A guy named Richard was out shoveling his walk in Brooklyn Center on Tuesday morning when Don Albee crossed the street and headed toward him.
“You’re early,” Richard said.
Albee, protected from the winter madness with a mask, polar fleece, polypropylene, rain pants, a blue winter coat and sturdy boots, greeted Richard warmly, handed him his mail and kept moving. Out of ear shot, an amused Albee said Richard sometimes tells him: “You don’t have time to chat today. You’re 20 minutes behind.”
It’s all part of Albee’s work as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier. Spokesman Pete Nowacki thought it was a great idea that I shadow Albee during the polar vortex and I did, too, until I got out there. Nowacki’s only request was that I not slow down his employee “any more than necessary.”
Not a problem. Albee, a fit 46-year-old who served a six-month tour in Iraq with the Air Force Reserve, doesn’t slow down for anybody.
Thirty minutes into our 13-degree-below-zero interview, I was running to keep up with him. An hour in, I was back inside my car thawing out my toes and crying for my mother.
Albee, grinning and unfazed by the extreme weather conditions, somehow continued on without me. He had another six hours to go on his 487-house route.
It’s not exactly breaking news, as Nowacki noted, that their profession, much like mine, is undergoing massive shifts with still unknown outcomes.
Fifteen years ago, the post office processed 57 billion pieces of single-piece first-class mail annually — letters, birthday cards, bills. In 2013, the number had shrunk to 22.5 billion pieces, leading to a dramatic decline in revenue.
That means the postal service, which is not supported by tax revenues, requires creative solutions quickly and, Nowacki believes, postal reform through legislation.
Until then, people like Albee must pick up the slack; a reality compounded when people call in sick, like four people did in his Brooklyn Center office on this day. He has 80 hours of accumulated overtime from January alone.
What hasn’t changed, Nowacki said with conviction, is respect for people like Albee. “There’s something special about seeing the carrier coming down the street, especially on days when it’s challenging.” Like Tuesday.
I hope he’s right, but I’m not as sure. Shoveled sidewalks were a rarity for Albee, whose boots cut through foot-deep snow to reach most of his mailboxes on his three routes.
He’s already slipped on the ice three or four times this winter. “The worst is the dusting of snow,” he said, “ ’cause you can’t see what’s underneath.”
He carries along three levels of gloves which I call light, heavier and why-did-I-move-here-again? None can be too thick to prevent him from sorting the mail. Hand warmers help, too. Still, he said, “your hands just really start to sting. You keep moving.”
Boredom could be a problem, but not for Albee. Last year, he listened to 49 books on tape while walking his routes, everything from the college-focused Great Courses and Modern Scholar series, to novels by Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler and Michael Connelly.
Dehydration also is a concern in winter. “In the summer, you can’t drink enough water and in the winter you don’t feel like drinking it.”
But Albee’s a lifer. He loves this work, even on 103-degree days and 13-below days, and nine-hour days (the norm) when he goes home to make dinner and falls asleep before eating it.
Albee spent his early years in Idaho, Phoenix and Seattle, before his wife, Wendy, also with the Air Force Reserves, “dragged [him] out here in 1991.” They have three young adult children.
After a stint in the post office warehouse, he’s been walking mailbox to mailbox for 15 years, four to five miles a day, five to six days a week. He also trains new carriers and said veterans often make the best employees. “They have a get-this-done attitude,” Albee said.
Because the mail does need to get delivered, on time, every day but Sunday and holidays. Delivery times are now tracked electronically.
Albee returns to his truck to repack, then bolts off again. This Brooklyn Center neighborhood has anywhere from 14 to 25 houses per block. Others can have twice that number.
A dog barks from inside a house. “That’s Abbie, a black lab,” he said.
He pays attention in other ways, too.
He lets residents know when he smells gas. He let neighbors know when an elderly woman hadn’t picked up her mail in a few days. (Turns out she was out of town). Lots of people stop to ask him for directions.
Albee has made 20 tire swings and gifted them to people on his route, tying them onto trees himself, so they’ll be used safely.
As tough as winter gets, he said summer has its own challenges. “There are usually four or five awful days; muggy, stale. I can take 103 degrees, if there’s a bit of a breeze, but 90- to 95-degrees and stagnant? I bring a gallon of water and it’s gone at lunch.”
Spring must be lovely, right? Well. “I love spring,” Albee said. “The rebirth, the leaves coming out. But it rains. I don’t like getting wet.”
Thank goodness for fall. “The weather’s nice in fall,” he agreed. “The leaves are falling. It’s a nice time to be out.”
As the temps dip under zero yet again, Albee and his co-workers will be out delivering our mail. We should clear our sidewalks for them.
“I don’t think my kids will do this work but, you know, it’s not a bad gig. It has afforded me a nice house, cars, everything else that I need to raise my kids. It’s a steady job.
“Today, the wind is not howling,” he said before moving on. “No matter how bad it is, it could always be worse.”
612-673-7350 • @grosenblum