In the summer of 2017, I was prepping to direct my film, Colewell, with Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) in the lead role. The screenplay followed a rural postmaster forced into retirement, and I began to wonder whether it was a wise project to invest so much time in. Would audiences relate to a woman who spends her time at home, feeling cut off from her community? And who cares about the U.S. Postal Service?
Three years later, I’m in the strange position of wishing my own film was less relevant. Many of us have spent the spring and summer months secluded due to COVID-19, and we’ve all felt the impact of the Trump administration’s assault on the Postal Service. However, as I researched the film back in 2017, it was clear that many rural and urban communities had already been fighting this battle for a decade.
I’m sure you’ve heard the key points by now: in 2006, congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund pensions for 75 years. The U.S. was then hit with a recession and by 2011, the Postal Service was listing nearly 3,700 post offices for closure, many of which were in underserved communities. Though some offices were closed that year, public outcry shifted the strategy to vastly reduced hours in affected areas. Some wondered whether these reduced hours were intended to choke these offices out on their own.
Like many people, I barely registered this as it happened. I don’t particularly enjoy going to my local post office, and the majority of my physical mail is junk. It wasn’t until I started visiting communities who had lost their offices that I began to understand what was at stake. I drove up to Alplaus, New York, and spoke to their former postmaster, Kathy Boyle. Kathy and several community members shared stories of the office they had tried in vain to save, calling it their town living room where older neighbors, kids, and pets would all spend time with each other. Kathy knew every resident, would check in on them if they didn’t show up, kept dog treats in a spare P.O. box, and used the communal microwave as a “safe” for after-hour pick-ups. Alplaus did not have a coffee shop, church, or bar—the post office was where that town became a community and as we spoke to residents, the void its closure left was evident. That dependence on a physical space is something we tried to honor in Colewell, filmed near Noxen, Pennsylvania, which lost its post office in 2009.
The residents of Noxen are fighters. They lost their elementary school in the 1970s, their dress factory in the 1980s, and after three years of fighting, their post office. They organized, wrote letters, and protested, but were ignored. Many of them appear in Colewell and took up the fight once more in a staged town hall meeting. Although it was clearly staged as fiction, the emotions that quickly rose to the surface were deeply felt. Meanwhile, local postal workers helped guide our art department and showed Karen Allen how to properly sort mail, track her sales, and price postage. While we felt honored to help tell the story of towns like Noxen and Alplaus, I left regretting that we could not bring their office back.
Last February, the House passed the USPS Fairness Act, which would revoke the pension burden required by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, but the Senate has not yet voted. In the interim, the recent manipulation of the Postal Service in advance of the fall election has us all feeling the effects. Our packages are late, tracking numbers offer little information, and our daily mail, which once arrived by lunch, now comes in the late afternoon or early evening. There’s a destabilizing impact when a constant you’ve taken for granted is suddenly shown to be vulnerable. The fact that this is happening during a pandemic when we’re already feeling isolated is more painful, but I wonder if it has made us more attuned to the potential loss. Over the past few months, we’ve had a new mailman delivering our route. Since my family is home, we see him more often and he’s begun to greet our kids when he sees them in the yard. It’s been years since I’ve felt that kind of daily connection.
“Since my family is home, we see him more often and he’s begun to greet our kids when he sees them in the yard. It’s been years since I’ve felt that kind of daily connection.”
Recently, actor Hannah Gross (who plays Ella in Colewell) sent me JoAnn Elam’s short film, Everyday People, (1979-1990). Though the interviews were filmed in the late-1970s and early-1980s, I am struck by how similar they are to conversations I had with contemporary postal workers during the research stage of Colewell. That continuity across 40 years, and the investment of postal workers in their communities, are what we need to preserve. While we hope to have a new president next January, the Postal Service will likely continue its financial struggle in the coming years. My hope is that we will be a bit more aware and a bit more informed when at-risk communities need our support. For now, I can’t help feeling that by attempting to undermine the Postal Service and further divide us, Donald Trump has created the rare problem we can all rally around. It’s small comfort, but I’ll take what I can get these days.