On every day except Sunday, my uncle Guy faces a wall of cubby holes in the back of a post office in southern Arizona. The cubbies are roughly ordered into three separate routes: Elephant Head, Lakewood and Amado-Arivaca. Beyond that they lack any organisational principle – not alphabetical, numerical, geographical or otherwise.
He takes thick stacks of bulk mail, unemployment cheques and periodicals, and tosses them into uneven piles on the counter beneath the cubbies. Names frequently change positions, as people move around the remote desert where Guy works. If he’s feeling generous, he will re-sort mail with an out-of-date address to the new residence. People don’t often move far away. “I know patrons who have moved across the street to pay $20 less for rent,” he says. “Kids move in with parents or grandparents, then they move out when they fight. Some will hold on to misdelivered mail that was supposed to go to their nephew out of pure spite.”
He knows all of his customers by name, face and, frequently, vehicle. Their cars swarm around his makeshift mail truck – a minivan he converted himself – to ask whether their post is ready. Too often, the answer is no, and the patrons leave the conversation disgruntled. Although, like many Americans in rural areas, they resent what they perceive as inefficiencies, they are nonetheless dependent on his service.
Guy inherited the route from his father. His dad had brought the family west, out of the New Jersey country-club set, to take up a job selling steel. The company folded soon after they moved and he ended up working at the post office. When his dad retired, Guy took over the route that he still works today. At that point, Guy’s dreams, too, had “come up on it”, as he would say.
In a past life, Guy produced the news at one of Phoenix’s local television stations. After that he tried to make it as a director in Los Angeles. It didn’t work out – there was too much competition – and when he came back home to Tucson, he knew where he could find a steady job. Guy’s brother also works for the postal service, as a rural mail carrier in Idaho, where he moved for a marriage that later failed. The postal service, for the men in Guy’s family and many others across America, offers a career path for those without other options.
He files the post into the cubby holes like a musician reading by sight. After 25 years on the job, he trusts his hands to go where they’re supposed to. “I’m a meat robot,” he told me.
Mailmen don’t usually get much attention unless something goes missing. But recently their value has become a matter of public debate, with voting under way in one of the most divisive elections in American history. The coronavirus pandemic means that the result on November 3rd could well be determined by the largest vote-by-mail programme the country has ever seen. Arizona is now a crucial swing state. Polls suggest that it could go Democratic for the first time since 1996. Guy’s deliveries have significance on a national scale.
With 600,000 employees, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is America’s third-largest civilian employer, behind Walmart and Amazon. Despite a federal requirement to provide a basic delivery service to every resident in the country, the agency does not receive a single tax dollar to support its daily operations. The USPS has been underfunded for decades, so when further cost-cutting measures were implemented in May – such as removing mail-sorting machines and scrapping overtime – many worried about the electoral implications. There were concerns that these decisions were politically motivated. Though the postal service is well-liked by Americans across the political spectrum, Donald Trump has long held the agency in contempt. In April, the president referred to the USPS as a “joke”. In August, he attacked the integrity of postal voting, claiming that the Democrats are “using covid to steal the election”. Louis DeJoy, the postmaster-general and a Trump donor who was appointed to the position earlier this year, still has shares in the private logistics company he used to run.
“Basically, they say: ‘This is how much this route is worth. Either you take it or some other sorry fucker will’ ”
The beleaguered agency is no stranger to austerity. Revenue has stagnated over the past two decades and the USPS last made a profit in 2006. When routes that are not organically profitable are cut, the USPS employs contractors – who are cheaper – to fulfil its obligation to deliver. Guy is one such contractor. This means the USPS does not provide him with health insurance or a pension, or any other of the benefits that the postal workers’ unions fight to keep. Like many private contractors, Guy lives without a safety net. He is paid the same rate no matter how long his delivery round takes. In recent years the amount he is obliged to deliver each day has increased significantly, meaning he has to spend even longer hours on the road. Lately every day has been “worse than Christmas” as he struggles to cope with increased numbers of election advertisements, as well as parcels ordered by those wary of leaving their houses because of the pandemic. The USPS has never been more necessary or so thinly stretched.
The USPS desperately needs government assistance but a mooted $25bn investment has become a political football. Contractors are seen as a cost-cutting solution. Private contractors like my uncle are likely to become standard on low-volume rounds, while the most unprofitable routes could be decommissioned and replaced by a gig worker who comes infrequently and at much higher cost to residents.
