Sorting out the day 4 a.m. to 5 a.m.

August 13, 2005

The town is growing. The post office is not.

As the first light comes up on each day, this fact is quite clear to the first people into the downtown building.

The mail load for the ever-larger town gets squeezed into the crowded confines of the 1931 building at the corner of Fourth and Cascade streets. Marti Mayhew and Steve Kawachi are there to greet the mail on the U.S. Postal Service trucks from Portland at about 3:30 a.m. The mail goes onto the loading bay and into the building, starting with the closet-sized “cages” for further divvying up once inside.

The shifting and organizing is enough to help Mayhew and Kawachi wake up and get going.

They’re helping the county get organized.

From the cages the letters, bulk mail, parcels, and boxes go to hampers, carts and rolling trays, all for mail of different sizes and mail bound for different city and rural routes.

The postal workers wake up to the task of sorting out the day for the mail patrons of the county.

Sometimes they don’t even get a cup of coffee right away.

“I brought my own today,” Mayhew says. “Steve’s going to have to make some. He’s mad at me,” she jokes.

Both workers get to fine tuning right away: Mayhew distributing mail to a labyrinthine assortment of hampers coded for each route — eight rural and five in the city. (The mail for Odell and Parkdale, which have separate post offices, is separated on the loading dock before transit to the valley communities.)

Meanwhile, Kawachi is going through a pile of undeliverable or unclaimed mail, writing up additional notices to be sent to the recipients.

Theirs is a decades-old task where the technology is mainly ten-fingered: Hands-on placement of letters and packages in particular spaces and sub-spaces and then into smaller slots, or into a bag and then a mailbox.

A vast amount of material makes its way into the door but rapidly gets divided up by knowing hands into ever-smaller spaces before delivery to home or office.

They do this in a well-lit but cramped work room too small for some route hampers; those the carriers have to wheel around the building and into the basement for processing.

“We’re always moving stuff around,” Kawachi said.

After Mayhew and Kawachi sort it by route, it’s up to the individual carriers to arrange it by address before heading out on their rounds.

“But we have to know by address which route it goes to,” Mayhew says.

“We’re constantly learning,” she said.

“This town is growing so much and getting new addresses all the time,” Mayhew said.

“When you first start, you have to look (addresses up) but after awhile it becomes commonplace,” Kawachi said.

All this happens with a timeless feel. The mail finds its way through containers made of aluminum, wood, and canvas, all of it worn and buffeted.

Mayhew notes that one thing remains unchanged about the mail: The unusual objects that are delivered by the Postal Service.

“It’s amazing the things people come up with,” Mayhew said, citing coconuts and plastic bottles carrying addresses.

Such variations keep things interesting, but one of the more appealing things about starting work at 3:30 a.m. is this:

“I clock out at 11:30 a.m. and I have lots of time left in the day to get things done,” Mayhew said.

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