A Simple Matter Of Buying Stamps

The awesome purple hat.

I had two envelopes to mail and only one stamp. The United States Postal Service is strict about the minimum of one stamp per envelope rule, so I went to my bank’s automatic teller machine (ATM) to buy stamps since they conveniently sell stamps at them. One could argue that since my next stop was the Post Office down the street to mail the envelopes, it would be easier to just buy stamps there. However, I had several reasons for going to my bank instead.

I hate Post Offices. They smell strange in a way that only public buildings can. They’re dreary, dismal, deathly quiet. They have fluorescent lighting that is somehow more pallid than most other fluorescent lighting, always with one tube flickering somewhere in your peripheral vision just enough to be noticeable. Postal employees, while generally nice and helpful, are rather slow. I believe part of their sluggish customer service has to do with their ancient computers with the old beige, cathode ray tube monitors from c. 1994 that they’re still using.

"Welcome to the Post Office." image from blog.utest.com
“Welcome to the Post Office.”
image from blog.utest.com

The second, and arguably, most important reason that I went to the ATM instead of the Post Office is people. I’m not a big fan of them. Living in Los Angeles, there are millions of them milling about in my way. There is always a line at the Post Office. It doesn’t matter what time of day or year you go, there is a line. Particularly around this time of year, when everyone is mailing a Christmas sweater to Uncle Harry in Pittsburgh and wants to make sure it will arrive by December 25th, the line is doubled or tripled. Even outside of the holiday rush, whenever possible, I avoid visiting government buildings, except libraries. I love public libraries, but that’s a story for another time.

At the ATM, I can put my card in a machine, punch in some numbers, select some options and out pop some stamps without having to notice the one flickering fluorescent light or unintentionally staring at the fanny of the person in front of me. In fact, I don’t have to deal with a single person or their buttocks. I am a big fan of machines replacing people, even with the risk of a robot artificial intelligence uprising.

At least, in an ideal world, that’s how it was supposed to work. In this world, I walked up to the machine, opened my wallet and found that my bank card was strangely not there. My bank card is always in my wallet, nestled in its own little pocket next to my state of California driver’s license. The word “CALIFORNIA” in big, bold, blue letters on my driver’s license was poking out of its designated slot, but next to it, instead of whatever it used to say on top of my bank card, was nothingness–just an empty pocket.

Well, crap.

I checked my pockets and searched through every compartment in my wallet–no card. I searched the entirety of the bag I was carrying and all over my car–no card. I scoured the area around the bank just in case I had dropped it. It was nowhere to be found.

Well, crap.

Since I was at the bank anyway, I decided to go in and get a new one. It would save me a lot of potential fruitless searching, plus, I had a wallet full of small bills, but no way to get more cash without a bank card. And, I still needed one stamp.

In an effort to avoid standing in line at the Post Office, I ended up standing in line at the bank where a woman with a clipboard approached me and asked me what I needed help with today. I told her about the stamps and the missing card and ineffectually showed her the empty pocket in my wallet just in case it would help.

She pulled me out of line and asked me to park my behind in a rich, red leather chair that was far less comfortable than it looked. The chair was probably at least five years old but hadn’t been broken in because everyone who sat in it only did so for a minute or two. Case in point: less than thirty seconds after I settled myself, as I was admiring how uncomfortable a comfortable-looking chair could be, the clipboard lady asked me to follow her to the other side of the bank.

That’s where I met Michael.

Michael was friendly, peppy and chatty, in other words, the antithesis of me. He’s the type of guy who starts up conversations with strangers waiting in line. He’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t seem out of place at a used car lot, yet here he was in my bank.

Michael introduced himself, handed me a dry, but limp hand and asked me to have a seat. I told him about the stamps and the missing card and ineffectually showed him the empty pocket in my wallet just in case it would help. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that! Let’s see what we can do. I handed him “CALIFORNIA” and he pulled up my account.

Unexpectedly, Michael did not go over the transactions in my account to make sure none of them were fraudulent. Instead, he asked if he could tell me about his night last night. What are you supposed to say when a total stranger asks if they can tell you about their night? Internally, I was screaming “no,” but externally, I said, “Okay.”

He shoved a sheet of pictures at me. They were the kind of pictures you have taken at one of these photo booths:

Image from http://www.onlinevending.com
Image from onlinevending.com

The pictures were in a vertical row surrounded by a red border. At the bottom of the sheet, it said in white letters with little snowflakes, “Happy Holidays 2013.” Inside the red frames were four pictures of Michael in a tuxedo standing with someone else in a tuxedo. One of them was wearing a red bow tie, the other, black. For a moment, I thought myself racist since I couldn’t tell which of the black people in tuxedos was Michael. He said, “That’s me and my twin brother.” My fears of racism faded. No wonder I couldn’t tell them apart. “I’m wearing the red bow tie.” “Very nice,” I said as I handed the pictures back to him, hoping that would be the end of the subject.

