I was at the post office, standing in line and listening to the crazy woman they hired to keep things lively as she unleashed her rant for the day...when it happened.
"SHIT WHISTLES," the crazy woman shouted. "KANGAROO. ILLUMINATI. OBAMA."
She was leaning on the counter by the rack of faded Christmas mailers, as crazy people often do because the acoustics right there are such that everyone in the post office can hear clearly. (To her credit, it helped that the crazy lady enunciated well and played her part with confidence.)
It was almost 2 PM. Several postal workers had just returned from lunch, and the line was now snaking out the door and out of sight, ending two blocks away by that empty strip mall storefront where they used to sell gyros.
I was standing by the "express" window where you could pick up packages and not also try to buy stamps or figure out how to send something to China. You see, I'd done a silly thing like order an item from the internet and then didn't wait at home for 5-7 business days for it to be delivered directly into my hands. I hadn't ordered anything fancy. (Just a candelabra or a solid gold statue of myself or something like that.) But there was a crowd of 20 people who were also trying to pick up their packages at the express window, so we were like a mad mosh pit at a music festival where the opening act is a lady in a postal uniform shouting, "NEXT!"
The woman would take our slips, disappear into the back for 15 to 20 minutes and then return to say, "I'm sorry. Not here. You come back tomorrow?" It was a creative way to thin the herd, but not one that I was going to fall for. Every time she came to the window, I held my slip out, hoping it would be picked.
"Packages! We demand packages!" someone shouted over the din. Several people joined in. We'd gone mad from the waiting.
A man named Brian who had been trying for two hours to pick up an Amazon package for his wife had begun drooling and panting every time the postal worker returned to the window.
"Is not here. You come back tomorrow?" she told Brian again. He whimpered and lifted his leg against the self-service machine, which appeared to be in working order but only dispensed penny stamps with pictures of Oscar Pistorius on them.
"NEXT!" the lady said. I held out my slip and curtseyed carefully. She took my slip. At last. Soon, I might be able to go home to my sad leftovers.
"Oh, she said, reading my slip carefully and looking up at me with an expression that was half fear and half excitement. "You won."
"Won?" I said. "Won what?"
"Attention, everyone!" the postal worker shouted. "All of you need to go home. There will be no more postal service today."
"What?" "How dare you?" "Don't you know who I am?" came some shouts from angry people.
"I'll have you fired!" "Where's the manager?" "HULK VERY DISAPPOINTED!" came more shouts.
The post office manager burst through the back door just then. He was short and fat with a bright red beard and mustache."Please!" he shouted. "All of you must leave immediately. It's over. It's all over. We've found her." He smiled at me benevolently. I tried to look away, as I was unaccustomed to friendly direct eye contact from postal workers.
People finally began to shuffle toward the exit. The manager followed behind them, shooing and saying, "Okay...yeah! I'm soooooo sorry," sarcastically, in response to every muttered complaint. He finally closed the door behind the last customer and locked it.
"What's going on?" I asked.
The post office manager turned around then, and I could see he was wearing a cotton candy-colored suit and shoes with tiny bells on them.
"Why, the greatest thing has happened, my child!" he chortled. "You've won! You've won!"
"Won...what?" I said.
"You found the golden post office slip," he replied, merrily. He held up the slip, and I could see that, indeed, under all those grimy fingerprints, it wasn't the usual salmon pink color, but a bright gold.
"Come, come! There's no time to waste," he said. "You'll need this." He returned the golden slip to my hand and gestured me toward the door that led to the back of the post office.
"You want me to go back there?" I asked. "Isn't that illegal or something?"
"Oh, how you jest, contest winner. Now, come!" He donned a pink train conductor's hat that matched his suit.
I reached down into my purse and pulled out my katana. I always carried it with me to the post office in case an old person who didn't understand how the credit card machine worked tried to cut in front of me.
"Fine," I said.
He opened the door, and when I had ascertained that an angry mail carrier carrying a hatchet wasn't hiding through the doorway, I stepped through.
Immediately, the lights went out. I clutched my katana, dropped into a defense pose, and prepared for an attack, but just then, the lights came back on.
I looked around me in wonder at what I had thought was the back room of the post office. I had stepped into a meadow, dappled with sunlight. Where I had expected to see several musty bags of undelivered mail, I saw trees dotting the shore of a beautiful river.
"Stamp trees!" the post office manager giggled. "Pick some! Mail something!"
I reached into the tree and plucked a sheet of Forever stamps. They were decorated with the photos of all of my favorite feminist icons, like Susan B. Anthony, Pussy Galore, and Dolly Parton.
