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Charity’s Column: Parables of package delivery

On Shelter Island, as in many rural towns, the United States Postal Service will deliver mail to an assigned box at your local post office, but not to your home. Some places, such as Davidson, N.C. and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. have voted not to have home delivery because they like the sense of community that comes from a daily trip to the post office.

For the first 30 years we lived here, our post office was in the Center, and our Zip Code was 11964. We would occasionally receive mail that was meant for a woman who used the Heights Post Office (11965) and had the same box number that we did.

In 2015, our relationship with her deepened when we coincidentally bought her house in the Heights, discovering just prior to the closing that she was our post office doppelganger. Alas, she decided to keep her PO box, so when we switched to the Heights post office we had to get used to a new Zip Code and a new box number.

At holiday time, things get really weird, as I discovered when I ordered a Christmas gift for my husband that apparently went to the right box number in the wrong post office, was picked up along with many other unrecognized holiday packages, placed under someone else’s tree, and taken to the Goody Pile when no one in the family recognized it or had any use for a men’s size medium cycling jersey.

The mystery of package delivery on Shelter Island is deepened by the fact that UPS and Fed Ex don’t deliver to a post office box, and the recipient of the package doesn’t always know who is delivering the package. 

With apologies to Akira Kurosawa, the following fictional parable unpacks the perils of receiving packages on a place like Shelter Island, where blame for a lost package is often elusive, and ultimately, meaningless.

The story of the man

I did not buy a birthday cake because her mother said don’t worry I’ve got this, I’ll send my famous fruitcake. It’s like eating a pumpernickel cinnamon-raisin bagel, but I guess some people like that.

At least I don’t have to try and make it. If it’s not possible to make a layer cake in a Weber grill, I can’t help you. Once I get the cake from the post office, all I have to do is buy a can of whipped cream, spray it thick, stick in a few candles and look like a hero.

But the cake never came. Possibly her mother used our old Zip Code and it went to the wrong post office, but the postal clerk said unless I could produce a tracking number there was no help for it.

The story of the postal clerk

When I applied for a transfer to the Shelter Island Post Office, someone warned me that SI stands for Strange Island Inhabitants. Today, those inhabitants reached a new level of strangeness.

Why does everyone who comes into the post office looking for a package assume that I know exactly where it is, but won’t give it to them out of sheer spite? And who sends a birthday cake to a post office box?

Today I had to try and help both of the people who get mail at Box 301. First, a man came in looking for a package containing “a time-sensitive birthday surprise.” I looked in all the boxes around his for a yellow slip, and checked all the packages in the vestibule. Nothing. I asked him for the tracking number. 

He did not have a tracking number, and began to muse out loud about blowing up his house with the gas oven if he couldn’t find the package, which I came to understand contained a birthday cake.

He finally gave up.

Later a woman came in from the same address, looking for the cake. When I repeated that I definitely was not hiding her birthday cake from her, she ran out the door. What is wrong with these people?

The story of the woman

My mother sometimes makes my favorite fruitcake and sends it two-day delivery, but this year it didn’t come. I thought maybe she forgot, but after waiting for UPS all afternoon, and seeing the truck go by leaving nothing at the door, I went to the Heights Post Office to ask if it was there.

The postal clerk was really weird. I explained I didn’t have a yellow slip, but I thought a package might have come for me, and that it was perishable. He looked me in the eye and said, “Would you be looking for a birthday cake?”

“Yes,” I said. I am.”

“Listen lady, there is no birthday cake in this entire post office, let alone a cake in a package addressed to Box 301! Got it?”

I got out of there fast.

I made my own cake, which cheered up everybody, and I gave a big piece to my faithful hound, who lay on the kitchen floor and eyed me as I mixed it up. I even let her lick the bowl.

The story of the UPS driver

I steered my truck onto the North Ferry, set the brake, pulled up the delivery addresses for the morning and fell into a reverie. The roads blended, and merged; Manwaring, Manhanset, Menantic.

The smell of the sea roused me from my dreaming and I felt the wooden thunk of the ferry against the dock as we landed on Shelter Island.

My eighth or ninth stop was at a house where I usually leave packages on the porch near the front door. Today however, the family dog was defending this part of their home with a full-throated bark that rattled my windshield.

I tossed the box over the gate.

The story of the dog on the porch

Very good day. Defended the kennel!

When the UPS driver tried to put a box near the front door, I barked savagely, and drove him around to the side porch. He dropped the box over the porch rail, but I got to it after he left, chewed it open, ate the contents and buried the remains under the porch. 

At night, the woman made a birthday cake and gave me a large piece because I am a very good dog.