Philly DIY and the Fight to Defend the USPS
The United States Postal Service has long been an integral tool for the DIY community. Sure there are mp3s and websites chock full of information, but nobody is going to claim that’s the same as a record, a zine, a book, or a piece of art. That’s not even scratching the surface of how important the post office is in general. It is, as the people interviewed in this article said again and again, a public good, a service for everyone in our country no matter who they are or what they do.
This is something that came up again and again this summer when the USPS was facing slowdowns, staff shortages, and other issues. While that was at least somewhat alleviated – cuts to the service put in by Postmaster General Lois DeJoy were pushed back – the big worry is mail-in voting and the safety of ballots.
There is a long history of musicians working at the post office. Vic Godard, lead singer of British punk band Subway Sect, quit music to become a postman, a job he stayed at for decades even after returning to the stage. Howard Saunders, a key member of the Philly punk community booking shows and putting out records in the early 80s, was at the then Main Post Office over at 30th Street for a number of years. There are at least two current members of the punk and DIY communities who work for the USPS. Randy Now who booked all the shows at City Gardens in Trenton was also a mail carrier. So was John Prine, who has become a bit of a folk hero at the USPS.
That’s all to say that the post office is pretty punk. We asked a number of people from the Philly DIY scene about why the post office is important to them and here are their answers:
For Katy Otto, the health of the post office is personal: the South Philly musician and activist is married to a letter carrier and they have a child together. Otto has run Exotic Fever Records for more than two decades and started playing in punk bands before that. The USPS is an “urgent tool for growing those things and getting music to people all over the world” she told The Key.
It’s more than that, though. During the pandemic the postal service has been a “life force” for everyone, she explained. That’s especially true for those who are ordering medication and groceries. “I just think that the thing that is so offensive to me about all of these attacks,” she said, “is that it’s happening while the workers are already dealing with very difficult circumstances and the public is relying on this institution more than ever.”
When COVID-19 first hit, postal workers were very much on the frontline. Seven months later and they’re still there. This is especially true for mail carriers, who have one of the only jobs that involve being outside and walking for miles every day, oftentimes with a lot of interaction with the public. Not only did they have to deal with a quickly-worsening pandemic but also with a lack of knowledge on how best to deal with the disease. Still, masks and other personal protective equipment immediately became the norm for all postal workers.
On the American Postal Workers Union website there was a statement about how the members stand in solidarity with other “postal workers across the globe” in their mission of “universal service to everyone, no matter who or where.” Otto echoed that, telling The Key that she believes anyone who relies on the USPS when it comes to “cultural creation from projects” – basically all culture that isn’t happening live – needs to support not just the postal service but also the workers.
Before Otto was in Philadelphia, she was a mainstay in the Washington D.C. punk and activist communities, playing in bands including Bald Rapunzel and Del Cielo. It was there that she started her record label. The first release on Exotic Fever, back in 2000, was With Literacy And Justice For All….A Benefit For The DC Area Books To Prisons Project.
That nonprofit, which still exists today, sends books through the mail to prisoners. It can be compared to Philadelphia’s Books Through Bars or many other like-minded organizations throughout the country. The compilation was, as Otto described it, meant to “celebrate that for so many people [the postal service] is an invaluable lifeline.”
While the slowdown and all the other issues at the post office are a huge ongoing concern, Otto is encouraged that many more are paying attention to what’s going on. “Postal policy was never really considered that sexy a topic for people to follow,” she joked.
“There are solutions that the unions and others have pushed for, like allowing for the modernization of the post office and things like postal banking [and] fax services … that would actually be really great assets, particularly in low-income communities,” she told The Key.
What’s postal banking? Without getting into the weeds of financial policy, it’s basically a savings system that is run by a postal service. The United States Postal Savings System was a postal bank that existed from 1911 to 1967. Check out this recent Washington Post article that gives a full history of postal banking and talks about why it could come back.