Guy’s dad worked on a contract too. It may well have been one of the first doled out by the USPS. Since Guy took it over from his father, he was never given the option of a salary. “Basically, they say: ‘This is how much this route is worth. Either you take it or some other sorry fucker will.’” So, on every day but Sunday, Guy drives a minimum of 87 miles and delivers around 180 parcels to rural post offices and the homes that lie between them.
The people who stand to lose out most from the decline of the postal service live in low-income or sparsely populated regions of the country. Some towns are so small that they don’t have their own polling stations. Mail-in voting is the norm in these places. Yet ballots are not Guy’s only valuable cargo. He also delivers medication, unemployment and disability cheques, and other essential products. But these vital packages alone cannot, by themselves, make a route viable. The number of pieces of first-class mail, a highly profitable service offered by the agency, has declined by 30% over the past decade as letters have been replaced by email. An increase in the number of parcel deliveries has partially compensated for this, but in low-income areas such as the one Guy serves this does not, in normal circumstances, account for much business. People here cannot afford to buy much stuff. In order to make up for the dearth of first-class mail, the postal service has doubled down on providing marketing circulars for businesses. Every day Guy sorts and delivers thousands of pieces of junk mail. Most people discard these before reading them, but sorting it takes up the majority of his time. The importance with which his vocation is now regarded – the preservation of American democracy – sits at odds with the futile monotony of the reality.
Every day starts like this. He fills up a Rubbermaid jug with ice – just ice. It will slowly melt as he works in the desert heat. He packs his own lunch, usually leftovers from dinner and a small bag of almonds. He’s been wearing the same white sneakers he has bought in bulk from Costco ever since I can remember. Before he pulls out of his driveway he jams a sun-shield, which he made from cardboard, into the window on the driver’s side. His skin – originally the ruddy white of a New Jersey exile – has tanned to red leather. The shield, he says, is just for the heat.
He stops by the Tumacacori post office to grab the mail he will take to the desert outpost of Arivaca. He can tell that Donna, the postmaster, is around because her Harley trike is parked in the small lot behind the office. She is not allowed to talk to me because postal-service employees have confidentiality clauses in their contracts. Guy is taking a risk in letting me into his world, even just with an interview and a tour.
“Arivaca: a hundred bad roads and only one you can get out of here on”
He gets back on the access road and starts to make deliveries. The old highway runs by a forest fed by the Sopori Arroyo, a dry riverbed that flash-floods during the monsoon season. This water feeds some of the few verdant patches in the Sonoran desert. The road cuts through the high, wide valley between the Santa Rita mountains to the east and Baboquivari (or Waw kiwalik), the sacred peak of the native Tohono O’odham people to the west. The cottonwood trees that line the road cannot obscure the vast horizon.
As Guy makes his way to Amado post office, his base of operations, he passes the Tumacacori Swap Meet, the local flea market. Oversized flags flap like banners on the tents of medieval warlords: Democrats for Trump, the bared fangs of the Gadsden flag, a revolutionary-era standard displaying a rattlesnake that has been adopted by right-wing groups, and the Confederate battle cross. Last time Guy took me here I bought a rusty horseshoe and a federal lie-detector set from the McCarthy era.
The major stop on this route is the De Anza RV Resort, a trailer park near a site of historical interest. The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail marks the path that Spanish colonisers took from Mexico to San Francisco and the resort hosts invaders of a different kind: snowbirds. This pejorative term refers to the retirees who migrate here from the north during the winter, roosting in recreational trailers that cost more than Guy’s house. They receive so much mail that he has to bind the stacks with heavy-duty rubber bands.
“Do you see the grandstand there?” Guy asks me, pointing at the resort’s restaurant. “That’s a relic from when this used to be a greyhound track. My buddy Charles used to come here with his grandparents to watch the races. Now he works for this resort as the chef. They let him park his trailer here for free.” The only other dining establishment in Amado is a grill-house called Longhorn. The entrance, across the street from the post office, is in the shape of an enormous skull. Customers walk in through its nostrils.