"Wow," I said. "I mean, I guess this is cool, but I don't really mail letters anymore."
The post office manager, who had been trying to coax a bluebird wearing a tiny pith helmet to land on his finger, turned to look at me, and I could see tears trickling down his face.
"I mean…." I stammered, "do you have a bush that grows flat-rate boxes or something?"
"Come on!" he chortled, recovering his composure as quickly as he had lost it. "There's so much more to see!"
He led me town to the river bank where a boat was waiting. And it wasn't any ordinary kind of boat. It was just a giant envelope.
"Get in!" the post office manager said.
"Is this thing seaworthy? Are there life jackets?" I asked.
"La la la la la la la la laaaaaaaaaa!" the post office manager began to sing, tunelessly, obviously ignoring my question as the boat began to move downstream. I found a wad of bubble wrap under my seat and clutched it in my fist just in case the ship went down, which seemed likely, given that it was made out of paper. (And it wasn't even a security envelope, so my identity would likely be stolen as well.)
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Where do you want to go?" the post office manager countered. "There's so much to see! We could go to the Mailbox Meadows or Parcel Post Playland. Or! We could take a ride on the Priority Express."
"To be honest," I began, "I'd just really like to know why we're here. I mean, if I won something, I'd like to know what it is."
"Ah ha! Of course! We must discuss your prize! How silly of me to forget! Boat, set a course to Headquarters!"
Which was a very odd thing to say to the boat since he, himself, was doing the rowing.
We rowed for a long while.
A very long while.
At least 25 minutes.
Eventually, I could see a building in the distance. It was tall and white and seemed to glow.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Headquarters," the post office manager replied. He was quite out of breath from all that rowing. Finally, we docked.
"Come inside! We must hurry!" he said.
He rushed me up the steps.
"Is my prize in there?" I asked.
"Yes, it is indeed!" the post office manager giggled. "Just through those doors!"
We went inside. What met my eyes was the most beautiful post office I had ever seen. It was silvery and bright. I shielded my eyes as we stepped toward an escalator that led to the second floor.
When we got to the top, I looked around to see employees in every window, eager to sell me stamps, or offer me insurance, or ask me if my package contained flammable materials. There wasn't even a line.
"This is amazing," I said.
"I know!" the post office manager chortled. "And it's all yours! Everything is yours! Your prize is that you are the new Postmaster General! Congratulations!"
"Oh," I said, not knowing what to say.
Confetti that looked a lot like old, shredded Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons began to rain from the ceiling.
The post office manager handed me a golden scepter and pith helmet.
"Come! I'll show you to the throne room!" he said, gleefully.
I just stood there.
"It's right this way," he added, holding out his hand.
"This is nice," I said. "Really nice..."
"Just down the corridor in that direction and through those doors," the post office manager continued, doing a quick walking pantomime that made his shoes jingle.
"Buuuuuuuuut...I'm not sure I want it."
The post office manager looked stunned.
"You…don't want it?" he asked.
"Nooooooooooo," I said. "Not really. I just…I just wanted to pick up my package. That's all. And to maybe not have to always wait in line for an hour. And for you to ban children with scooters. And maybe stop letting crazy people come in and play with the buttons on the self-service machine."
The post office manager looked down at the bells on his shoes. He looked at the magnificent post office around him. Finally, he looked at me. His demeanor had changed. No longer was he the jolly proprietor of a mystical land where stamps grew on trees. He was the post office manager he had been all along: gruff, professional, and underpaid.
"Do you have your slip and a photo ID?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, handing them both to to him.
"Be right back," he said.
I waited….and I waited…and I waited…and I waited.
I said to myself, "I'll wait another 5 minutes, and then I'm just going to go." But the five minutes came and went and I remembered that he still had my ID.
Finally, after what was at least 30 minutes, the post office manager came back. He said nothing. He just took the golden pith helmet and the golden scepter out of my hands.
"Did you find my package?" I asked.
The post office manager looked up at me, as if he had forgotten I was there.
"Oh," he said. "Is not here. You come back tomorrow?"
Monday, April 21, 2014
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
I quickly wrote: "WHAT IS POETRY?" in my notebook. I really did want to know, a college freshman with a big journal filled with essays about suicide. I wasn't depressed. Suicide was just a big theme of the late 90s and early oughts because of Girl, Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides. All the lonely girls were painting their nails black, tattooing their forearms with ink pens, and writing about "the inner hurt." I was good at coming up with razor blade metaphors.
"Think about it, and we'll discuss in 20 minutes. I want to know the definition of poetry. Split into groups and talk about it."
