During the uncertain first months of quarantine, ELLE.com asked several novelists to chronicle their new normal with a tribute to the person helping them get by. The results—heartfelt and harrowing—are presented here as a grateful salute to those who kept the world spinning in the year’s darkest moments.
For the first two months of quarantine, the only outside person I interacted with face-to-face was Jan, the owner of the mailroom in the small New Jersey town where I was quarantined with my in-laws. I saw him several times a week when I dropped off book mail. My interactions with him were my only physical connection to the outside world. On some days I saw him twice a day. He’d laugh and ask what I forgot earlier, pulling up my return address on his computer before I reached the counter. Every day, I found myself thanking the powers that be for deeming his mailroom essential and open.
Having lived in the world’s densest and most anonymous cities—Seoul, Hong Kong and New York—for all my adult life, this type of small-town familiarity was wonderful and unusual to me, and contributed to my newfound desperate desire to move out of the city. Whenever I walked into the mailroom, he cried out “Your book!” in a welcome greeting.
Jan is from Slovakia. He came over as a political refugee with his family in 1986, has four children, and his oldest son is a tattoo artist in Philadelphia who published a design book last year. “Where is it?” I asked, gesturing around the room. “Can I see?” When he shook his head and said he didn’t have it in the store, I told him he should be selling it there, alongside the stamps, packing materials, and greeting cards I’d been purchasing from him every week. I’m sure many of his customers, who were and are as grateful as I am that the mailroom is open, would love to buy copies. He told me business was up because of people worrying about their loved ones in quarantine.
In the mailroom, I got a glimpse of the people sending love. At the time, it was my only window into other lives. At the grocery store, the only other place I went, people were jittery and silent, and the anxiety itself was both hostile and contagious. But in the mailroom, the customers’ voices were imbued with warmth as they told Jan about the recipients of their packages. One woman brought in a walking cast for her daughter in Virginia who sprained her foot the day before. Another sent food and supplies to her relatives. Jan knew them all and had a kind or funny word for them, just as he had for me.
I first met Jan in early April, a few weeks after my husband and I took our kids and headed to his childhood home. At that point, I hadn’t spoken to anyone outside my quarantined family in weeks. Sheathed in my mask and gloves, I said hello to him behind a sheet of plexiglass, and I realized how foreign exchanging such pleasantries had become. As he weighed the packages I was sending out, he guessed that they were books. When I said yes, he advised me that I should use the book rate. I had not known that was a thing. “That’s a great thing you told me, because you’ll be seeing a lot of me from now on,” I said, so grateful. And then he wanted to know about my book, and what it was like to launch it in a pandemic. He felt sorry for me because his son’s book launch was something special, he said. But he told me not to worry, people should be reading more now.
Through Jan, I sent my mother two copies of my finished book when they finally arrived, days after the official “launch.” Jan winced with me at the price to send the package to Korea, which came to 66 dollars, plus tax. “No media mail rate for international,” he said apologetically.
Through Jan, I also sent signed copies of my books to friends who had ordered boxes of them to where they are quarantined, along with my cards of gratitude. “You are selling lots of books!” he cheered.
Through Jan, I sent my mother pictures that my daughters had drawn and colored for Parent’s Day—pictures of themselves holding hands with her at her house in Korea. I hoped the cards would reach my mother in time, but knowing how severely everything was delayed, I doubted that they would.
I read about the potential collapse of USPS and worried for Jan, but he told me not to, that he would be retiring within the next month anyway. “What a crazy time it must be for you,” I said. “This pandemic, right before your retirement!” He shrugged, stoic in the face of calamity. In his lifetime, he has seen much crazier things, he said. And he has—the more I learn about him, the more fascinating his story becomes. Defecting from communist Slovakia through Yugoslavia with his then-wife and baby son, seeking asylum in Austria for eight months while waiting for a refugee visa from the U.S., then finally coming over and receiving a green card and citizenship. Although he was originally a computer technician, he washed dishes at the airport when he first arrived in the States, and worked a small business on the side until he saved up to buy the mailroom 14 years ago.
Sometimes, he comes outside as I am leaving and breathes in the air. “Ah, it’s nice today,” he says, for a second, and then goes back inside. I wave goodbye and yell that I will probably see him tomorrow. As I head out, a UPS guy comes in and jokes to him, “You’re still here?” and Jan answers, “I’m essential!” I have to fervently agree.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io