plenty of vacations.
In a job that was inherently people-oriented (Sulli must have visited thousands of front porches in his years with the USPS), he was forced to think of his work as a means to a paycheck rather than a community-focused career. He thought of the neighborhoods he traversed in terms of minutes instead of people.
Schultz and Sulli both live in Lansing, separated by two miles and two decades. Their experiences as postal carriers were vastly different and when asked if they would do it all over again, Schultz said yes and Sulli, no.
But they were also quite similar. Both walked the streets of the towns where they grew up, both knew the joy of getting to know people along their routes, and both saw the unfortunate effects of a productivity model that sacrificed community in favor of efficiency. But they persevered, perhaps because the pay was good, but perhaps even more because they knew the work was meaningful. Serving one’s community is important. For these two carriers, it was a career.
Reporter’s Note: The USPS was contacted during this story’s writing but was not interested in participating.