Immense jostling in East Fourteenth Street to be traversed, something in the mode of jackhammers, truck horns, people skipping past automobiles, to enter the high cool interior of the post office, but changed that day because it was the first day of the most recent rise in postage rates, and the place was in complete pandemonium.
The lines for stamps, circling around pillars, crossing other lines, wove in and out of various doors. I collected my letters from my postal box, among which was the usual yellow slip informing me to claim my bulkier mail at the pick-up window.
As I sliced through the spiraling stamp lines toward the window, I noticed that, though the line for one’s mail was short, it was not in the usual place. In the confusion of the day, people, instead of lining up between the two velvet-covered chains which mark the line, had, mistakenly, lined up to the right of one of these chains, the one farthest from the stamp lines, leaving what was the actual pick-up line seemingly empty. Aware of what had occurred by accident, by confusion, I too joined this misplaced line.
While standing there, lost in idle thoughts, I heard behind me, over the everyday mumblings of people waiting on the various lines, a disturbance. It was a woman’s voice, but gruff and raspy, piercing in tone, asking someone (probably on a stamp line) where to pick up mail. The voice arced above the chatter, bounced off the vaulted ceilings and descended, as though from on high, like a rain of angry pebbles.
I minimally comprehended the words (that is, I could have looked them up in any dictionary), but they over-carried, they shot past, they abandoned me; they produced a sensation not unlike discovering at the far end of one’s subway car someone talking and acting like a madman. I then heard another voice, nervous and distinct, anxious to placate, and probably on one of the other queues, saying that the pick-up line was between "the two velvet chains, over there on the right."
Shortly, a large woman wearing a white nursing gown, a shocking red coat and beret, torn stockings and scuffed shoes, waddled down between the two chains, passing by the six or seven people who were standing on the misplaced pickup line. Was that dull white bracelet on her wrist metal or one of those printed strips hospitals used to identify their patients?
The woman stopped to wait near the little space from which the clerk, with a curt "next" would normally beckon. There, she let out a deep half-anguished sigh, stationing herself on the two square feet of marble flooring she occupied as though it were her private piece of real estate.
Now, with each labored breath, with a certain concentration of herself into herself, she physically radiated possession. It transmitted itself out from her like a metaphysical etude. And the space around her seemed to pull back, as though trying to form a cup and isolate her in a kind of vacuum. You had to be sensitive to it, but it was there, a barricade, a refusal to intermingle.
Almost immediately the people on the line on which I was standing began yelling, "Hey lady, the line begins back there…Hey! watcha tryin’ to do, huh!"
At this, the woman turned around and said, in a voice which sounded as though a car were rolling over gravel, "I’m pickin’ up ma mail, an’ this here’s the pickup line." People on the misplaced line continued shouting, "Oh no lady. The line’s here. Get to the back." The woman passed a withering glance over the entire line of people. "I’m no child!" she shouted. "Don’t talk to me like that. You talk to your children like that. Can’t you people read," she pointed tothe pick-up sign right beside her. "You’se in the wrong place."
However, she turned from her spot, and, as though raising the very anchor of her being, she started toward the back of the existing line, slowly and with great dignity. "Why don’t you go back to Europe," she said in a harsh voice as she passed by the people standing in the row. "Maybe dere dey talk like dat to a grownup. Too many Europeans," she muttered loudly, only partially to herself.
At that moment, a young man standing in line in front of me lit a cigarette. The woman whirled furiously on him. "Kill ya’ self, but not me! I don’ hafta smoke that poison in. Just like knifin’ someone…"
I looked back to see her shuffling to the end of the line, where she turned again to the front, her face a surface of broken features, to gaze like an ancient monument on the people before her. I could see that her cheeks were streaked with lines of red, stony and jagged. She stood not more than a dozen feet behind me exclaiming to herself, "Damn Europeans, whyn’t dey go back where dey come from! Ain’t got no manners an dey don’t know shit about where to stand."
She kept this up for the time I stood in front of her waiting my turn, about ten minutes, my neck hairs bristling while I waited on the misplaced line.