THEY'RE NOT CELEBRITIES. THEY WALK PAST YOU ON THE STREET, BRING YOU YOUR FOOD AT A RESTAURANT, AND LIVE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. THEY'RE EVERYDAY PEOPLE. JUST LIKE YOU.
FEBRUARY 2004: BEN THOMAS
WHEN WE FIRST MOVED TO MILWAUKEE IN JULY OF LAST YEAR, WE ALREADY KNEW A HANDFUL OF PEOPLE HERE. BUT SINCE JULY, WE'VE MET A BUNCH OF REALLY FRIENDLY AND COOL PEOPLE. ONE OF THEM IS BEN THOMAS, OUR MAILMAN. HE'S "DOWN" WITH THE CHICKEN, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING. SO FPHATTY, VINNIE, DEBBIE, D.J., AND I SAT DOWN FOR A CHAT TO LEARN ABOUT THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, HARLEYFEST, AND DOG TEETH.
Wayne: The question I want to start off with is one that's on all of our minds: zip codes and the four numbers after them. What's up with that? Is it accurate?
Ben: Oh, the zip plus four? Yeah, it's accurate. It combines your last two,.. shit, if I had a letter I could actually show you. It actually narrows you down to a square block.
D.J.: So, we should use it?
B: I never use it.
D.J.: Well, if Ben Thomas doesn't use them, I'm not using 'em!
B: When I mail shit out I just put their zip, because I'm confident.
W: See, I never understood that. You're adding more numbers, but it always gets there. There's no penalty for not using them.
W: Do you think there ever will be?
B: (laughs) No, I don't think so. They'll probably be able to zero right in on you with GPS (Global Positioning System), right on a grid coordinate.
W: (laughs) Yeah, with The Patriot Act. They'll plant a chip in your head. So when did you start delivering mail, and how did you get into it?
B: In '96. I stumbled onto it.
Fphatty: How old were you?
B: I started late. I started when I was 28. I came back here after living in Kansas. I went to KSU. So I came back here, signed up for this, and got hired.
W: What did you go to school for?
B: Well, I was born here, but I ended up in Kansas because I joined the military and got stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas.
B: And when I got out from my time, I applied to Kansas State. After two years of working, I kind of petered out. (laughs)
B: I "lost focus", I like to say. (laughs) I couldn't understand all of the classes-- calculus, trig,...
F: Did you have a major?
B: It was going to be business management. I understand the application (of the classes) was there, but,.. you know, just give me some core courses and let me go. And I never took a break. That's probably what did me in. I went through Spring, Summer, and Winter, and I never took a break.
W: Yeah. So, what branch of the military were you in?
B: The U.S. Army.
W: From when to when?
B: I went in in '85 and got out in '93. Then did a year in the Army Reserve up here in the 84th Division. Then I went and did three more years in the National Guard-- 35th Division. That was back in Kansas. I had come back here for a brief stay, and then went back. I took a leave for a few years, but then I just went back this past August.
B: National Guard. One year.
F: What's your status?
B: I just made a call. You know, the "War On Terrorism" and all that other bullshit. "Is there a chance I can still keep my rank and get in?" (laughs) "Yeah. We'll take anyone."
B: "You'll take an old man like me? Okay. What the hell. I'll go." (laughs)
W: That was a year ago?
B: In August.
W: And it lasts a year?
B: Yeah. Next August I'll be done.
D.J.: What does that entail? What are you doing for this year?
B: We drill. We train.
F: How often?
B: Once a month.
F: Where do you go? Somewhere around here?
B: We've been to Fort McCoy doing maneuvers and war gaming kind of stuff.
F: What's that like?
D.J.: It's like a Matthew Broderick movie.
B: We did some exercises designed to stress the limits of re-supply. We had scenarios where we had to restock for S1, which is administrative. I had to order people and new rocket launchers and whatnot.
F: Can you get us some of those?
B: If I could get them I'd take out an armored car, and I wouldn't be working this crazy job.
F: Did you ever eat the vegetarian bean burrito MRE (Meals Ready to Eat)?
B: No. I always picked the chicken breast. Little more protein.
W: We have a friend who's in the Coast Guard, stationed in Alaska. He sends us shit like that. They're pretty scary.
B: (laughs) They're pretty scary, yeah. They'll plug you up for three days.
W: With the military and the postal service, are they similar?
B: The only reason I did this is because they're really lax on missing work for drill. There's a thing where your employer can't discipline you for Guard duty. They're obligated to allow it. The government definitely won't stand in the way. So that's kind of why I did it. When I do my AT, which is my annual training, the post office will pay me, and they'll pay me. So I get to double dip for two weeks. And I'm guaranteed to come back to the same job. We were recently alerted. We were going to go to southwest Asia, but they stood down the Tuesday before Christmas.