On the opposite end of policy solutions is privatization, an idea that’s been bandied about by conservatives for years and was picked up by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and his supporters this summer. If the USPS is privatized, it would cease being a service for everyone, Otto explained, and could instead exist only “for people of means and people of wealth.”
What Otto loves most about the USPS is that it’s affordable for everyone to use. If a record label or any small business were forced to use FedEx or UPS, “it’s going to be prohibitively expensive, it’s going to start to cost more than the item itself” she said.
She remembered being heavily reliant on mail-order records when she was a teenager cutting her teeth in the Maryland punk scene of the mid-90s. “For me it was a lot of women-run and LGBT friendly labels, things like Chainsaw and Kill Rock Stars, Mister Lady records,” she told The Key. “It was just such a great way to discover [music], you felt like you were finding this hidden treasure.”
While mp3s and sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp are very useful, Otto doesn’t think they can totally replace the role of physical media in the DIY music scene. “We can find new ways to distribute digitally but I think that there still is a very powerful infrastructure for DIY through the postal service,” she said.
Asked if she had any advice for people who are trying to better follow the news of what’s going on at the post office and with mail-in ballots, she suggested the Twitter accounts of the two main postal service unions, @APWUnational and @NALC_National, as well as that of local activist Mindy Isser who Tweets at @mindyisser.
Otto and her family have been relying on the mail even more than usual during the pandemic. Her son, who is five years old, has been sending letters to his great grandmother who is in a nursing home. Because they can’t go visit due to COVID-19, he mails her drawings he’s done. “I don’t really see any other way that you’re going to replace that,” Otto said. “It’s a part of the social fabric of our community and I think should be fiercely defended.”
If Mike McKee tried to list all his different responsibilities on a business card he’d almost certainly cover both sides before running out of room. At Broad Street Ministry, the homeless advocacy organization in Center City where he’s been since 2015, McKee does everything from serve lunch to help recently-incarcerated people reenter society.
A lot of what he does – and what Broad Street Ministry does as part of their mission of “Radical Hospitality” – involves the postal service. In fact, one of the services BSM offers is a mailing address for people who might not otherwise have one. If you have not experienced homelessness, having an address is something that is often taken for granted. But not having an address means being cut off from all manner of social services.
“The importance of having a safe, secure mailing address cannot be over-stated for most of us,” McKee told The Key. “You gotta have a mailing address. Want ID? You need an address. Want to claim your food stamps? You need an address. Want to apply for a job or stay in touch with your family? You need an address.”
It’s easy to forget that, especially when you take having an address for granted.
On their website, BSM quoted someone who utilizes the mailroom as saying, “It helps me get benefits. It’s a mainstay of communications with various members of my family. Gets me a feeling of permanence. Gives me [a] comfortable feeling.” They serve approximately three thousand people and are one of the only spots in the city to do this.
The USPS has always served an important and integral role in McKee’s life going back to his time spent in punk bands starting when he was a teenager and even before that. He had a pen pal when he was eight who he found in Ranger Rick magazine and later was, as he jokingly put it, “one of the stone-cold bad-asses who got into the high-stakes world of stamp collecting” and was trading stamps with other collectors for about a year.
The Ardmore native discovered punk in the early 90s and with that zine culture. “I came to depend on the postal service for the long-form work of fomenting cultural and political revolution,” he told The Key. “And when that didn’t work, it was at least handy for ordering records and zines.”
He credits that for not only initially introducing him to a number of lifelong friends – he specifically mentioned Sean Forbes from the bands Wat Tyler and Hard Skin who ran Rugger Bugger Records – but also being a huge influence on his musical tastes. According to him, “Even if Oi, pop-punk and straightedge hardcore dominated the lineups some months at J.C. Dobbs and Revival, Riot Grrl and Queercore still ruled my PO Box.”
Being able to send letters and get records in the mail also helped him feel more connected to other people around the world who shared his beliefs.
