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They Deliver but Don't Dish--Secrets, That Is

November 19, 1995|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So you're a private person. Real private. Even your next-door neighbors don't have a clue what you do once you slip out and point your car toward the freeway. When you return from work, same story.

If people want to know anything about you, let them hire a private eye. Or they could save a bundle by just chatting up your letter carrier, UPS man, FedEx woman or bottled-water delivery person. Chances are, these people could run rings around any gumshoe fresh to the case.

Give these delivery people a route and they soak up information fast. After just a few weeks, they can often describe you to a T--even if you've never met. Keep them on the route for a year or so, and they might just know more about you than your mom.

"You can tell certain things about people through the mail," says Glendale letter carrier Ken Eggen. "You're there every day or practically every day."

With a regular delivery route, it's easy to detect a person's profession, hobbies, interests, even spending habits from credit card bills or the lack of them.

These delivery people are often the first to know who's moving out and who's moving in--and sometimes why.

Mail and packages tell tales of other life transitions too. "All of a sudden I saw a lot of attorney papers," recalls letter carrier Maggie Hardy of a couple on her route. "Out of the clear blue, after 35 years, she wants out."

But even an old pro can get the wrong picture once in awhile. Don Laird, a Burbank letter carrier, noticed that one partner of a couple on his route had been absent. Then came the attorney papers. Next the house went up for sale.

"I thought divorce, for sure," he says. But the next batch of letters--from state prison--proved him wrong.

In his days as a letter carrier, Burbank Postmaster Michael Martino remembers walking by a house on his route and seeing the phrase "International Cosmic White Brotherhood of Man" on the mailbox.

"Oh, great," he thought, believing he was delivering mail to racists.

Eventually, he discovered the meaning behind the name. "It was not a white supremacy group, but people who believed in an afterlife situation," he says. "The white referred to white light."

A delivery route can also provide insight into people's quirks and personalities.

Sean Daffern, a Los Angeles UPS relief driver, says residential customers, in general, are ruder than corporate ones. And in the business world, shipping department people are among the most impatient Type-A's on Earth. "They're always in a hurry to get their stuff and then get it shipped out again," he says.

Then there are, as every veteran will tell you, the tantrum throwers. Asked how many tantrums he witnesses a week, James Torres, a UPS driver for 18 years, laughs and echoes, "A week? A week?" How about two a day, he says with a grin.

Mostly, he says, people throw fits when they forget they've ordered a package ("I didn't order anything!" they huff). And the C.O.D. packages--particularly when they have no C.O.H. (Cash on Hand)--can really send them into orbit.

Often, the more customers get to know their delivery people, the nicer some become. One gentleman on Hardy's route, for instance, fills her water bottle.

Some customers, however, take advantage of the relationship, relying on the delivery person to help them hide obsessions and addictions from other members of the household.

One woman changed her address for credit card bills, asking that they be sent elsewhere, recalls Phil Gasper, who has worked a postal route for 20 years. Gasper's not exactly sure why the extra debt, but he suspects "playing the ponies." And how does he know about that? "The other lady who receives the mail told me."

One man who knows when his residual checks are due tracks down his mail carrier and retrieves them ahead of time, telling him he would rather his wife not know about the extra income.

"People have to tell somebody," says Paul Andreassen, a Miami social psychologist. "Feedback is important."

Anyone can make a confidant of the delivery person, but those most likely to do so "tend to be lonely, afraid of emotional intimacy and conflict in relationships," says Dee Shepherd-Look, a Northridge psychologist and Cal State Northridge professor of psychology.

Santa Monica psychologist Elaine Rodino takes a lighter view. "I don't see this as anything pathological. . . . There is this momentary connection, and with more and more people working at home, this is going to occur more and more. When you see another warm body, there's that need to connect."

Federal Express courier Jeffery Ali has seen more than his share of warm bodies on his route. When he knocked on the door of a Hollywood Hills home recently, the customer answered the door naked and obviously preoccupied.

Following company policy, Ali extended his clipboard while trying to divert his gaze. "Ah, I have to get a signature," Ali recalls saying sheepishly. "I was shocked."

He's been back since for deliveries. "He doesn't mention it," Ali says with a laugh.

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