B: We were on war footing.
B: I thought, "If they need a tanker unit at this point, we're hurting somewhere."
F: Where all have you been? Just in the continental United States, or have you gone abroad?
B: Well, let's see. I went to Honduras in '87, I went to Panama in '89, I went to Saudi Arabia in '91-- the first go around-- and then back. And that was it.
F: How were the people there? Did you interact with civilians-- the public-- or were you always among your own people?
B: I got an air conditioner from some British guys, so I was pretty much happy just staying in there. When we went to Honduras it was only for 90 days-- we were TDY (Temporary Duty). I got assigned to an SF (Special Forces) unit. I did a little help with logistics. I was never combat arms. In fact, this unit I'm in now-- which is a tanker unit-- is more combat arms than I've ever been. They're usually too gung-ho for me.
W: Really? All of the guys that are in the unit, are they like you? Like an on-call sort of thing?
B: We're all armed mailmen with machine guns! (laughs)
W: (laughs) I mean, they're all doing the same thing you are, right?
B: Yeah, yeah. Some guys are mechanics, some guys work on crap, some guys are gunners, some are unit supply, some are battery-level supply.
W: Some of them are more gung-ho than others?
B: There are some gung-ho guys there. Those motherfuckers are scary. And there are some people who you're like, "I wouldn't want to be in combat with this guy!"
Vinnie: Do you have a lot of family here in Milwaukee?
B: Everybody. That's why we came back here.
V: What was your family like when you were possibly going to be shipped to Asia?
B: I only told my brother and my wife. If it came up, then I'd tell them. But I didn't want any of them to freak out. My mom would have freaked out. Shit, she freaked out the day I shipped out to the Army. I'm like, "Mom, I'm just going to basic training. I'm not going anywhere."
V: Why did you join? Just something you wanted to do?
B: I got laid-off. I had my first job out of high school, and I got laid-off after 89 days. They kind of fucked me over; one more day I would have at least gotten some unemployment. I had two buddies that went in before, so I just thought, "What the hell."
B: Plus, I wanted to clean up my act, you know? I was partying all of the time, and lots of other stupid shit.
B: But partying is everywhere, man. Even there, too.
F: Why do you think there's so much there?
B: I don't do that anymore.
W: Have you gotten any weird packages? Like bleeding boxes or anything?
B: No. You know when the big anthrax scare came through? They were putting shit in plastic bags; giving us rubber gloves and face masks.
F: The little hospital ones?
B: Cardboard things.
W: That'll stop the plague, you know.
B: I went up to my boss one time and said, "Hey, man. This is suspicious. There's some shit coming out of here." So he kind of opens it up and says, "Ah. That's alright."
B: We kid about it to this day. "Did you guys ever catch that guy?" "Oh, no. We never caught 'em."
W: Was that something you were concerned with? It seems like it was so far removed.
B: Well, I was concerned about it because of the high-speed automation. If something cross-contaminates something coming from Washington,.. you don't know. I'm no chemist, but I know a couple of postal guys died.
W: Well, tell me a good postman story. Naked women coming to the door?
B: Never had any full-naked,.. but lingerie, towels,...
Debbie: (laughs) Sorry.
B: You have to ring 'em out if you've got a certified letter, is one example. There was a certain occasion; it was a house close to here, but I won't say the street.
D: I want the address.
B: She came to the door with bare shoulders and a little shoulder strap floppin' down. I said, "I have a certified letter for so-and-so." She said, "She's not here, but it's my roommate." So I said, "Well, you can sign and save her a trip to the dreadful post office." So she reaches around the door, and I hand her the pen. Then she goes to close it, but she keeps a little part open. So I said-- probably out of line-- "It's alright. I've seen that before." So she just kicked the door wide open, and she's wearing a little see-through bra. She signed it, and conducted business.
D: Now, when you say "conducted business",...
B: You always hope that they're overly grateful for the delivery.
D.J.: Do you always ring twice?
B: Yes. And I just saw that movie because of the title. And it had nothing to do with mail guys.
B: I thought it was some kind of '70s eerie porno, but it was a black-and-white movie from the '50s.
W: Do you ever see a hot girl you have a delivery for, and you tell her you've got a package for her?
W: 'Cause that's what I would say.
B: They come out in pajamas, and then you wonder, you know, is she just doing that because I'm coming, or is she like that all the time? You never know. But you can't cross that line. You just take it, and say, "Alright. That's one of the benefits."
F: (laughs) Other than us, do you have any people on your route who are overly friendly?
