TITLE: Please, Mr. Postman
By Julee Wilke
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The right side of her brain had already started its own dance party as Olivia pushed back from yet another office meeting. It was Friday.
Olivia worked as an interior designer for a construction company whose forte was office buildings...drab, gray, square, cookie-cutter office buildings. When it came time for interior furnishings, her creative choices consisted of gray scale. She struggled on a budget, which eroded to 'the-cheaper-the-better' after construction upgrades.
Olivia resigned herself to biding her time. She played parking lot games, which bordered on OCD, to gear up and deprogram. Every morning, she managed to transform herself into the consummate, boring team player. Mondays she told herself, you do not belong at this job. She repeated the phrase five times as she stomped across the cold pavement.
By Tuesday, her conversation became self-deprecating: You did it again, girl. You let someone else take the credit for your 'outside the box' thinking... congratulations co-worker...on my next big thing. On many occasions, in the empty lobby, she spoke the words out loud.
Wednesday had a similar stanza, but it was hump day so there was a swing in her step. You're simply the best thing that's ever happened to this place. This ditty started at her car and replayed until she flopped into her burgundy-tweed office chair with a sigh, simply the best.
Thursday's parking lot conversation was aimed at the regime. They'll never change. She would start her satire at the bottom stair, your-boss-is-a-robot -that-pukes...she reached the landing...bor-ing-cu-bi-cles-when-he's-sick. She had a distinct rhythm and a syllable for all sixteen steel stairs
A vision of her boss throwing up miniature gray cubicles left a smile on her face, as she pulled open the windowless office door.
But today was different.
Her company won a contract to build a Senior Living Housing Complex … finally, a creative assignment. It felt like receiving a brand new box of Crayolas; the Sixty-four pack with a built-in sharpener. Her excitement mounted as she imagined tiny interior homes with floor plans, cabinets and countertops. Olivia grabbed her coat and idea notebook, beginning the selection process, in her head. Before she reached the lobby to meet her boss, she envisioned the hardware, the carpet, and nothing-painted gray.
Today they would tour an existing facility, and she played none of her usual parking lot games.
Her mood bordered on giddy, as she followed her boss to his car. "You'll also need to design the exterior," he said. Olivia thought her head might explode and immediately began a mental sketch. She'd incorporate a Cape Cod/Mackinac Island feel to the structure by using colonial red brick and cedar shake. She'd integrate patio columns, French doors, balconies, cupolas, and weather vanes.
Her boss rambled on about today's excursion while the blueprints took shape in her mind's eye. She saw residents meandering down spacious interior hallways with cozy lanterns hanging over copper address numbers. In a common area, filled with comfortable furniture and warm window treatments, she heard elderly gentlemen exaggerating their fish stories. She imagined game rooms with jigsaw puzzles, knotty pine bookshelves and a row of Apple computers. Seniors needed easy Internet access; her grandma even had a blog.
She pretended to take notes while her boss spoke of the trivial. The ideas came fast, and she could hardly keep up. There must be a stone fireplace and a café.
"Did you get that?" her boss asked while looking very impressed with her note taking. She nodded and pretended to write down something about construction costs or heating and cooling units.
A small retro styled theatre could be used for church services and watching the big game. A generous dance floor was a must.
As they entered the building she began to feel it, and by the time they introduced themselves, the feeling overwhelmed her whole being. What was going on? She felt as if she was leaving one world and entering another. Drab office buildings and paint color schemes were fading into oblivion. She felt transported to a different realm.
A lady at the grand piano introduced herself as Thelma, while plunking out a familiar hymn. Thelma was not waiting for Easter to wear her bonnet. Olivia wanted to know her favorite hymn and if she used to be a church pianist, but they were led away from the lobby.
A spacious yellow atrium housed a half dozen doughnut shaped bird feeders, waiting to be hung outside. A balding gentleman offered a friendly, "Hello." He printed 'Lloyd' in block letters on his nametag. Olivia wanted to help him as he struggled to thread a piece of red yarn, but once again the tour moved on.
She noticed homemade signs hung at slight angles on each door. She recognized "Welcome" in German, Dutch and Spanish. A few family names still contained the "s" indicating a couple. She wished to hear romantic or even boring tales of how they met.
Most banners bore a lone name, though, increasing her yearning. They passed a door with a framed glass shadow box adorning the stoop. The box held a menagerie of armed forces memorabilia and crisscrossed flags. She longed to thank someone for their military service, but her boss interrupted and asked to see their electrical box.
The next entryway display box held family pictures and yellowed school photos. She was mad at an unnamed generation and assumed, since the pictures hadn't been updated, the visits had stopped.
They cut through a lively café with lingering aromas and diners. Two couples were engaged in a spirited discussion on whether their grandchildren would enjoy a Pistons game or the civic playhouse. Olivia prayed those kids would enthusiastically accept either invitation.
In the last hallway, leading back to the main lobby, bulletin boards announced a euchre tournament. Eiffel tower stickers heralded 'Vive a la France' tonight in the dining room. Olivia wondered if any of them had ever visited Paris.
While sitting down to wait for her boss and crew to finish a boiler room discussion, it became increasingly clear. The neon sign in her heart flashed it's warning; U turn ahead! It wasn't boring construction details, or the creative design process that would be her escape route. It was the people ... the older people. People placed in "senior" homes after lengthy discussions with their baby boomer children…people whose grandchildren had rummaged through their earthly possessions in order to help them scale down. People who strived their whole life to acquire--then had to decide between their dining room set and the La-Z-Boy. Maybe some of them were people, like herself, who had been trapped in a passionless career. She ached to sit down and talk with each one of them, positive they longed to tell their stories.
As their tour came to an end, and they opened the spacious nine-paned beveled glass lobby doors, Olivia felt a pain like she had never before experienced.
One lone man, leaning on his walker and struggling with his mailbox key, sent wave after wave of the sharpest non-physical pain ripping to the very depths of her stomach. He finally got the box open and leaned down to look into the empty abyss. Like a bad accident, Olivia could not look away, and her heart screamed, if there is a God in heaven, please let there be some sort of personal letter in that box! She knew there wasn't. He knew there wasn't. But he had to make sure. He reached his gnarled hand in, first part way, then one more wistful reach, a little farther, to make sure he hadn't missed something the mailman had shoved to the back.
That's when she knew. This project, she had lovingly dubbed 'Storybook Condos,' would be her last as an interior designer. To live her passion she must become involved with this generation. She would gain their friendship, listen to their stories and become their voice through her writing.
As she made her way to her car that Friday afternoon, her step had a new rhythmic bounce.
There were places to go, people to meet, and their stories to tell.
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