The Cutting Season

Praise for letter carriers and librarians whose jobs are at risk.

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It was 100 degrees the other day when I flagged down Curtistine Chiozza as she delivered the mail.

C.C., as she is known to friends and customers alike, was sweating under her white pith helmet, bandana, blue uniform, and heavy bag, and, as usual, she was smiling her killer smile. She was near the end of a 10-hour day that began at 7:30 a.m. with two hours of sorting letters and packages followed by eight hours of delivering them along her route in Midtown. Monday's bag is usually the heaviest of the week.

"The breeze ... it's just not happening," she said, pausing briefly from her rounds. "Today seems hotter than any other day this summer."

In her black boots and thick socks, she walks like a woman on a mission, which she is. She hustles, always, in the proverbial heat, cold, rain, and snow. I have never seen her walk slow in the many years that my house has been on her route. Honk at her, as many of us do, and she waves and smiles. If there is a harder-working or more pleasant government employee in Memphis I don't know who it is.

C.C., 40 years old, started with the P.O. in 1992 after attending Southwest Community College.

"I never thought I'd stay this long," she said.

She went full-time in 1997, and the job helps her raise her two kids. She would like to stay with the Postal Service but knows full well that snail mail is on the endangered list and that the oft-ridiculed agency lost $8 billion last year. For now her job is safe, although her route is changing and some of her colleagues are likely to be laid off.

The Postal Service said last week it will review 10 percent of its retail outlets for closing, including six in Shelby County. And that was before the debt ceiling deal that would cut more than $2 trillion in government spending over the next 10 years.

"Make no mistake, this is a change in behavior from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut," said Tennessee U.S. senator and former governor Lamar Alexander, as debate began in the Senate Tuesday.

While Congress was hammering out an 11th-hour deal, C.C. was toting her bag of packages, credit card offers, catalogs, political post cards, solicitations for anything and everything, bills, badly needed checks, and the dwindling volume of personal letters that used to be called "Minnie mail," as in your dear old Aunt Minnie.

"It seems like the whole economy is kaput," C.C. said.

It sure does. Unemployment in Memphis is 12.1 percent, and it's going to get worse when the federal, state, and local government budget cuts kick in.

The paradox is that we're buying jobs and capital investment at Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric Power with tax breaks. These jobs may or may not go to people who now live in Memphis. At the same time, we're cutting government jobs that are the backbone of the middle class in Memphis.

The Postal Service and the library system are two government agencies in the crosshairs, both battered by technology and changing personal habits. City of Memphis budget cuts will cost 43 part-time library employees their jobs and reduce hours at 14 libraries.

I understand that cuts must be made. The Postal Service is a tempting target, with its share of incompetents. I spent more than a year in "mail hell" because of a forwarding screw-up that sent my mail to Montana and wrecked my credit rating. While anonymous bureaucrats bungled, C.C. was my last line of defense, personally scratching out the forwarding instructions on several pieces of mail, re-addressing them, and adding a stern note to no avail.

I have a similar soft spot for librarians, especially the ones at the Cossitt Library downtown, near where I work. That branch is an unofficial day shelter for homeless men, and the librarians maintain order and treat everyone with kindness, patience, and dignity, including the occasional sad soul wandering past the shelves talking to himself.

Social work isn't in their job description, but librarians do a lot of it.

Now, get ready to cut, cut, cut. But there will be a price. So let's do it carefully and think, think, think.

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