B: I've got people, man, that get out of their cars two steps in front of you, and they'll walk inside-- BOOM!-- and slam the door in your face. You put the mail in the box, turn around, and all of a sudden their door opens and they're grabbing the mail. I mean, what the hell would it hurt to say, "What's up?" A lot of chicks think that just 'cause you say hello to them, it means you gotta go have sex.
D.J.: (laughs) Well, you could!
B: I'm thinking maybe somewhere down the line other mailmen have ruined it for us.
W: I think people are just scared. In general, I think they're afraid of the public; of people.
F: Well, at the post office, do you just get shit all day long? Is that why so many people working there seem so unhappy?
B: I don't know. Some people might think we represent the "government".
F: Who owns the post office? I know it's private, but,...
B: They're a privately-run entity. A lot of people think it's their tax dollars, but, no, we survive totally on revenue generated from the sale of stamps.
F: But there's no stock in it or anything?
B: No. Believe me, if I could buy stock in it I'd go mortgage my house.
B: But the last thing they want to do is give up a chunk of the change.
F: Have you noticed that, with email, mail has gone down?
B: Yeah. Bulk mail went up, first class mail went down.
W: Do we get the most mail on your route? Because we get a lot of goddamn mail!
B: No, you don't. I don't mind it.
W: You have houses that get more?
W: Can we have some of it?
B: You learn a lot about people.
W: I was wondering about that.
B: Who is gay, who are sexual deviants, who are teachers. Who is liberal, who is conservative.
V: What'd you think about him (pointing to Wayne) getting an American Girl catalog?
F: So, do you have a feeling of each house you go to?
B: Oh, yeah. You get a vibe. (laughs) Like, when you guys first moved in here, I thought you might be a band or something. Yeah, you can learn a lot about people. If you had a stalker-like personality, you could really get in on somebody and find out a lot. Not that I would ever do anything like that.
W: What's the one story that you tell people? Do you ever have dogs chasing you?
B: Yeah. In fact, the people that lived in this house right before you guys.
D: Oh, that crazy fuckin' dog?!? You should see our bathroom door! There's a huge chunk of the door chewed off!
B: One day he got out, so I ran at him instead of running away. I ran at him full-speed and he came running at me-- RRRRR!-- right by me, because he couldn't stop in time. I got out my dog spray--
D: You have dog spray?
B: Oh, yeah. But he stopped, and didn't go any further. The owner came out, so I said, "That's the second time now. If it happens again, he's gonna get waxed."
V: Other than your job and the military, what do you in your spare time?
B: I sell on eBay. I sell collectables.
F: Like little Hummel figurines? (laughs)
B: No. Brewery collectables. Beer cans. There's a big market for those. Models and model kits.
W: Do you buy the stuff from eBay?
B: No. I get them from estate sales, rummage sales, wherever.
W: I would never have expected that, actually.
B: Yeah. It's a good business.
W: What else do you do?
B: I like to ride. I've got a bike-- a Harley. I'm always looking for somewhere to go.
F: Did you participate in Harleyfest?
B: Oh, yeah. I put more miles on that week than I did in the three years I've owned my bike.
W: I heard it was kind of crazy because they didn't plan for the numbers they had.
B: I didn't go down to the lake, you know, with the dreaded Elton John.
F: (laughs) I thought that was "much anticipated".
B: (sarcastically) Yeah. When it was supposed to be The Stones or Bruce Springsteen.
W: I guess there were people leaving in droves when he came out.
D: Why did he sign for that?
W: He was getting paid! What does he care?
D.J.: But when he started singing "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" from The Lion King,...
B: A bunch of burly bikers riding,.. I just don't know if that was the right fit.
D: Maybe that was a selling point for Elton.
B: It's raining men.
W: Well, I think that's about enough for the interview, unless you have something you want to say-- or give a shout-out to your homies.
B: Hi, homies.
D.J.: When dogs chase you, do you notice if they have lips?
B: They all have teeth when they're chasing you. That's all I notice. Oh, and any of you women out there reading this, don't be afraid of the mailman! Show 'em a little more, come to the door in a little less.
B: When it's forty-fucking-below zero, don't make me stand out on your porch! Invite me in! I want to start a pilot program for Victoria's Secret, where we allow them to try it on and we give them our critique. If it's not right, we'll take it back.
W: (laughs) I always wondered about that. If people think, "I'm alone, and it'd be nice if some young, strapping, handsome mailman came to my door right now." Our friend always says--
D: Yeah. He's afraid that you're going to come to his house and steal his wife,.. and he doesn't even have a wife!
W: Our friend's quote about you is, "If I had a wife, I'd be scared to leave her home alone during the day."
F: Actually, it's Wayne that keeps saying, "Oh, I'm so alone. I wish the mailman,..."