It’s my friend Alastair’s birthday soon and I saw something that reminded me of him, so I got it. I don’t normally give birthday gifts, not because I don’t care, but because I don’t normally know what to get and don’t just want to get something for the sake of it.
Anyway, I got his address on Saturday evening and wanted to post it to him this morning. Many of my colleagues had complained bitterly about the postal service (or lack thereof) in the US, but I was optimistic. I drove to the post office this Sunday at around midday and was disappointed but not surprised: they were closed.
Never mind, Wal-Mart would come to my rescue. Wal-Mart has never failed me. After searching stationary the aisles for postage and packaging, I walked up to one of the friendly and helpful staff:
“Excuse me. I wonder if you could help me?”
“I need to post something via air-mail, you wouldn’t happen to sell suitable postage and packaging for something like that would you?”
“No, I’m sorry.” Her face wrinkled in concern. “You could try the post office.”
“Closed, I’m afraid” I said sadly.
“Oh, you want to do it today?”
“Yes, that was my intention” I said, trying not to let the irony creep into my voice.
“Well, there’s an office max on the other side of the I-30, they should be able to help.”
“You know, you’re the second English person who had asked me that today.” she said with a smile. I grinned and went my merry way.
Now, getting to the other side of the I-30 is no mean feat, but for a seasoned Texas driver (such as myself) it was only a few tricky maneuvers and I was wondering aimlessly around the Office Max store, looking at the stationary section and wondering if it was absolutely necessary for me to buy a pack of 10 padded envelopes and wondering where I could buy postage.
In the end I walked up to one of the staff loitering in the computer section. You know. The kind that come you to ask if they can help you when all you want to do is look at their cool new stuff but are surprisingly scarce when you actually have a real question.
“Hi, I wonder if you could help me?” I began
“OK” he turned to me with a semi helpful look on his face. I guess he could tell I wasn’t there to buy anything expensive.
“I need to send something via air mail, to New Zealand. I wonder if you have anything that I could use for that?”
“Oh? What do you need to send?”
“I told him and made motions with my hands as to the size of the gift.”
“Oh, ok.” We started walking. “and you want to send that via e-mail?” he asked dubiously.
“No, no, air-mail, you know, physically in a plane.” I made a flying motion with my hands. “In the air” I added for further clarification.
He took me to the packaging section.
“Well, you could package it yourself and give it to the post office” he indicated the bags containing packs of 10 padded envelopes.
“They’re closed” I said automatically “Is there an alternative to that? Something I can do today?”
“Do you want to use a service then?”
“I don’t care really, as long as it arrives at the destination.” I said reasonably.
You see, the thing is, I really don’t care. Not at all. I care about a great many things. I care about people, I care about politics, I care about religion and the environment. One of the things I don’t care at all about is the mechanism by which my post arrives at its destination. It could be hand-delivered by eunuchs in bright yellow uniforms, or perhaps it’s achieved by winged monkeys. It’s none of my concern.
The reason I chose a job with lots of money in it is I didn’t want to have to care about certain things. I certainly don’t care about money. I don’t care if it costs $500 to send this package as long as it gets to where I want it to be when I want it to be there.
“Well, we have a DHL right here.”
So, it was with a great deal of excitement that I stood before the young lady at the DHL counter. I had a good feeling about this. I had heard of DHL, they were supposed to be good.
“I’ll be with you in a moment” she said. She had a middle-eastern look about her, oval shaped eyes and olive-brown skin. I am sure she must be really attractive.
Half-way through her work (she was laminating something) she looked up at me again “Do you have a question?”
“Yes, I’d like to send something via air-mail”
She looked at me strangely and I realised my folly.”
“No, wait, I’ll write it down!”
I wrote, in my neatest handwriting: “I want to send something to New Zealand via Air Mail or similar”. I underlined “air” twice. You see, in New Zealand, “air mail” usually means “overseas”.
I handed the note to her and she read it quickly.
“OK” she said “I’ll be with you shortly” and returned to her work. I took the opportunity to go get the gift from the car.
A few minutes later, when she had finished what she was doing, another customer approached her. He waited behind me.
“No, it’s ok.” she said to him “he’s waiting to send an email.”
The smile on my face didn’t waver. I was kind of expecting that.
When she had finished with him, she turned her attention to me. I held up the gift to her, and waved it a little to impress upon her its physical nature.
“I want to send this via Air mail. You know, in a physical plane?” I lowered the gift and made the universal sign for “bird” with my hands, flapping my fingers in the imitation of wings.
She went over to her computer and started entering data. After a while of trying to spell things for her I suggested I could just type it myself, so as to save time.
I guess that’s one of my problems, I hate having to repeat myself. Sarah always chastises me that I get too impatient with having to explain things to people more than once. It’s a weakness of mine, I know. I have fond memories of listening to my father spelling his name over the phone. I must have been about 5 years old: “W-I-T-H-E-R-D-E-N… no, no, D-E-N that’s D-EEEEE-N, D for donkey, E for Elephant… right.”
I got to the recipient’s details and started entering in the address. I suddenly had that sinking feeling. That sinking feeling all New Zealanders get when they order something online, from a company that says it ships “globally”, only when they get to the “shipping” screen they realise that “globally” is only within the US.
“Um” I went over to her half-apologetically, half-resignedly “it wants an American zip-code and I want to send this to New Zealand”
“Which is not in America.” I said for the sake of clarity
“You see I wrote it down.” I added in my defense.
“Oh” she came to look at the computer. We both stared at the screen for a little while.
“Does our DHL send to places overseas, like New Zealand?” she asked.
I looked up to the heavens. She wasn’t talking to me, maybe she was talking to God.
The headset she was wearing burst into life. Through the static, the response must have been a resounding “no”.
“I’m sorry, but our DHL doesn’t send to overseas.”
“Oh, ok” I said kind of dejectedly “is there anywhere else I could go to do this?”
“Well, there’s the post office”
“They’re closed” I said helpfully. They are closed before and after my work and they have limited times on Saturday, for all intents and purposes, the American Post Office is about as useful as tits on a bull.
She asked the disembodied voice for more ideas but between them they had both run dry.
“I’m sorry” she said “but I can’t help you”
“I wrote it down.” I said in my one last attempt to make sense of the situation. “On paper.”
So, the upshot of this is your gift will arrive a little later than I had hoped, Ali. Have a fantastic birthday anyway.