By Vidya Rajan
Edited by Veronica Sullivan
Estragon leans against a trestle table of children’s picture books. He turns an envelope over in his hands. The envelope is unstamped. He is third in line.
The line doesn’t move.
Outside the sun hangs lower in the sky.
The line doesn’t move.
Exhausted, he puts the envelope in his bag.
The line moves a little.
Enter Vladimir. He is fifth in line.
ESTRAGON: Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR: (shrugs and leans against the table) I’m beginning to come around to that opinion. All my life, I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything–
He is interrupted – there is a sound of packages being moved violently. A crash and a yell from the front of the line, though we cannot tell why.
A pause. He continues.
VLADIMIR: And I resumed the struggle.
The struggle of…the post office.
There’s a rule in our share house now. If the doorbell rings between 7 and 9 a.m., it is likely to be Australia Post, and so, you must answer it. It doesn’t matter if you are deep in slumber, tucked into a lover, or even if you, personally, are not expecting a package. The ringing triggers a moral imperative: whoever hears it first must get out of bed, throw on whatever decency demands, and run to the door before the postman leaves. The consequence of not doing so, is that we are left with the blue slip. The blue slip that says, ‘Sorry we couldn’t deliver your package. Please pick it up.’, but might as well be saying, ‘Your housemates didn’t care enough about you. Perhaps they don’t like you after all? Yes, that’s probably it. Goodbye social contract!’
To receive the blue slip, you see, means that you need to leave the house and pass by Edinburgh Gardens, where the good people of Fitzroy North lie supine, laughing and watching their many tiny dogs. You must then walk by the cream-coloured behemoth that is Piedimontes supermarket, lope past the angular Pinnacle Hotel, and stop on the quieter side of Scotchmer Street. There, unassuming, emitting a steady fluorescent light through unglazed glass, is your destination: The Fitzroy North Post Office.
None of this would be an issue, of course, if this were an ordinary post office. But this is the Fitzroy North Post Office. Many people love a stroll to their local AusPo branch – how quaint! how civic! But these people, their local is not the Fitzroy North Post Office. And their mail does not live at the Fitzroy North Post Office. And their post office would never have cause to provoke such an intense degree of online attention (Google reviews, blog posts, two separate, passionate subreddits), because their post office is not the Fitzroy North Post Office. No, their lives simply march on, day after day, beads on a chain, untouched by the spectre that is haunting Fitzroy North. The spectre…of the Fitzroy North Post Office.
Before you think me histrionic – which would be a valid call about 76% of the time – know that I speak both from lived experience and from long-term observation. I have investigated the matter. I have frequented the site. I have polled and communicated with the masses. And these are my conclusions.
Few who have encountered this local P.O. can call it merely ordinary. It leaves its mark, it induces response. Its disproportionate digital footprint is proof of that; as are the many reviews on platforms like Reddit, Yelp, and Twitter. Further, when I requested interviews and distributed an online survey for this article, the replies were rapid and stretched far beyond my network. The quotes that follow below are from a combination of these sources.
Whilst most people agree that the Fitzroy North P.O. is a sui generis institution, not all encounter it in the same way. For some, a vocal minority, the post office’s most remarkable trait is just that it manages to be far more irritating than is usually acceptable in customer service.
“North Fitzroy LPO was my local about 9 years ago
and it was terrible back then.”
“In a perfect world, a post office should be straightforward,
functional, exact and methodical.
It should provide a basic level of customer service and
provide simple processes that people require. The North Fitzroy Post Office
is doing none of these things.”
“Line out the door at Fitzroy north post office!… Whyyyyy?? 😫”
“Will avoid ever entering this place again. Wow is all I can say”
“Just enter your address as Clifton Hill 3068 and
go get parcels from the post office on Queens Parade.
The people there are much much better.”
These customers tend to remark on the many inconveniences they experience, all of which seemed designed to annoy: the line is a little slow, there’s a lack of stock, packages are hard to locate, and the couple– an elderly man and woman of Chinese descent – who appear to run the place, aren’t your usual AusPost fare. Some venture that they’re siblings, others spouses. Whatever the case, they are always either a bit too talkative, distracted, judgmental, bored, or annoyed to serve you. It’s all just a bit off, a bit much.
Yet these complaints barely scratch the surface of the full Fitzroy North post office experience. Many of these customers have probably only visited on a good day, or just once. A much larger contingent actually experiences the P.O. as something wilder: a site of furious, extravagant bewilderment.
“Every time they make a huge deal about it, like it’s not their job and they
are doing me the biggest favour. Especially if I couldn’t come straight away and
am picking up the parcel after a few days – oh my, how dare I? Now they have to go
and check somewhere in the back room for it – the horror!”
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing… as a caring citizen
I fear I couldn’t disengage from reality enough to revel
in the insanity at the expense of the hapless customers”
For these people, the queue is not just slow, but unbelievably arduous. What on god’s earth could take so long? Just moments ago we were out in the sun, and now we are in some kind of time warp. The couple at the counter – yes them – is the old man actually yelling at a customer? Is the old woman actually yelling at him? And is she now telling you a long story about the stamp you’re trying to buy? A story you didn’t ask for, but moreover can’t follow. It’s a verbal labyrinth. Except, there is no minotaur at the centre. The minotaur’s been replaced by a stamp. And the stamp probably, definitely hates you. The lady is very enthused though and it’s all sort of endearing. Maybe this isn’t so bad? Wait- where’s your package? That’s definitely not it. Also while you’re here – have you noticed there’s a bunch of boxes climbing out the store room that have bunched together to form cardboard turrets behind the counter? It’s like a castle. A castle that probably, definitely hates you. Perhaps your package is in the castle. Never mind – here comes Jimmy! Jimmy’s the younger guy who actually owns this branch, which is a fact you learned a few weeks ago. Or maybe it was yesterday. Or maybe it was today. Look – Jimmy’s returned with your package, and he’s handing it over without comment. Ah Jimmy. So efficient, so tight-lipped, too-rarely present. Oh wait, he’s leaving. Jimmy’s done for the day. Goodbye Jimmy. We hardly knew ye. Also, can someone answer me this: a) where is my mummy, and b) why did I come in here again?
