Annette Gonzalez has been called “the fastest woman on the East Side.” The reference isn’t to her social life but rather to the remarkable speed with which she delivers the mail. Were there an Olympic event in mail sorting, I have no doubt that Annette, a petite, perky 31-year-old letter carrier assigned to the Gracie Station post office on the Upper East Side, would be on more cereal boxes than Michael Jordan or Mary Lou Retton.
Annette first came to my attention one day a few months ago when my mail arrived a full hour earlier than normal. Sadly, my good fortune didn’t last. Annette is what’s known at the post office as a “floater,” meaning that because she lacks seniority-she’s been on the job six and a half years-she’s required to work several different routes, substituting for co-workers who call in sick or on their days off. My building receives the benefit of her speed, not to mention accuracy, approximately once a week.
I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw her sorting the mail. The phenomenon is hard to describe. The only thing I can compare it to is when Clark Kent had to knock out a story on deadline while a meteor was streaking toward Earth in the old Superman TV series.
Glancing over his shoulder to make sure Lois Lane wasn’t watching, he’d type so fast that his hands became a blur and the keys started to smoke. Superman has nothing on Ms. Gonzalez. Her motion is unique. She raps the letter in her hand against the mailbox a couple of times waiting for her mind’s eye to tell her into which slot it goes. It’s similar to the stutter step that great running backs take when they’re handed off the ball and are sizing up the defense, searching for daylight.
“I try to picture the whole panel and try to memorize where the name is at,” she explained modestly as she sorted the mail into boxes at 147 East 82nd Street, a seven-story building with almost four dozen apartments.
We were joined by Pat McGovern, a public relations specialist with the U.S. Postal Service. Normally, someone like Pat would be pitching me a story on Annette. But I found myself in the curious position of wanting Pat to validate my suspicion that, as dedicated as the vast majority of the post office’s letter carriers undoubtedly are, Ms. Gonzalez is in a league of her own.
Pat’s first priority, I suppose, was to make sure Annette didn’t utter any faux pas about her employer. She had nothing to worry about. Annette is all business. Though single, she has never dated any of the legions of male admirers along her route. She politely declines to get in the middle of tenant-landlord disputes, and she refuses to share any gossip she might be able to deduce by examining people’s mail as she sorts it.
“Neighbors ask, ‘Does such and such person live with such and such person,’” she explained. “I say, ‘I’m not allowed to tell you.’”
Annette, whose parents are Puerto Rican and who grew up in the Bronx where she still lives, doesn’t appreciate bumper stickers like one I spotted recently that said, “Guns Don’t Kill People; Postal Workers Do.”
“That’s terrible,” Annette reacted, though she admitted that even her own family make fun of postal workers’ tendency to take hostages. “I get offended by things like that. I’m going postal. But I’m going postal in a good way.”
The building at 147 East 82nd Street presented a special challenge. “They just put these new boxes in a couple of weeks ago,” she said. Even though they were ordered differently from the old boxes-by floor rather than apartment line-it didn’t take more than a minute before Annette got a rhythm going and Christmas cards, catalogues and small packages were landing in the boxes with a sound that resembled pistol fire.
“Oh, come on. She’s the best,” said Zeco Basic, the building’s super. “She’s always laughing. Come on. Doing a good job. She’s a happy person.”
The job isn’t quite as charmed as it may seem to the Postal Service’s customers. Contrary to popular belief, the letter carriers don’t sit around the office sipping coffee until they get bored and decide to deliver the mail. They personally sort all the mail they deliver, bundling and then bagging it. Annette doesn’t work out, but she still has the body of an aerobics instructor. “I’ve grown muscle here,” she said, displaying bulging biceps.
Annette has been stalked while delivering the mail. A guy in a Sherlock Holmes hat also followed her with a camera, snapping her picture without explanation. On one occasion, she reached into a mailbox to retrieve the letters and came out with a handful of cottage cheese.
And then there was the time the folks at the Scientology Celebrity Center asked Annette to fill out a questionnaire when she dropped off their mail. “She gave me a form, but I didn’t fill it out,” reported the letter carrier, who wasn’t familiar with the organization. “They were asking, ‘How do you feel about yourself? Do you get depressed when something happens? What’s your favorite color?’ My favorite color is purple. I thought it was more of a self-help kind of thing.”
By the time we hit Madison Avenue, Ms. McGovern also appeared persuaded the Postal Service might have a franchise player in Ms. Gonzalez. “I can see she’s an excellent worker,” Pat said, producing a camera of her own and snapping Annette’s picture for Area Update , a Postal Service publication. “We’re proud of carriers like her. She takes the job seriously. That’s obvious.”
Even though Pat said that Area Update goes to 85,000 letter carriers in the New York region, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, I was hoping for a slightly larger showcase for Annette’s talents, perhaps NBC’s Today show.
Pat mentioned Everywhere, Everyday , a cable TV show produced by the Postal Service. “Let’s say we’re doing a story about delivery to apartments,” she stated. “We know she’s well dressed and does a good job.”
I shook my head.
“We did a little re-enactment of Miracle on 34th Street ,” Pat volunteered, referring to a recent event at Macy’s where three letter carriers from the James A. Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue at 33rd Street delivered the mail to the department store. “They got to meet Maureen O’Hara.”
Even if Annette gets picked, that’s another year from now. My main concern at the moment is Annette’s health. She goes so fast she gets overheated. The day I followed her around she wasn’t wearing a sweater, even though the temperature was in the low 40′s. At her pace, she could also easily slice her hand on the sharp edge of a mailbox or tumble down a flight of stairs.
As a matter of fact, when I called her a few days after our meeting to ask her a couple of follow-up questions, I found her not on the job but at home in bed with the flu.
“Sometimes I overdo it with my speed,” she admitted. “I can’t even breathe sometimes. I say, ‘Let me see if today I can do it a little bit faster.’ I’m stressed.”