[This post was originally published in the “Boston Harbors” column of the January 2001 issue of arts/Media magazine, which has since ceased publication. This is a slightly revised version. Some of the information here may be dated, though.]
On the first working day of the new century, I made my way to Central Square. Hungover by the millenial weekend — the eons of fireworks across bridges and towers, rivers and streets, malls and stadiums — I was motivated not so much by celebratory frenzy as by procrastination and guilt. To use the words of a friend, I was “a day too late and a dollar too short” (that’s how he would begin all his letters).
My mind still fuzzy from all the chunks and bytes of the CNN-spawned and cloned global culture of show and tell, I found myself at that spot in the Square where Massachusetts Avenue is momentarily eclipsed by the shadow of yet another imposing structure: the Central Square Post Office, classical and resistant, its grey-white structure in sharp contrast to the warmer, more earthy facade of City Hall across the street.
It is a wonderful, familiar spot, a spontaneous refuge of sorts, especially in spring and autumn when the stairs of the two structures are strewn with human activity, as though the two buildings are in competition over which one can gently bring more pedestrians to a halt. Granted, this morning was a far cry from such glorious days when the sun and the gentle wind execute a conspiracy on us all, but I had letters and cards to mail.
On this millenial morning, when the world had not woken up to new prospects and Massachusetts Avenue was unusually quiet, the Central Square Post Office looked even more striking than ever, its surface radiating the honors which are attached to its name: It is the largest and the second oldest in the state. (The oldest is the Quincy Post Office built in 1909). Built in 1928, the Central Square Post Office was renamed the Clifton Merriman Building in 1993 in honor of the long-time Cambridge resident, World War I veteran, community leader, and postal service administrator whose career with USPS spanned some 40 years. The Central Square Post office is the only federal building in New England to be named for an African-American.
All this information I had stumbled upon on earlier visits, in the interior of the building on the first floor where the actual business of sending and checking mail takes place. It is a gritty interior, weathered and old, ready for some intervention. A friend had once described it as lugubrious, and this morning the adjective seemed particularly apt. Except for one person in a black coat checking her mail and a mother and her son at the counter, the place was inert in that way in which dark green marble, long, black, rectangular tables, and high ceilings can make a place look not only lifeless but spooky.
One window was open for business. Ahead of me, the boy’s mother held him up to the window, a letter in his hand, his voice trembling with that wonderment which can temporarily transform a place into something utterly otherworldly. The words — I’d like to send this letter, please, — resounded through the silence. It seemed as though in that moment when his words echoed through the lobby of the post office the entire place had suddenly come to life, had been rejuvenated by yet another person stepping into the magical world of sending and receiving letters.
One of the less conspicuous features of the Central Square Post Office is the comfortable armchair to the right of the counter. I know of no other post office in town which has an armchair planted in its midst. (Sure, Harvard Square Post Office has a narrow bench tucked away in a corner, but a nice, ample chair like this? ) Another less known fact about the Central Square Post Office is that although its counter is closed after hours, its lobby is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. After the boy and his mother had left and my business was over, I sat in the armchair. The noise and din had faded away, and the place had returned to its earlier silence, but something had stayed, something which engulfed me in a flood of images and memories.
Central Square Post Office is readying itself for a multi-million dollar renovation project. Whatever they do to it, I hope that they keep the armchair and maintain the unrestricted access to the lobby. Had I had the audacity and the voice to go with it, I would have sung a long, long song of praise for all such gritty post office lobbies the world over, and for every single letter in every single language — written, sent, received, and replied. Had I had the time, I would have stayed past closing hours and into the radiant night of the first day of the new year. Is there a person in this world who does not remember the first letter he or she wrote and sent — the stamp, the envelope, the post office, the extended hand of the person behind the counter? Is there a person who does not remember the first letter he or she received — the reading, the re-reading, the answer?
And thereafter, the way in which some of us fall into the the seamless web of letters and replies, into the invisible threads of what we anticipate and what we receive, of what we want and what we must. The way we hang around for a lifetime. Yes, nothing will disturb our universe, nothing.~~