An Afternoon at the Post Office

The other day I made a trip to the post office, on behalf of the Scorekeeper. We needed the usual three or four rolls of forever stamps, and Jo Anne wanted Christmas stamps, maybe sixty of those. I seldom buy stamps for my own use, having discovered the ease of paying most of my bills through my bank, but I’m a regular at the post office nearest the Scorekeeper.

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It’s the first week in December, so I wasn’t surprised the post office was busy. As usual, there were only two clerks working; the other three stations were piled high with packages and such. At one of the open stations a woman with a large plastic bin filled with small packages (maybe a hundred of them!) was handing them to a clerk in groups of five or six, each handful requiring discussion. Ahead of me in line were a woman and a young girl. The woman had a shopping bag full of presents, which she apparently intended to package with post office supplies before she mailed them out of the country. That requires paperwork, so she and her daughter moved aside to fill out customs declarations, and I got my turn at the counter.

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Scorekeeper check in hand, I asked for three rolls of forever flags, not always available at this particular post office, which has been known to run completely out of stamps. Then I asked for three sheets of Christmas stamps, and the clerk showed me a card with birds and one with last year’s Madonna. “Don’t you have Santa or Christmas Carols?” I asked, having checked on this year’s stamps on line. I was prepared to take birds if that was all they had.

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“Yes,” the clerk said, “but if you want those you have to pay with a credit card.”

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What the hell? Which wasn’t exactly what I said, but close. “Why?” I demanded. I’ve been buying stamps with Scorekeeper checks there for years, frequently from this particular clerk.

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He shrugged. No idea. Orders from the management.

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By then there were even more people in line, so I wrote out the check for flag stamps, while the clerk scurried off and came back with a bag of Christmas stamps and a hand held credit card reader. I pulled out my own credit card and paid for three cards of stamps (one set of Santas and two of Christmas Carols). But I still wanted an explanation of this particular inconvenience, and the clerk said I could talk to a manager at the lobby window.

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So I stuffed the stamps and receipts into my purse and headed for the lobby—and my cell phone rang. It was the veterinarian who has been treating my ailing cat, and I spent five minutes in the post office lobby discussing cat poop on my cell phone. Amazingly, that was the high point of my visit.

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Once we’d settled on the cat’s further treatment (a week’s worth of pills—that should be fun), I went to the lobby door and cornered a manager, who listened to my story and announced that the clerk was completely wrong, and the manager would speak to him. As I left, the manager was indeed speaking to the clerk. End of story, or so I thought.

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But as I drove away, the proverbial penny dropped, and I realized I had written a $160 check for three $50 rolls of stamps. I pulled the receipt out of my purse and saw that he had charged me for one card of the damn bird stamps.

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Back to the post office, where I boldly cut across the line (still long, and the woman with all the little packages in the plastic bin was still there) and had a brief argument with the clerk. After insisting once that he had given me the bird stamps, he must have seen the murderous look in my eye; he checked around the stack of stamps near his register and handed me my birds.

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It took me forty minute to buy those stamps. I think I’m going to look into the stamps-by-mail service on the USPS web site.

 

There IS an App For That!

Sometime late in 2015 my car stalled, at a busy intersection at dusk, and I discovered just how hard it was to call AAA from my little Tracphone. (Fortunately, the car started after a few minutes, and I managed to cancel my call for help.) There must be an app for that, I thought, if only I had a phone that did apps.

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So a couple of months later I went to the local Verizon store and bought myself a very smart phone; among the first apps I downloaded was AAA. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

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Last Thursday, after driving my usual 30-mile commute into Houston for work and running some business errands, I came out of the post office to a car that refused to start. Not so much as a grumble. Turn the key to utter silence.

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Sudden battery death is not unheard of in the heat of a Houston summer. Maybe that was all it was, a simple fix, even though the battery had been checked recently when I had the oil changed. No need to panic. After all, I was in the parking lot of a post office, at 11:45 AM. There are definitely worse times and places to have car trouble. And I had my phone, and the AAA app.

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So I called Jo Anne to tell her I would not be back in the office for a while. Four minute discussion of options, which boiled down to the obvious “call AAA.”

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But why call when I had that smart app, right? Surely the app would be quicker and more efficient.

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Not so fast. When I opened the app, it asked for my PIN. Seriously? I have a PIN for AAA? I tried the default PIN I usually use when forced to come up with four digits, but that didn’t work. So I backed up and tried again. This time it asked for a password. Of course it did. And my original smart phone probably knew the password, but I had to replace that phone a couple of months ago, and the new phone didn’t have a clue. Nor did I.

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By this time a nice woman picking up her mail had noticed my problem and offered me the phone number for AAA. I had that, of course, right there in the app, but I had accepted a challenge. I was going to conquer that app in the air-conditioned comfort of the post office, in case I might need it some night on the side of the road.

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I circled around the app again and put in my AAA membership number. Aha, now it knew me, but it still wanted a password, so I went through the whole password reset routine, which involved the browser, the web site, and three emails.