When not in his vehicle, Guy spends most of his time at the Amado post office. It shares retail space with a whimsically named storage centre, Amado Space Corral, and a coffin-sized notary’s office. In the building’s shade, the Space Corral manager has planted an optimistic patch of grass. The intense irrigation it requires lures fauna of all kinds to the post office. Guy is also forced to work as a part-time wrangler. In three days, I saw him evict two fat lizards (or perhaps the same lizard twice) and a tarantula. But the true wilderness lies deep in the building’s interior. Beyond the PO boxes and a window decorated with the words “DEPOSIT MAIL HERE” in nuclear-era font, you can find the guts of the organisation. A wrought-iron door is lined with cardboard from broken-down packages to aid the efforts of the swamp cooler. The woman who runs the joint is always listening to one of the local Christian radio stations. “So much for the separation of church and state,” says Guy.
Polls report Arizona could go Democratic for the first time since 1996. Guy’s deliveries now have relevance beyond his community
The disorganised mail cubbies are stacked against the back wall. The interior smells like my old state school: bulk-rate office supplies mingling with paper that has touched too many fingers. The cubbies are reliably lit through a window pierced by bright sunshine, but a fluorescent tube still hangs just above Guy’s eye level. He has collaged the lamp with phrases and pictures from undelivered junk mail: “Your summer of giving up”; and an image of a model holding an aubergine, with a speech bubble drawn in Sharpie yelling, “Get your hand off my ass!” Once he found a petrified toad here. Now it’s taped to the lampshade in a little plastic bag, next to a letter from the American Association of Retired Persons addressed to “Recipient: Thomas Deceased”. This is Guy’s inner sanctum. He comes back here like the tide to sort mail for the community, deliver it, then back to sort some more.
The town of Arivaca is reached via an old wagon trail that rises west, out of the valley, towards the land of the Tohono O’odham. The road is riddled with potholes and, at its many tight corners, grows indiscernible from the desert sand. Guy has seen six dead or dying people splayed out on this road in car accidents, most of which happened before the era of mobile phones. His preferred euphemism for corpse is “corker”. Once, he saw a little puff of dust around a corner. He investigated and found a Subaru wedged in a mesquite tree. Its wheels were spinning and there was no one around. “They stuck it in a tree and ran like hell!”
“Arivaca,” Guy exhales, “a hundred bad roads and only one you can get out of here on.” Once Guy discovered two migrants locked in a Pompeiian embrace in the shade of a complex of mailboxes that was the only standing shelter for miles. He gave them all the water and food he had, then went to find help. When he came back, they were gone.
Guy’s route cuts through a major border crossing. Migrants, desperate to evade the barriers and law enforcement, are driven across this inhospitable stretch. Guy passes checkpoints and US Customs and Border Patrol officers (known colloquially as BPs) daily. We pass a diamond-shaped DIP sign (warning of a dip in the road), that has been graffitied to read: BP YOU DIP SHITS. Guy laughs. He knows the towns where the border-patrol officers grew up. He sees them as normal guys trying to make a living in the middle of nowhere. In that way, they have something in common. The difference is constitutional: Guy has a deep appreciation for people who break stupid rules.
As we come back down into Amado, Guy points out the dark, anvil-shaped thunderclouds gathering above the Santa Rita mountains, the backdrop to Elephant Head, the area’s wealthiest neighbourhood. It is mid-August and the monsoon season has arrived. “Yeah, that’s right where we’re going,” he says, with a maniacal laugh. “I don’t mind the rain. It’s the fucking lightning that scares the shit out of me. I’ve almost been Fritoed a couple times.”
Guy loves this formidable landscape but he is trapped by it: his job, the one he knows better than anyone else, offers little security. On his own, he is unable to afford health insurance or even to take a single day off, because it means paying someone else to fill his place. With the election looming, Americans everywhere are depending on people like Guy to save their country, whichever way they are considering voting. For Guy, though, the future won’t change. He has no retirement savings. He confesses to me that he might work the route until the day he dies. He probably will.
“This is where I bring the dogs to complete the circle of life,” Guy says. “On the side of those hills there, there’s a beautiful spot. Ocotillos [a desert plant] everywhere, pretty close to the mountains.” When one of his dogs dies, he usually leaves its remains for scavengers to eat, but he is going to make an exception for Benji, the oldest of his current pack of three.
“He keeps telling me he wants a cairn,” Guy says.
“Would you want to be buried there?” I ask.
“No, not buried,” he says.
“Scattered?” I ask, imagining strewing his ashes.
He corrects me. He doesn’t want his body to be burnt but consumed by the desert itself.
“Left to be scattered,” he says.•
Guy’s name has been changed to protect his identity
PHOTOGRAPHS: DANIEL MÅNSSON