The grand hall at Jersey City Post Office is an echo chamber of marble splendor. The rustling sound of shuffling feet gets amplified, visitors make an effort to communicate in hushed tones – being loud is obviously inappropriate. People behave, everyone seems strangely dignified. Social distancing may have something to do with it, but not just – some other civilizing mechanism seems to be at work. When entering the Post Office you step right into the mid-twenties, of the past century. Being transported into a different era can be a humbling experience, and to my untrained eye the few customers in the queue ahead of me appear distinctly humbled. The clerk at the counter is a goateed fellow of late middle age – mild-mannered yet quick and assertive in his movements. He clearly “knows his stuff”, but as soon as I place the parcel on the counter, he begins to reveal other types of knowledge, unrelated to his work duties:
– Let’s see what we’ve got here. Hmm… Hmm… Germany… klingt gut für mich as our German friends would say. And the box goes to Germany. Parents, I assume?
– No, actually, it’s the other way around – I’m the parent, sending this to my son…
– And the son is in… let me see… in Leipzig
– You’ll be surprised, but I think I know what your son does for a living… Ask me, just ask me! [He sounds giddy]
– Ok, what does he do for a living?
– He is… [a dramatic pause] an ENGINEER. So? Surprised? Curious to know how I guessed it?
– Well, you didn’t quite guess it. He is not an engineer. What made you think he was?
– Oh, bummer, I was certain I would guess right. That’s ok, there is always an occasional misfire. Here is how I guessed it…
– But you didn’t…
– [waves his hand dismissively] I ALMOST guessed it. It’s Leipzig, right? Now tell me what is Leipzig famous for?
– Oh, I dunno, let me think… I think Bach lived there, also there is that Battle of the Nations monument, quite hideous…
– [looks thrown off balance for a second but then recomposes himself] Ok, fine, fine… Bach, wars, but what it is REALLY famous for is its university, one of the best in Germany. And the university… are you ready for it?… houses one of the best engineering departments in all of what?
– Not just Germany, but all of Europe. [looks at me triumphantly] And that’s how I guessed your son’s occupation!
– He is still not an engineer…
The guy ignores my comment and proceeds to weigh in the box and fill out some form. He asks for my driver’s license to confirm the spelling of my name. As he hands it back to me his smile is broad and gleeful:
– Your name!
– What about it?
– Don’t say a word, let me guess… Ukrainian… no, Russian… maybe… Polish… Polish, right?
– Sort of right, it could’ve been Polish, but I was born in Russia…
– A-ha! [he seems genuinely happy] Well then, I got another surprise for you. Are you ready for it? [I nod obediently] I know your son’s full name!
– But that’s easy, it appears in the addressee box…
– No, you’re not listening. I don’t mean what you’ve written down on the form, I mean his FULL name. Want to hear it?
I nod again – perplexed but also feeling a rush of strange anticipation.
– His full name is YAN MAXIMOVICH MATUSEVICH. [his voice is now at full throttle, triumphant]
Actually, I am impressed. Jersey City Post Office and the guy understands Russian patronymics; also, I’m certain that’s the first time that anyone has referred to my son that way. If not for social distancing, I would’ve gladly shaken the goateed wunderkind’s hand. There is something pleasantly otherworldly in hearing your name transformed into a patronymic. My new friend is delighted to see me look astonished, and the success clearly goes to his head – he is itching to build on it, his need to continue to surprise me is palpable. What is the source of such a need? People capable of experiencing strong, overwhelming desires have always fascinated me. He won’t let me go until I surrender my autonomy and submit myself to his autodidactic will. I’ll surrender the way Napoleon surrendered at Leipzig, and this ghostly, marble-clad post office will be the monument to my defeat. I look around stealthily, concerned that I may have taken too much time at the counter, but there is no one behind me, the queue had miraculously dissolved, and now it’s just the two of us plus the echo. And that’s when, blinded by his triumph, he makes the wrong move:
– Now tell me, what is your father’s first name?
And instantly the spell is broken. His move is so transparent, so obvious, that I can’t help but feel disappointed. The magician got all cocky and slipped into revealing his tricks. You see, there is no rabbit inside that hat, the rabbit is… look – it’s right here behind my back, I’ll pull it out by its ears. Here is the rabbit! You want to see another trick? Some false shuffles, anyone? No, thank you very much. I’m not telling you my father’s first name. Too obvious, you see. No one has ever addressed me by my patronymic, and I am not about to have this experience now, inside this empty, time-defying post office building in Jersey City, NJ… Of course, I don’t sound anywhere as harsh when I tell him that I really need to run – let’s save this game for later, the parking meter, you see… more errands to run… stuff. He shrugs, he is not happy, but he is a consummate professional and knows how to overcome disappointments. We may have more in common than I initially thought: he knows how to place a heavy lid on his burning desires, he recognizes his mistakes, he takes no for an answer, accepts the consequences.
I pay the crazy shipping rate (one would think that Leipzig is on Mars, I should’ve tried UPS), he prints out the receipt with a tracking number and gives it to me. In fact, he doesn’t GIVE it to me, but places it on the counter and retreats deep inside his office space, deep inside his shell. Nods at me – all done, you can go now, your car… let’s hope there is no ticket. So correct, so professional. And it’s this stoic demeanor, suddenly on display, that melts my heart. I walk slowly towards the revolving exit door (so heavy you have to push it with both hands), pause for a second, turn around and trace my steps back to the counter. He is still there, looking past me, tapping his goatee. Looking forlorn, abandoned, a stranger. “Listen,” I say. He interrupts the goatee drumroll and lifts his eyes, looks at me, looks through me, to be exact. “My father’s first name… You asked… It’s Grigorij… Grisha.” He suddenly comes alive, shaken out of his reverie, and smiles warmly: “What a beautiful name… Grisha. Russian, right? Beautiful. Ok, then, get back to your car before it gets towed. Be safe, ok? Be safe, MAXIM GRISHEVICH.”
Maxim Matusevich is a historian of Africa and the Cold War. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he moved to the United States on the eve of the Soviet collapse. He is presently professor of global history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where he directs the Russian and East European Studies Program. Maxim also writes and publishes fiction, mostly in English. His short stories, novellas, and essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, New England Review, the Bare Life Review, MumberMag, Anti-Heroin Chic, BigCityLit, the Wild Word, Transitions, Foreign Literary, JTA, ReLevant, and other outlets.
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