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At long last, with a new password, I got into the business section of the app. That presented its own challenges. The phone’s GPS had sent a not-too-accurate location, and I had to ask a postal clerk for the correct street address. Then I discovered that I couldn’t just type “Toyota” into the vehicle description boxes—they all work on drop down lists. I finally managed that, and got an immediate response and an estimate of about an hour.

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Happily, it didn’t take nearly that long. After receiving one call from the subcontractor (who rattled off her standard message so fast that I had to ask her to repeat herself) and another from the driver, I saw a truck pull into the parking lot and stop behind my car.

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The driver, a big cheerful Latino guy with a tear in the right leg of his uniform trousers, hopped out of his truck and handed me a cold bottle of water. He checked the battery with some high-tech gadget and pronounced it perfect. Probably the starter, he said, sliding the driver’s seat back so he could wiggle into my Corolla. He then performed a magical feat involving the gear shift, and the car started. There was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would start again if I turned it off, he said.

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I didn’t like those odds, so I called Jo Anne. After stopping by her house so her helper could come out and get the mail I had picked up (I didn’t think to ask her to bring me my lunch, which is still sitting under my desk), I headed south to the Toyota dealership in League City, where they quickly discovered that the problem was indeed the starter (gee, it only lasted 240,000 miles—how many starts would that be?), which they had in stock (not always the case with parts for a 2004 Corolla). While I waited, I pulled out the phone yet again, made a couple of calls, opened the Kindle app, and downloaded the book I was currently reading. The book opened to where I’d left off on my Kindle the night before, and I read until the car was ready.

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My phone was expensive, and the monthly service isn’t cheap, either, but it sure comes in handy when I need it. Between the phone itself, the AAA app, my email, the texting app, and the Kindle app, I definitely put it through its paces on Thursday. I never leave home without it.

 

Back on Trek

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for fifty years (gee, that’s a little scary), since I was in college during the first run of the The Original Series (as it was not known then).

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During and after that run, as I caught up with missed episodes in reruns, I also read most, if not all, of the paperback spin-off novels that came out, some of them written by well-known science fiction writers of the day.

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By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, life, and syndication, got in the way, and I picked up episodes of that and of Deep Space Nine rather sporadically. Didn’t even think about reading the accompanying novels, although over the years I have caught up with watching both series.

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Then came Voyager. By then my life was a bit more settled, and so was the broadcast schedule for the show, now on a regular (if short-lived) network rather than syndication. I watched Voyager from the beginning, fell in love with the ensemble cast, and read the Voyager novels (varying in quality but all featuring the familiar cast) as they came out.

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After Voyager returned to Earth, finishing its seven-year run, I read a few of the “relaunch” novels that appeared, but wasn’t terribly impressed, and there weren’t many of them. I stopped watching for them not that long after the series ended, when I heard that some writer (in a Next Generation novel, I think) had killed off Kathryn Janeway.

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Voyager without Janeway, the redoubtable first female captain with her own series? I don’t think so. Chakotay without Janeway, break my heart again.

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Not too long ago I was wondering what the Trekverse had in store for the cast of Deep Space Nine after that show closed. I knew there must have been any number of novels written in the years since then. So I went poking around on the Internet, where I learned that, this being science fiction, Janeway was restored to life four books into a (currently) nine-book relaunch series by a single author, Kirsten Beyer.

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Full CircleI tried to resist, but I failed. Completely. I devoured the first two books (Full Circle and Unworthy) over the Memorial Day weekend (and these are not short novels), the third (Children of the Storm) during the week, and the fourth (The Eternal Tide) this weekend. Hooked, obviously. I’ve downloaded number 5 (Protectors), although I might force myself to read something else next. Maybe.

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As a reader and as a writer, I’m impressed with how well Kirsten Beyer has handled bringing in backstory from five TV series and countless novels without huge info dumps and without leaving the reader (assuming a certain degree of Star Trek knowledge) totally confused. There are literally hundreds of books out there (if you think I’m exaggerating, check out Wikipedia’s List of Star Trek Novels), and there may well be people who have read them all. I’m not one of them, and never will be, but I am enjoying these.

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However, I’m not writing this to tell you “Read these books, you’ll love them!” Unless you’re a long-time Star Trek fan with a special affection for Voyager, you probably wouldn’t. It’s a niche market.

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What I am sharing, as I babbled to a writer friend recently, is the joy of rediscovering books that keep me up late, books that I can’t put down. Books that have me reading 1800 pages in ten days or so. The joy of binge reading.

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Writers come to look on reading almost as homework, too alert to the mechanics, watching to see how the writer has done something, kicking ourselves because we don’t think we can do it as well, or because we really wish we’d thought of (or written) something on our own. Although most of us are bookaholics, with huge piles of books we really want to read, on our shelves or our ereaders, the book that keeps us up all night, that keeps us away from whatever we think we should be doing, becomes a rare find.

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So when you find an author, or a series, or a subgenre that you fall in love with, go ahead and binge. Reading should be a joy, not an obligation, and I’m delighted, and thankful, to have been reminded of that.

 

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