“Correspondence and mail-order through the postal service felt very important because it made me feel more connected to pockets of punk that I identified with before they became quite as represented in Philly as they seemed to be in their far-flung epicenters like Berkeley, Olympia and Newcastle-on-Tyne,” McKee told The Key.
We interviewed McKee as part of the This is Essential series and in that article he talks more about the connection between his time spent in punk and activism and his current position at Broad Street. You can check that out here.
The mail room at BSM is more than just a mailing address, McKee explained: “Coming to check your mail has a social and community aspect to it, especially for people who may not have a lot of opportunities for that when they’re sleeping rough.” He referred to it as an “anchor” for the people they serve and said that it can lead to greater overall stability.
Prison outreach, another of the missions at BSM, has been limited since the pandemic started. Incarcerated people have been hit especially hard by COVID-19 and visits are extremely restricted. On top of that, some prisons have put additional regulations on mail, which is how most correspondence happens within these institutions.
The documented slowdowns at the post office have certainly impacted everything at BSM. While a letter taking a couple more days to arrive might not feel like a huge issue, according to McKee “there are many of our neighbors who use the mail service here at Broad Street for whom a late-arriving disability check means the difference between keeping a rented room and being kicked out on the street.”
“I hope the Postal Service gets the resources and support it needs,” he told The Key. “After all, it’s a basic service that only a completely failed state wouldn’t deliver.”
Perry Shall grew up in the post office. His father, Bob, worked for the United States Postal Service for almost three decades, mainly in Port Richmond and Frankford. He started and finished his career as a mail carrier and also spent a number of years as a supervisor. According to his son, “He was the mail carrier that you see in the movies like ‘Hey, how you doing today? I got some mail for you!’ I always pictured him being like a cartoon mail carrier.”
The younger Shall, an artist and musician in bands including Hound and Wild Flowers of America, has a tattoo of the USPS mascot Mr. Zip – very much a cartoon mail carrier – in honor of his dad. “I always loved Mr. Zip,” he told The Key. “It’s a great mascot. I mean, the post office has a mascot. That’s amazing. There’s no UPS mascot or FedEx mascot.”
That’s all to say: Shall really loves the postal service. Both due to his professional pursuits as well as an ever-growing vintage t-shirt collection – you can read our interview with Perry from 2018 here – he is a frequent customer. While he understands why people might have complaints about the post office regarding long lines or delays, he is forever effusive: “Think about the fact that you can put something in the mail and within even a week it’s across the entire country or in a different country altogether. I mean, there’s no other ways you can get that done. Especially for, like, under $5.”
Shall brought that up a lot during the interview. When the USPS was in the news a lot this summer, many of its detractors suggested that people just use UPS or FedEx instead. Those services, while certainly an option, cost much more than shipping via the post office. Ironically, they also both utilize the postal service infrastructure for some types of deliveries.
“I still really don’t think that the post office gets enough credit for all they do,” Shall told The Key. “Maybe it seems too obvious, I don’t know. But everybody relies on it. Everybody. I don’t care how many fucking emails you can send. You still cannot get a physical object to show up in another place without the post office.”
While Shall might have grown up with a parent in the post office, he doesn’t feel like his experiences as a lifelong customer of the USPS are any different than any average American. He recalled ordering CDs and t-shirts as a kid in Northeast Philly and how, “When you got that in the mail, that could be the item that changed your life and put you on a totally different path.” For him the post office is a resource everybody can use: “Even some punk kid can figure out how to put a stamp on an envelope and drop it in the mailbox on every other corner.”
Being a mail carrier is a “bad ass profession” Shall told The Key. For him it’s not just the fact that they have to go to work no matter what – these days you can add ‘global pandemic’ to the unofficial USPS motto of “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – but also the role the USPS fills as part of the framework of this country.
“Not necessarily in a patriotic way but there’s something very American about the post office,” he explained. “It feels like that is more of a definition of how amazing this country could be. I mean, we created the fucking post office!”