Ellen had walked into class on the first day wearing a bandana on her head and overalls, one of those outfits that raises a lot of questions. Was she throwing a pot in her art studio, painting her garage, or milking her goats when she was suddenly called away to teach college students about writing? None of us could know, and that was how Ellen liked it. She not only taught creative writing. She WAS creative writing.
"You might be wondering why I'm qualified to teach you creative writing," Ellen said on that first day. "Well...ten years ago, I wrote a book. It was published. There's a copy of it in the university library."
"What's your book about?" Chad in the front row asked.
"Well..." Ellen replied, brushing a lock of gray hair out of her eyes. "There's a young woman. She has problems with her father. One day, she learns how to masturbate. Then, she meets a priest and finds herself attracted to him. Shamefully, she masturbates. Some time goes by, and she meets another man and falls in love. She masturbates. It's a novel about love, shame, and masturbation."
Chad nodded thoughtfully. He was definitely going to the library after class to get that book.
We spent the rest of the first class doing free writing. I wrote about how the thin blade of my writing made me bleed my emotions. The sophomore girl who sat next to me (I later discovered her name was Zoe) wrote 10 pages of porn, and the 40-something woman in front of me, Karen, wrote a heartfelt tribute to Princess Diana. (For her, the pain was still very raw.) Toward the end of class, we went around the room and read our work.
"Everything I do is for my baby son," Chad in the front row said, standing up to read his work, as he came to do every time so that it would resonate better with his audience. "I just want to make him proud." Then, he read a poem called "Cheating Bitch."
At that point, I stopped to consider what I had gotten myself into by trying out a creative writing class. In my imagination, my fellow writers were always like-minded, talented people.
"I guess I need to show them how writing is done," I thought, jotting down some ideas for a short story about a college student who lives in a dorm room and writes about death a lot.
I read that short story to Karen and Zoe at our next class, beaming with pride that my life experience would speak to them.
"Is something supposed to happen?" Karen asked. "She was just watching old reruns of Mork and Mindy and microwaving a Hot Pocket."
Zoe just looked at me blankly and then went back to coloring in the pubes on the spread-eagled vulva she had drawn in her notebook.
"UGH. Nobody understands me!" I thought. "I guess I'll show them with my poetry."
And this brings us back to the question Ellen asked three weeks into class after showing up dressed as a train conductor: What is poetry?
Karen, Zoe, and I teamed up to get to the bottom of it. We had all forged one of those classroom friendships by then. I came to love Zoe's porn, the way it made people squirm when she read it aloud, unashamed, in class. And I even learned to appreciate Princess Diana in ways I never had before.
"So....poetry is words," I said. "Like...words that sound good together. And sometimes they rhyme, I guess. Right?"
"Sure," Zoe said, not looking up from her porn notebook.
"Add something about how it has to be beautiful," Karen added. "Beautiful and shining…and taken from us too soon."
I scribbled down their thoughts and added my own. Slowly, we came up with a definition for poetry that we thought Ellen would accept.
"Bethany, Karen, and Zoe. Your definition of poetry please," Ellen called, waving her hands for silence from the rest of the class.
"Ahem," I said. "We decided that it's the art of fitting words together. Sometimes they rhyme. Sometimes they don't."
"And they are beautiful," said Karen, wiping away a tear.
Had Zoe spoken, she probably would have said something comparing poetry to the clitoris.
"Okay," said Ellen, shrugging, "I guess that's an acceptable answer. Let's hear from some other people."
Chad stood up then to read his answer. He leaned against the wall, one hand in his jeans pocket. Casual, like all that Kerouac he had read.
"So, like, poetry isn't just words," Chad said. "It's, like, life. You see a mother holding her child. That's poetry. A sunset. That's, like, poetry, too. It doesn't have anything to do with words."
And then he glared at our group, like we were assholes for even bringing up words.
I thought about that definition of poetry for the next several weeks. I thought about it while I worked on my own poetry. I thought about it in my American lit course, when I should have been paying attention to Moby Dick. I thought about it while I warmed up Hot Pockets and watched Mork and Mindy.
Finally, I realized something really important.
It was the stupidest fucking thing I'd ever heard.
I'd like to tell you a heroic tale of how I went back to creative writing class, fully actualized at last, and blew my fellow classmates away with a few well-placed rhyming (or not rhyming) sets of words. Or surprised them with a short story that wasn't about a college girl's elaborate plan to the top of something and jump off because nobody understood her.
But I didn't. I kept being a bad writer for many, many years, but I kept working at it, and that's the important part of the story. But mostly, I just really wanted to tell you about Chad being a dumbshit.
I guess if you want to share your definition of poetry in comments, I'm for that. There are no wrong answers here.