Western Union had changed a lot. By the middle of the seventies they had closed down most of their offices, those dingy yellow and green places that looked like the city room of some inferior afternoon newspaper. Like the railroads, they hated passenger traffic. In order to hold onto their franchise they had built a few new places, like this one in deepest Brooklyn, that attempted to look modern but that failed to cover the essential cheapness of the place. There was a new plastic “WU” logotype over the door, a promise of exotic electronic wizardry, but it was the same old Western Union.
It was like some kind of a maximum security prison. The people who had designed it had had security high in their minds. Everything was screwed down except the telegraph forms and the stub of pencil that was on the writing table, and that was attached to the table by a short string. The clerks’ windows were buried in the wall like gun emplacements. You spoke to the clerk through a pane of glass with a small opening at the bottom that also was used for your paper transactions.
You went to the table on the other side of the grey room and wrote out your message, using the pencil stub, and then you came and stood in line in front of one of the gun emplacements (there were four of them, and three were closed) to wait your turn to slide the message and your money under the glass and to deal with the humorless harridan on the other side.
She wore a Western Union smock and had dyed blonde hair, and while I waited in line I passed the time by wondering about her. She was 55 or so; a New York face; the presence and look of someone whose parents were immigrants. She probably lived in Flatbush. If she would smile, she would look nice, but you knew she never smiled on the job. She probably despised the people who came to stand in line before her window, although they were just modern immigrants, and she should have felt some compassion for them. Western Union has become like the Trailways stations of my Southern youth: places where the blacks, the soldiers, and the poor whites go. Have to go. People who do not have Master Charge.
The young black man at the head of the line slid his money order under the glass and produced from his pocket the money, carefully folded many times. He had done this before.
“Yesm, South Hill, Virginia. Miz Gladys Jones.”
The woman looked at him as if she didn’t believe him. “Do you have a test question for Gladys? Something we can ask her to make sure she’s Gladys—” she examined the money order “—Gladys Jones?”
“Ask her who sent it. Henry sent it.”
They finished the transaction without incident. The woman insisted on counting Henry’s money twice. It was 80 dollars. Henry paid the money order fee and left.
A big black woman advanced to the emplacement. She was motherly-looking, a God-fearing Baptist from the South; I knew that, looking at her. I see my fellow Southerners all the time on the streets here in the North. She slid the money under the glass.
“There’s no telephone number here,” said the harridan behind the glass, She used the same shrill, horrified tone she would have used if the message had said “Up yours” or if it had been smeared with dog stool.
“That’s right,” said the black woman. She said it without aggression, said it as if she hoped she wasn’t causing too much trouble for the woman behind the counter.”It’s a condolence.”
The woman behind the counter picked up her eyeglasses, which were hanging around her neck on a cord that glittered. She eyed the black woman as if she were some sort of a troublemaker or at least an eccentric. She picked up the piece of yellow paper and read it in a loud voice that easily penetrated the window.”So sorry to hear of Elberta’s death. I cannot come, Signed, Fannie Wilkes Williams.” The black woman looked around while the message was being read, to see who was listening to it. I looked away as if I had not heard.
“That’s going to cost you six dollars and 25 cents, Miss,” said the woman behind the counter. She was impatient and irritable; really a bitch.”That’s because you won’t give me the telephone number, If you give me the telephone number it’ll cost you a lot less. Two dollars and a half.You want us to deliver it, and that costs a lot more.”
The black woman looked confused, and she was embarrassed, too. She said, in a small, apprehensive voice: “But it’s a condolence, ma’m. It sposed to be delivered. It’s a death telegram.”
“I know that,” snapped the harridan. “I’m just trying to save you some money. This is going to cost you six dollars and 25 cents, and you could telephone them yourself for a dollar. Why don’t you do that?”
When the Western Union woman had quoted the price, the black woman had gotten a crumpled ten-dollar bill from her pocketbook and had slipped the money under the glass. Now she drew the bill back toward her, but she did not take it back completely. She was obviously confused. She thought a moment, and the woman behind the emplacement shifted her weight impatiently.
“I want to send it the way I first wanted,” said the black woman.”I want them to deliver it. I don’t want them to do it on the telephone, and I don’t want to do it on the telephone.” She was still polite, but she had become firm.
“Well, you just have ten words here. You can have fifteen. Make it like this.” The harridan studied the piece of paper for a moment, and then she said, “”Sorry to learn of Elberta’s passing. Unfortunately cannot come for funeral. Our thoughts with you.” How’s that?” she said, with a professional air.
“That’s just fine,” said the black woman. She slipped the ten-dollar bill under the glass. “That’s a lot better than I wrote myself.” It was impossible to tell whether she meant it.
She got her change and left, and the woman behind the counter started marking the telegram with strange symbols and slapping it with rubber stamps.