Shall being a cheerleader for the post office goes way back to when he was a kid and would occasionally wear his dad’s old uniforms. “I am always trying to talk about it and keep it in regular conversation,” he told The Key. “As somebody who does have to ship things a lot and as someone who is the son of a retired postal worker I feel like I’ve always tried to make sure people are paying attention and thinking about it.”
Asked if he has a favorite branch, Shall mentioned the Kingsessing one at 5311 Florence St. in his Southwest Philly neighborhood. “They’ve always been really helpful for me, really cool,” he said. He attributes that at least partially to his attitude towards the employees: “People should express more to their carriers, supervisors, clerks, managers, and all that stuff how much you appreciate and love the post office because that makes them feel like what they’re doing has been worth all the bullshit that they have to deal with and all the customers and negative energy that shows up.”
The current political climate and the threats on the future of the USPS as we know it has made Shall even prouder of the institution.
“There really isn’t anything that comes close to the reliability, the lasting power, or the importance, or the demand or need for the post office,” he told The Key. “I mean, what is your other solution to not having a post office? What could you possibly do to fill that void?”
Eric Lee and Adniel Avendano
Eric Lee and Adniel Avendano share a screen printing space at a Southwest Philly warehouse where they make t-shirts, posters, and more. Lee’s business is called Come On Strong and Avendano does Latziyela and Nocheztli. They both rely heavily on the post office for all aspects of their work.
“It’s great [and] so cheap compared to any other service,” Lee told The Key. “I could use UPS or something else but all their services are so much more expensive and that makes anything I sell less accessible to customers.”
To give an example of just how much he relies on the post office, that morning Lee had sent out a ton of shirts to people around the country, totaling about $300 in shipping. “It’s pretty much constant,” he said.
Lee has been in the screen printing business for about a decade and running Come On Strong, which does a mix of band shirts and queer-related work, for half that time. Since the pandemic he has moved the distribution side of things to his house. He uses the USPS website to print his own labels and postage which saves him a lot of time and energy at the post office. This is especially useful when he’s shipping out a couple hundred shirts at a time.
For Avendano, who makes band t-shirts under the Latziyela imprint and indigenous art and goods as Nocheztli, the post office is a way to get his shirts out to customers but also to engage with indigenous people around the country. He sometimes also does trades with other artists through the mail.
Despite being from very different parts of the world Lee and Avendano have similar stories about how important a role the post office played in their life when they were teenagers and first getting into punk and DIY culture. For Avendano, who grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico, it was the mail order from Minneapolis-based punk label and distro Profane Existence. “That’s how I used to listen to a lot of bands I later saw live,” he told The Key.
Lee is originally from outside Boston. As a teenager he bought a lot of records online, something that he credits with shaping his identity as a young, gay punk. “I could afford that,” he explained, “because the USPS was so reasonable.”
It’s not just records and subculture, however. Lee brought up just how invaluable the post office is right now when it comes to getting medications and other necessary things delivered: “There are so many people paying out-of-pocket for extremely expensive meds, which is an injustice in the first place, and then [to expect] them to pay exorbitant shipping prices? Fuck that.”
The idea of privatizing the postal service is “horrible” he told The Key. Asked if he thinks he has a responsibility to promote the USPS as someone who uses the post office almost daily he said that he does because, “It’s one of those things that you take for granted. People won’t know what they had until it’s gone. Like, they won’t realize how important the USPS is to the functioning of American society until it’s disappeared and they can’t get, you know, X, Y or Z cheaply. It would be a fucking disaster.”
Avendano pointed out that on more rural Native American reservations there is no home mail delivery so the local post office becomes an especially important resource. This has turned into even more of an issue during the pandemic when communities have been in lock down. You can read more about that and the barriers that exist to voting by mail on reservations in this recent article.
