ATLANTIC CITY — On a recent afternoon, Chris Eck pulled his Postal Service van up to Erie and Ohio avenues. He moved to the back of the vehicle, where letters were sorted tightly together in bins. Packages, which have grown in number throughout the years, he said, took up shelves and floor space.
He placed all letters, many in red envelopes, and small or medium parcels for the next block of addresses in his messenger bag slung over his right shoulder.
For a mild, sunny day of winter, Eck was decked out in blue — a Postal Service cap underneath a hoodie worn beneath an official Postal Service jacket. With sunglasses on his face and black grip gloves protecting his hands, he set out down the street at a swift pace, rarely stopping.
A little girl waved enthusiastically through the windows of a home on Michigan Avenue when she spotted Eck coming up the walkway. She ran to the front door as her mother stood behind her.
“Hi, Mr. Chris,” she yelled from the front steps.
“Hi, sweetie, how are you?” Eck said as he got to the door. “Getting ready for Santa Claus?”
“Oh, yeah,” the little girl’s mother said, smiling, as her daughter took two flat packages from Eck before going back inside.
Millions of letters and packages are delivered every day around this time of year to people waiting for Christmas cards from friends and family, or the gifts they ordered online that have to be wrapped and put under the tree by the time Santa is due for milk and cookies.
Beyond what most people see — the bundle of letters in the mailbox and packages left on the front porch — is an army of postal workers who walk miles every day through the rain, sleet, snow and ice to make sure everyone gets their holiday greetings and gifts on time.
U.S. Postal Service carriers like Eck.
“You become part of the fabric of the community,” he said, walking back to the sidewalk from a home on Emerson Avenue in the Venice Park section of the city. “I’ve been out this long now that the children I was delivering to when they were young are now having children of their own.”
At 53, Eck has been a postal carrier for 25 years in Atlantic City, delivering mail to many of the same families and residents.
By now, he knows which homes have dogs, where parts of the sidewalk are misshapen or missing altogether even when covered in snow, the spots people prefer he leave packages at and how long it will take him to make about 300 stops in 14 miles on foot.
But Eck’s knowledge of the customers on his route goes much deeper.
“You’re being invited to weddings, and unfortunately funerals, sometimes graduations, and you become part of that family,” he said. “You may be their only stable environment that they see on a daily basis.”
There are few situations when postal carriers do not deliver mail, and aside from a hurricane or severe snowstorm, they’re outside braving whatever the weather throws at them.
“When you’re out for eight hours, it’s impossible to stay completely dry,” Eck said as he crossed a street. “You deal with the elements as they come.”
“We were out here just a few days after Sandy hit and they had about 4 to 5 feet of water throughout their homes. I think there was a calming effect to see the carriers in the Postal Service going out.”
Advances in technology have streamlined the process. John Glenn, postmaster of the Atlantic City Postal Service carrier facility, said when he was a carrier, package scanners weren’t wireless like they are now, and processing and sorting required more manual work.
Machines and programs have also helped the people who work at major regional Postal Service distribution centers like the one in Bellmawr, Camden County.
On Dec. 17, one of the busiest days of the year for the Postal Service, Khadijah Wade oversaw millions of letters, packages and parcels enter the system at the distribution center.
Packages on conveyor belts whizzed by and dropped off into bins headed for cities and places all over the country. Letters sped through an electro-mechanical system that rapidly culls, positions, IDs and sorts pieces of mail.
Wade said employees at the distribution center, or “hub,” work 24 hours a day processing incoming mail and getting it back out to the associate postal centers for carriers to deliver.
“In this facility, we’re very fortunate that we don’t have to deal with the climate to your face, but we deal with the climate — meaning transportation could be late, mail gets wet because of the rain or the snow — so it hinders the system a little bit, but it’s a very difficult job on both ends,” she said.
As a brown UPS truck slowly passed Eck on Erie Avenue, he looked up and pointed to the two deliverymen.
“It takes two of these guys to do what I do,” he said loudly, making the UPS drivers laugh as they drove by.
Generations of Eck’s family have worked for the Postal Service. His father was also a carrier, and his sister put the zip codes on pieces of mail before computers and machines took over the job.
In addition to the perks of having off for federal holidays, Eck said being able to work outside and forming long-term relationships with customers is satisfying.
“It’s very rewarding to be out here breathing the fresh air,” he said, dropping letters into a metal mailbox. “It’s very gratifying to see the customers get the packages they ordered. I’m a people person, so I just like talking to my customers and finding out what’s good with them in their lives.”