Carl, my neighborhood postman, wears his blue uniform as he sits across from me at Lemonade Café on Larchmont Boulevard, a street filled with artists and business owners, the wealthy and the struggling, one block from the Paramount Studios backlot. Nearly five minutes go by before I can begin our interview because so many people are walking up to our table to give him a fist bump or a pat on the back, or offer a quick hello to Carl, letting me and everyone around us know how much they adore him.
“I get emotional, I’m an emotional man,” Carl says, explaining how it feels when neighbors let him into their lives. “I went in to deliver the mail one day to Nick down the street, and he says to me, ‘Carl, Carl, I got something to show you,’ he had his phone, and he shows me a text message from his mom. She had just gotten back from the doctor, the doctor had said she was cancer-free. It was so cool, that day,” Carl says, his voice wavering. “Not a lot of people want you in their business.”
Hardly the case for Carl, who has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 40 years covering the same turf, the 500 and 600 blocks of Larchmont, Lucerne, Gower and Beachwood. Carl has become a familiar presence, a cheerful voice and a sympathetic ear for those of us here on Larchmont. It feels sacred and rare, and I desperately want to hold on to it. Perhaps it's part nostalgia; I'm considered on the cusp of being a millennial, though I refuse to be called one, an '80s baby who still remembers life before AOL, Facebook and automatic checkout; before texting and selfies, we had face time, not “FaceTime.” We had community.
Carl was born in 1955 on the Central Avenue corridor, which was “on and bumpin’ with restaurants, bars and clubs,” he says of the time. “It is the historical landmark for jazz here in Los Angeles.” His father was a bartender who also ran the local barbershop. “He knew everyone, and everyone knew him, friends called him Big Carl. I was Carl Junior,” he says as he points to the “Jr.” on his name tag. “I think I got my spirit from my dad.” That's what I first noticed about Carl — his spirit.
I met Carl about a year and a half ago. I had given up a 9-to-5 job, which freed me up to take my dog, Zelda, on afternoon walks. On most days we’d see him, he’d ask, referring to Zelda, “How’s my girl today?” and never failed to bring her treats — dog treats, french fries, pizza, depending on the day. On a recent trip back East, while on our afternoon walk, a mail truck pulled over to the side of the road. Zelda wagged her tail and did a little dance (hopping on her hind legs), as she usually does when Carl’s truck approaches, signaling it’s cookie time. But when the postman stepped out of the truck, and Zelda realized, to her horror, that it was not Carl, she whimpered and looked up at me, disoriented, confused. Where was Carl? The kind postman handed Zelda a Milkbone, which she took only to drop on the sidewalk and leave it there. She had no interest in some other postman’s cookie. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “She misses Carl.”
Carl was hired in 1975. “I first found out about the job from a girl I was dating in college. We filled out the application together, then got called in to take the test. She flunked and I passed,” Carl says, still with a little guilt. “I started part-time immediately.” Then a year and a half later on lucky 7/7/77, Carl was hired as a full-time mail carrier. “I’ve been working ever since.” He reports to the Nat King Cole Station at Third and Western, arriving each day at 8 a.m. and closing the day at 4:30 p.m. He works Monday through Saturday with Sundays off and one day off during the week.
When I ask Carl what it was like back then at the post office, he tells me, “When I first started there was mail everywhere at the station, all over the floor, just piles and piles of it in the back, some were love letters, or birthday invitations, others were letters from grandparents or family Christmas cards. But the internet changed all of that. You don’t see as many letters with stamps anymore. You don’t see a lot of the younger generations going to the post office.” I ask him how the U.S. Postal Service has sustained its business and he says quickly, “Oh, the big corporations, Amazon, online shopping, it’s a billion-dollar industry.” It got us talking about the transference of human connection. Our letters and messages now are stored away in some intangible cloud, always there but you can’t truly touch, not in the way you can hold a handwritten note, which always feels more intimate.
“Many of us in this neighborhood have grown old together,” he tells me. “I watched the entire Arquette family [Rosanna, Richmond, Patricia, Alexis and David] grow up.” Carl has seen families come and go, new generations inherit family homes; he knows when someone dies and when a business goes under, when someone famous moves in or whose dog might bite. “I’m everyone’s Uncle Mailman,” he laughs. And he knows everyone's address by heart.
“I could have retired seven years ago, but this right here,” he says as he motions to the two of us sitting together and those around us, “is what keeps me going.” I ask him if he’s ever been promoted — assuming 40 years on the job would merit upward mobility. “I turned them all down,” Carl says. “I didn’t want to have to play bad cop. I like being among the people.” When Carl does decide to retire, he’ll get a pension with benefits. And he’ll be able to spend more time with his wife. Carl has been happily married for 34 years, and they have a daughter together, a social worker, who recently graduated from Long Beach State.
Commitment, consistency, professionalism and love are what seem to drive Carl. But his favorite part of the job is “showing up as a professional and doing a good job representing the post office,” he says. He's keeping us connected by delivering our mail — but he's also brought a human connection into our lives.
As we wrap up the interview, Carl and I walk over to his truck to snap a photo. A woman walks by and smiles. “Carl,” she exclaims, “you’re an angel in everyone’s lives.”