Both Lee and Avendano have a large online presence. Especially Lee, who has close to 12,000 Instagram followers. He told The Key that he’s had many conversations with other small business owners about the USPS and the need to make sure it remains a public good. He’s also met “a lot of people that are really, really nerdy about the USPS and will talk to you about [its] history and what makes it so unique and special.”
While he might have been a bit skeptical at first, Lee said that he has definitely been won over. He’s even considering getting some USPS-branded gear – “Their online store is wild, there is so much cool shit to buy!” – to give a little more support. “I even love the aesthetic of the post office,” he said. “Like, the silver and like the thin red stripe and the blue. It’s very calming, I love it.”
Cool logo notwithstanding, at the end of the day what it comes down to for a small business owner is money. And for Avendano and Lee, the USPS offers them the cheapest and best way to get their shirts and other products into customers’ hands. “Adniel and I have definitely operated on a pretty razor-thin budget for years,” he told The Key. “We’ve gotten bigger, definitely, and we’re not just printing punk bootlegs anymore. But it’s still really important that we have a low overhead and USPS makes that possible.”
For Marisa Dabice, lead singer of Mannequin Pussy, the USPS represents a direct line of communication from the band to their fans. She’s responsible for doing the mail order and goes to the post office at least once a week to send out records, CDs, shirts, and more across the country and around the world.
Asked about the slowdowns and all the other cutbacks that happened over the last few months, Dabice said that, “It’s confounding to me that you would attack this service that is so overwhelmingly popular with people all throughout the country.”
She sees the issues with the USPS as being a symptom of a larger problem. “Certain services in the United States are being put into these so-called pragmatic business terms when they were never meant to be put into pragmatic business terms,” she said. “Some things are businesses and some things are services.”
The USPS, Dabice explained, “is an essential service that is not supposed to make money, it is not supposed to make a profit. It’s there to have a direct connection between people all throughout the United States, whether you are in a rural area or in a city.”
Before the pandemic, Mannequin Pussy was very much a full-time gig for the members of the long-running band, which put out its most recent album, Patience, last year on Epitaph Records. Now the only thing bringing in any income is merch sales.
“We’re heavily reliant on the US Postal Service,” Dabice told The Key. “And the reason why we are relying on it is because it’s extremely efficient. I really don’t have very many problems with things getting lost or things not being delivered. I think out of the few thousand packages I’ve sent since the pandemic has started maybe one has gone missing.”
This is a band that’s always used its platform to talk about the causes they support and the issues they want to spotlight. Without a stage, much of that has conversation has shifted to their social media. According to Dabice, “You can only post so much and hope that people take action or look things up on their own. So you never really know what the impact is of those things but it’s better to try to say something, even if you are afraid no one’s listening, because to say nothing means that they can’t listen at all.”
Ordering records and t-shirts directly from the band has always felt special to Dabice. “You’re very aware of the human connection when you receive something in the mail because you know it had to be packed and shipped and brought to the post office,” she said. “It was just, like, hands touching it all along the way to get it to you.” For her, that’s what makes the USPS so extraordinary.
Being in a successful band like Mannequin Pussy that tours constantly and is in charge of its own merch is quite akin to running a small business. That’s another reason Dabrice and her bandmates have been so invested in the health of the USPS: because if something happened and rates went up that might really hurt them, especially right now with no shows.
“People don’t like to look at it like that, because it’s pretty unromantic to think of a creative endeavor as being a business,” Dabice said, laughing. “But it is. It’s my business that I take care of every day. I stay on top of orders and do trouble shooting and customer relations. It’s a lot of small business management that is just trying to keep a group of people afloat during a global pandemic where we are not able to perform our jobs that we had before.”
Asked if she thought that bands had a responsibility to speak out about this and other topics, Dabice said they absolutely should: “Art without activism, art without being aware of what’s happening in your community is really just capitalism. Art in its revolutionary form is bringing people together to have these cathartic outlets but also to envision a new way forward.”