It was not the end of the subject. Michael told me just how fun his night had been. It involved food and dancing and lots and lots of alcohol. Michael was hung over and didn’t show up to work until eleven–two hours late. I told him I wouldn’t tell. He said it was stupid of them to have the holiday party on Thursday, but apparently the venue was cheaper during the week.

In between tales of his big night out, he asked me why I don’t have a savings account. I told him I used to have one a million years ago, but since it cost me $5 and I never had any savings in my savings, they closed it. He said, “Oh, they’re free now!” he urged, “There’s really no reason not to have one.” Fine. Whatever.

After Michael handed me a temporary bank card and a bank book for a new savings account I didn’t really want, he offered the same dry, limp hand and asked me if he had been helpful today. What are you supposed to say when a total stranger tells you all about their night and signs you up for a savings account you didn’t really want? I shook his limp, dry hand again and said, “Thanks for your help.”

Delayed by over a half an hour, I went to the ATM right outside the bank, popped my new temporary card into the ATM and bought some stamps. I neglected to get any cash.

The next day, Saturday, I went to lunch with my sister. We ate at a restaurant we had always wanted to try, but never had.  The restaurant served food that was far more delicious than you would ever expect it to be. Since we had a decent parking spot, we decided to walk to the neighboring shops that we had always wanted to visit, but never had.

The area we were in is full of tiny kitschy storefronts. We went shopping. The first shop we went into was a hipster store full of hipster clothes like jeans with strategic rips already in place, jackets with patches already on them, and dresses that look like 1950s dresses, but were actually slapped together recently. The smell was too patchouli, the music was too loud and the employees were too cool. Next.

The next store was a thrift shop, or as they labeled it, “retro.” The smell of “retro” hit you as you walked in. It smelled like a musty basement. They had the nerve to sell a used pair of jeans for $28. That’s $28 American dollars for used jeans that you could buy for a quarter of the cost down the street at Goodwill. Why would you ever spend $28 on used jeans? Next.

The next store was a mix of “retro” and new items, but it felt good in there. It smelled unusual and inviting, with a mixture of musty smells and cleanliness, not like a basement, but like a public library. It was the type of store you could spend hours in just looking at things. The saleslady was sitting at the counter reading a book. She greeted us when we came in, but did not get off her perch and follow us around obsequiously asking us if we needed help with anything. I would like to buy something from this store.

I looked at practically everything, but the item that caught my eye in the end was the item that caught my eye in the beginning; a royal purple ladies’ Trilby in the window on a mannequin lounging on her side in a way that real humans never do. I asked the woman behind the counter if I could steal the hat off of her mannequin. She told me to go right ahead. I plucked the hat off the mannequin, mussing her blonde wig and setting her sunglasses askew. When I picked it up, I was astonished by the quality and detail of the hat. It was made of soft wool and had a non-adjustable buckle built into the side.

The awesome purple hat.

Opposite of form, I placed the magical purple hat on my head before I glanced at the price. Unfortunately, it fit me perfectly. I glanced in the mirror and swooned. It was a ladies hat. I rarely wear ladies hats because they don’t make them much anymore and the style of hats I wear are generally for men. Like the Trilby picture above or this snap cap as sported by Mr. Brad Pitt:

Image from reuters.com

Those kind of hats are generally relegated to man heads and man heads tend to be bigger than mine. I wear a small in man hats. So, when I came across a royal purple lady hat, I swooned.

I took the hat off my head, flipped it over and steeled myself to look at the price tag. I was pleasantly surprised to find a tiny heart-shaped, white sticker with “19–” written on it. I never spend more than $20 on a hat. I could afford it! Sold!

I walked up to the counter and apologized to the shop girl for leaving her mannequin hat-less. She chuckled. Out of habit, I pulled out my bank card and “CALIFORNIA” and handed them to her. It was only when I saw the puzzled look on her face that I remembered the stamps and Michael and “Happy Holidays 2013.” I had a temporary bank card that would work fine at an ATM, but not so much when purchasing things requiring identification since the card had no name, let alone mine.

Well, crap.

I looked at a wallet full of small bills and pitifully pulled them out. I started counting ones and was excited to find a five dollar bill in there. All told, I was three dollars shy. It was better than I thought. I have a zipper compartment in my wallet where change is stored. It happened to be very fat since I hadn’t dumped it in a while. I stood there at the counter with my beautiful hat in a bag and shamefully began to count change. The shop girl and I exchanged a congratulatory smile when we reached the desired goal. We made it.

The lovely sound of an antique cash register opening sounded. She deposited my plentiful and varied loose currency into it and closed it again. She handed me a brown paper bag with little handles on it and wished me a pleasant day. I wore my new purple hat out that night with a slight jaunty tilt and received many compliments. I smiled thinking of how the shop girl and I shared the secret of its arduous and awkward purchase.

Continued in Part 2.