Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Delivering more than just mail

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Fewer letters are being written and cost-cutting is biting but ex-teacher says delivery job brings joy to many

Hildeke Witteveen says being a postie is a great way to stay in shape. Photo / Chris Gorman
Hildeke Witteveen says being a postie is a great way to stay in shape. Photo / Chris Gorman

At the Westfield Albany mall, most of the shops haven't even opened for business by the time Hildeke Witteveen arrives. She likes it that way. She's the postie and if the shops are still closed, she can slide the mail under the door or through the gap by the hinges and be gone.

Ms Witteveen reaches the entrance of an appliance store at the same time as a delivery man, weighed down with a stack of cartons. He doesn't even notice as she deftly drops the three envelopes on the top box without breaking stride. He will complete the delivery. When you're a postie, time is money.

Dutch-born Mrs Witteveen, a former teacher, likes the work: there's none of the stress of lesson preparation and "when you drop your last letter, you're finished".

"They're also paying you to keep fit," she says, "but the future doesn't look good."

She has a point there. Of all the things that ain't what they used to be, nothing is quite like the mail. We've always taken it for granted that it will be there, but it's languished as text messaging and email has flourished. These days your friends are more likely to post on your Facebook wall than write you a letter, and most envelopes are of the window variety.

"No one writes love letters any more," says Mrs Witteveen, "and even at Christmas, people don't send cards as much. Seven years ago, when I started, we used to have piles of Christmas cards, but now it's only a little bit more."

Letter volumes have dropped 30 per cent since 2006, though parcel delivery driven by online shopping is up. The future is catching up with the post. Two years ago, posties felt the bite of cost-cutting when a new system paid them by the letter rather than the hour. And last week, NZ Post announced that from 2015, the present six-day city and suburban delivery will drop to three. More than 1000 staff, mainly posties, will lose their jobs.

Like her workmates, Mrs Witteveen reckons the change is too drastic, that cutting Saturday deliveries first would be a better way to go. But she accepts the decision has been made.

At NZ Post's Rosedale Delivery Branch just off the northern motorway, I watched Mrs Witteveen and her colleagues as they sorted the mail before going out on their runs.

Each occupies a workstation with slotted racks on three sides. Each slot represents a single address. It takes barely a second for Ms Witteveen, who's in charge of round 101, to read the front of an envelope and locate - almost without looking - the slot it belongs in.

This is data-processing the old-fashioned, pre-digital way: the eye sees, the brain computes, the hand acts. And it happens a thousand times each day for each of the posties here, whose beats take in commercial and residential addresses in Albany, Mairangi Bay and Torbay Bay.

The postie at the next station, Lance Hawken, reckons I'll be amused by the name given to the process of sorting and racking the mail. He's right: it's called "throwing up", though a mate who was a postie in the 60s reckons they used to call it "getting it up" then, which is even more amusing.

"You get to know a lot about people from their mail," Mrs Witteveen says. "you know the businesses that close and open. And when letters used to be addressed to 'Mr and Mrs' and now just say 'Mrs', you know what's happened."

Mrs Witteveen uses rubber bands to bundle the mail into manageable handfuls and loads it into her car. On the back, a well-used bicycle - only the state-of-the-art saddle looks new - is held on a rack by an old inner tube. Once she finishes at the mall she will head into the hilly suburban streets. She reckons the daily payload is about 120kg; little wonder that she breaks it into five bearable loads.

Mrs Witteveen's slender frame and muscled legs attest to her daily effort. "When I started the hills seemed so steep but now they are nothing."

It's tempting to wonder how far off the day is when mail deliveries - and even mail - become part of history. If it happens, it's safe to say that Mrs Witteveen would regret it for more than personal reasons.

"It's a very important job for a lot of people," she says. "They like it when the mail comes. They like to see your face and say hello."

- NZ Herald

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