(click to enlarge photos — Clay and Paul advise, ‘Click again’)
(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 24, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on June 28, 2020)
In challenging times, the Post Office delivers human connection
By Jean Sherrard
When it opened in October 1852, Seattle’s first postal station was little more than a mahogany desk in Arthur Denny’s log cabin at what is now First and Marion.
It had been 11 months since the Denny Party landed at Alki Beach. The urge to connect with the outside world was strong. Even a pocket-sized post office offered settlers a sense of stability.
For The Seattle Times, Arthur’s daughter, Louisa, wryly recalled perching on her dad’s desk as he sorted mail when a boat came in: “It was not a monumental task, as there was very little mail coming and going.”
Decades later, however, our “Then” displays a hive of activity at Seattle’s downtown post office at the northeast corner of what is now Yesler Way and Post Avenue. The scrawled inscription, “Waiting for mail at Seattle’s Post Office,” explains the long lines, adding cryptically, “Mostly strangers.”
The note may offer a calendar clue. By late 1886, with an economy recovering from three years of recession, hundreds of “strangers” arrived seeking jobs. The newly employed no doubt eagerly queued for mail from families they had left behind. By fall 1887, crowds abated when the post office hired four mail carriers and began the tradition of free delivery.
To document today’s version of this practice, with permission from Seattle’s postmaster I recently joined 12-year postal veteran Azuma Ohta on her appointed rounds, starting at the Seattle Carrier Annex at Fourth and Lander, where days begin with sorting letters and packages.
Beyond snow, rain, heat and gloom of night, every carrier bears scars from being chomped by dogs, clawed by cats and stung by bees and wasps. Azuma is no exception. Twice-bitten, with one attack by a canine whose owner left a door ajar, she still identifies as a “dog person.”
During the pandemic, postal workers older than 60 and otherwise at high risk have been allowed to take several months off. Younger carriers have filled in, so Azuma has been working 75 hours a week, more than during the hectic holiday season.
Another unexpected effect of the coronavirus has been to boost the contents of carriers’ mailbags. “People are hungry for physical connection beyond Zoom and email,” she says. “They’re sending more cards and letters than I’ve ever seen before.”
Tagging along on her Capitol Hill route, I can see that Azuma is a beloved fixture. Passersby sing out cheerful greetings. She has watched babies become adolescents and witnessed love and loss, marriage and divorce.
Tim King often meets her at his door for a chat. “We adore Azuma,” he says. “She brightens our days, and these days can use some brightening.” By any measure, that’s a monumental task.
Be sure to visit our Seattle Now & Then 360 channel, where you can listen to and view this column in glorious 360 degree color! Jean narrates.