Chicago letter carriers carry on

Despite frigid temps, the mailman delivers.

January 6, 2014

WBEZ/Odette Yousef
Victor Austin has been delivering mail for 20 years. He says he doesn’t mind extremes of hot or cold. The only weather that slows him down is rain.

Victor Austin works fast. He’s got his mail presorted into bundles, and he pushes his mail cart forcefully through the snow-packed sidewalks. Despite being weighed down by layers of clothing, Austin moves quickly from gate to gate on a side street in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood on the North Side. A good thing too, since this is the city’s coldest Jan. 6 on record.

“I got a sweater on, and I’ve got a little thing covering my chest, and this coat right here,” he said. “My long johns, my pants, and then these things right here,” he added, pointing to standard, blue windbreaker pants issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

While many employers urged their employees to work from home, and city officials urged Chicagoans to stay indoors to avoid dangerously low temperatures, that wasn’t an option for Austin and his fellow letter carriers with the USPS. Their jobs require them to work outside – even in the most adverse weather conditions.

On Monday, the USPS tried to make things easier for its employees, knowing wind chill temperatures were 35 degrees below zero. “They let us know beforehand (to) take as little mail as possible, like the first and second class and the priority packages,” Austin said. Still, he anticipated that his route would take the usual 4.5 hours.

Austin said getting through tough weather is largely a mental battle. Instead of thinking about the cold, he’ll try to focus on warm places, like Florida. If he starts to get too cold, he said he might wait in the heated entryway of an apartment building, or in a restaurant, for a few minutes until he warms up a bit. Most important, he says, is to keep moving.

“I don’t really eat lunch – like, days like today I don’t really eat no lunch until I’m finished because as long as I keep moving, then my body (will) be warm,” Austin said, not pausing as he continued moving between homes. “Once I stop, then you have to start it back up again, then I’m gonna be in trouble.”

His advice to newbie letter carriers? “Stay warm, dress in layers,” he said. “If you get cold, go get warmed up, don’t try to be no hero out here. Basically just be safe, use common sense.”

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.