“I once left a package at the Fitzroy North Post Office for two weeks, because I was too scared to pick it up.”
“What is this place? An anomaly in the space-time continuum?….when you get back you feel you’ve been gone for years.”
“Anyone got morphine? I have to go pick up a parcel from the Fitz North Post Office.”
“Ran into a friend who looked like he’d just escaped a torture chamber. “I’ve just been to the Fitzroy North post office” he said.”
“Honestly, this place is the complete opposite of normal.”
The bewilderment never quite wears off. It accumulates, morphs, and strengthens. As most veterans of the post office will tell you, there’s eventually acceptance that you have entered an altered space. And you begin to delight in its possibility. This doesn’t mean visits aren’t still ordeals – loins must still be girded – but there’s also a kind of joy to it all. It’s the sensation, I think, that arises from experiencing something genuinely new. It is perhaps why 80% of survey respondents expressed a fierce desire for the P.O. to remain as it is. Few hesitated to label it ‘a local institution’.
“I have been living away from North Fitzroy for so long that I’ve started to feel homesick for the strangest things. I would be so, so grateful if somebody on here could go to collect a parcel or pay a bill at the North Fitzroy Post Office and film their experience.”
“I personally love going in there, particularly being served by the lady. So amusing. So chaotic.”
“The Fitzroy North post office is a star franchise. Always classic fun…”
“…North Fitzroy Post Office: a much-loved local dictatorial regime.”
“About to enter the North Fitzroy Post office. Once more into the fray…”
P.O. veterans can be identified by their body language. Spines are relaxed, indolent; but the eyes are usually alert, taking everything in. Complicit glances and grins are common. Occasionally, a mass haziness will settle in, a sense that we’ve all slipped sideways into the same delusion. But it’s never panicked, just excited. For once you submit to the logic of the Fitzroy North Post Office, a generative energy can arise. It often manifests in jokes or performative commentary (like when you’re compelled to write an entire essay for the City of Melbourne). Indeed, a recurring and significant feature of people’s responses, online and on the survey, was the gleeful drive to map their P.O. experience onto other cultural products. References to immersive theatre, performance art, and TV shows such Fawlty Towers and Twin Peaks were common. For me though, it’s always been Beckett.
“I’m assuming the proprietors at this Post Office are a one Bernard Black or Basil Fawlty.”
“I just laugh at the Kafka-esque service”
“Every visit offers golden opportunity to the would-be writer of a short film or comedy sketch”
“I assume it is an art experiment”
“David Lynch should do season 4 of Twin Peaks at the North Fitzroy Post Office.”
“People loathe it, but I love the small-scale masterpiece theatre of it all.”
“It is its own circle of hell. I take the time to think of my sins.”
There is something in these responses that resembles hate-watching. To hate-watch something might seem passive or wasteful, but can be a fertile impulse. To hate-watch something is after all not to actually dislike it, or to even love it in spite of itself. It is to love and pursue it in spite of yourself. Despite how terrible or ridiculous the experience, you’re drawn to it. It has some value to you. You subject yourself to it, sensing that it helps you excavate something you couldn’t (or think you shouldn’t) otherwise: your trashiness, blood-lust, melancholy.
But what is this in the case of the Fitzroy North Post Office?
Initially I feared that it might be something racist. Were the inhabitants of Fitzroy North poking fun at the staff’s difference for their own amusement? Was the otherness imputed to the post office just a lack of cultural understanding? But on further reflection, I think not. The idiosyncrasy of the P.O. exists independently of cultural signifiers (as well as of time and space). Most of my survey respondents of them, like myself, people of colour, also dismissed the idea. However, a couple of interviewees did suggest that for them, the P.O.’s allure was connected to race and class, just more…subversively.
“The Post Office is like a break from the gentrified banality of the rest of Fitzroy North,” says Sunita, 33, who’s lived in the area for three years. Eileen, 28, who was born in the suburb, agrees: “I like it because it’s a bit resistant to everything around it, and the whiteness of it all. I think people can be confronted by anyone who doesn’t look like them behaving not-boring. That’s a good thing.”
Perhaps this is what the P.O. offers us then: a chance to displace ourselves, just briefly, from officious gardens, baroque shop windows, and blanched streets; from a suburb frequently identified as a key part of the inner north’s transformation to the ‘New South’. We may think we dislike the P.O., but if we let it, it provides relief through chaos, a chance to play with the rules of reality, and what most of us crave: community through shared experience. On the quieter side of Scotchmer Street, a bulwark against encroaching numbness.
“I send parcels to myself, just so I get to talk to the staff. It’s a cracker!”
“the stuff of legend…”
“more than once I, and others in the queue, have broken out in laughter at the antics going on behind the counter.”
“I have learnt more about myself and my neighbours in one visit…”
“don’t think I’ve ever had 21 likes for a tweet before. You guys really love the North Fitzroy Post Office, don’t you? I’m safe home now.”
“The very best community spirit arises from trials of this kind.”
Maybe we love it because we know we need it.
Maybe we have advanced Stockholm syndrome.
Maybe it’s Maybelline.
No, okay, definitely not that last one.
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: Mate, for fuck’s sake. Just get yourself down to the Fitzroy North Post Office already.