Since I left my parents’ suburban home and began apartment living, I have had a string of unsatisfactory mailboxes. Either their locks were too stubborn, their compartments too small, or their edges too sharp. I’ve gone through adulthood thinking this was the way all apartment mailboxes are and that it was pointless to expect more.
In the late 1990s, as developers in my Tribeca neighborhood began feverishly upgrading old buildings and constructing new ones, I continued trying to make the same substandard mailbox work. Besides oiling the lock to coax it into turning, I would constantly cope with my mail carrier’s idiosyncracies. He certainly made my life difficult. By using his master key to open the entire bank of slim rectangular boxes from the top, it was easy for him to cram bills, letters, catalogues, and magazines inside. But it was much less easy for me to get them out. After the day’s delivery, I could often be found cleaning the scratches on my arm that came from pulling out the mail and getting past the sharp and ornery edges of the metal door.
Meanwhile, the building across the street was converted into one of Tribeca’s luxury condos. When the workers moved out and a friend of mine moved in, I was intrigued by the ground-floor details not found in my building’s authentically shabby entrance. Her intercom actually worked, letting her buzz open the front door for guests. Her lobby had two reliable elevators. The new floor was unscratched; the overhead chandelier was bright and stylish. I couldn’t swear the floor in my lobby was the original from the turn of the 20th century, but it had been in place at least since the conversion to residential lofts more than two decades earlier. Same for the dull, rectangular box light fixture that hung between the wonky front door and our solitary (and often) broken elevator.
Still, the detail that drew my attention and envy was my friend’s big, beautiful mailbox. Each resident was allotted a large, almost square box, and the interior, my friend told me, could fit a four-roll pack of toilet paper. (The example was meant to be illustrative, but in those days before Amazon Prime it turned out to be oddly prescient.)
I bounced back to my side of the street buoyed by the knowledge that I didn’t have to endure an inadequate mailbox. Good ones were out there. I brought up the subject to my co-op board, to my neighbors, and to anyone who would listen. But getting new mailboxes, I learned, wasn’t that simple. We couldn’t get them without making space and we couldn’t make space without knocking down the adjacent wall. If we knocked that down, I would have to retile the floor. If we did this much demolition, we would have to contemplate an entire lobby renovation. And, finally, we could not contemplate renovating the lobby unless we agreed to an assessment.
That was some time ago.
Over the years, we made attempts to improve the lobby, but we were divided on how to go forward. Some of the concerns were financial, some aesthetic, some historical. As much as I yearned for a new mailbox I contented myself with upgrades in other areas; we installed a new intercom system and a working elevator.
But then there was movement on the mailbox front. As online shopping grew and the volume of mail continued to increase, we saw a rise in the number of packages. To accommodate the overflow, a small table donated by a neighbor was placed next to the mailboxes, serving as a reminder that neither the mailboxes nor the table were adequate.
And then, more than a decade into the new millennium, our board voted to establish a committee charged with renovating the lobby and imposing an assessment to pay for it. At our annual meeting that year, designs, budgets, and timetables were presented to shareholders who, this time, offered almost complete support for the project. People listened attentively to options for egress and angles, function and style. I chimed in with one question: “Are we getting new mailboxes?”
The answer was “yes.” After so much delay, the reason was absurdly simple: our old ones did not conform to current postal standards.
Our planned “six-week renovation” is now past the six-month mark. No one seems to mind, except for our tireless lobby committee. On the other hand, most of us are thrilled to walk into our new, almost-finished lobby. The wall adjacent to the old mailboxes is gone, opening the area to improved form and function. The floor beneath it is also gone, replaced with gleaming new tiles. The light fixtures – also new – are bright and elegant. A beautiful, stone-like set-in shelf has taken the place of the old parcel table.
And then there are the mailboxes – shiny, bronze-colored, with sturdy doors and roomy interiors. Is it the mailbox of my dreams? Well, my door lightly scrapes the molding beneath, but not my arm. My key needs a jiggle, but the lock doesn’t stick. And not even one roll of toilet paper will fit inside, as the extra room comes from width and depth rather than height. But why be picky? Wanting is not the same as having, and true love is never perfect. For me, however, it is an ending and a beginning: the struggle to remove mail, even when the box is at its fullest, is over. No more household oil. No more band-aids. No more hassles.
I think I’m in love.