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Change of Address

Neighborhood Protests Transfer of Mail-Carrying Minister Who Seems Almost Like a Family Member to Many

September 11, 1997|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bulging sack of mail slung over his shoulder, postal carrier Jimmie Irving walks into the white-fenced yard with the barking dog, which quiets when it recognizes him--stops yapping just like that, as though its master has arrived home.

At the door of the West Los Angeles home, Lee Silber is there to greet Irving, not just to collect her mail but to give him a hug because she hasn't seen him in so long.

Jimmie Irving inspires such reactions from his customers. For the last 22 years, he has delivered mail in the same tree-shaded, lush-lawned Beverlywood neighborhood, pretty much to the same customers.

In that time he's seen young mothers become pregnant time and again, has seen little boys who once sent away for mail-order comic books grow up to become teachers or lawyers. Whether it's on Bagley Avenue or Oakmore Road, he calls people by their first name.

All along his busy route, Irving's 350 customers address him by a time-tested nickname: They call him Reverend Irving. Or simply, the Rev.

For more than two decades, the 48-year-old Irving has been a man with a foot in two worlds, working as both a Westside postal carrier and a Baptist preacher in Long Beach.

Through the changing seasons, commuting several hours to work each day from his Mission Viejo home, he has found a way to bring something from each world to complement the other. He's become a postman with a quiet, shoulder-to-lean-on reverence as well as a minister whose Sunday sermons are rooted in the reality of holding down a working-class job all week.

In the largely Jewish Beverlywood neighborhood, residents have taken to Irving, looking forward each day not just to the mail, but to the smiling countenance of a man of God.

"Jimmie has seen me in every state, from being all dressed up for dinner, to having no makeup and in my pajamas," said Anne Raiss. "He knows me."

For years at the Raiss home, Irving could walk right in the door, use the bathroom, help himself to a drink or a sandwich in the refrigerator. Even help the kids with their homework.

"Jimmie has always been part of the family," Raiss said. "My kids know him. My dog knows him. He looks out for our family, just like he does the whole neighborhood."

Residents care so much about their mail carrier, they'd rather fight than switch.

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In past weeks, they've sent letters and petitions unsuccessfully protesting the Postal Service's decision to move Irving to a new route nearby, leaving 240 old customers to make do with a new carrier.

"My 10-year-old daughter was so upset, she canvassed our street collecting signatures from neighbors," said Raiss. "It's not like they moved Jimmie across town, they just pushed him two blocks over, so that we still see him, but now he's delivering mail to his new customers.

"How do you explain that to a child? My kids feel abandoned. And, frankly, so do I."

Postal Service customer service manager Thomas J. Egan explained in a letter to customers that Irving was among a group of carriers shifted as part of an experiment to improve service by equalizing the size of routes.

"I hope you can understand that Mr. Irving has 22 years of wonderful memories," Egan wrote. "They will never be lost, nor will they be forgotten."

Irving was equally upset over the change. "I don't want to go," he said in a slow Texas drawl. "This neighborhood has been my home for 22 years. But I don't have a choice in the matter. I do what I'm told."

One oddity in the route change means that Irving has been reunited with about 40 old customers he lost in a similar switch more than a year ago. Back then, at the thought of losing Irving, Lee Silber wrote letters to her post office, all to no avail.

But now she's getting her Jimmie back.

"This is great," she said, giving Irving a hug. "You're back in the family now, Jim."

Before his route was changed 18 months ago, Irving had delivered Silber's mail for 19 years. He saw her pregnant with all three of her children, had always smiled and asked "How's that belly coming along?" and later became a surrogate uncle to her growing kids.

"You go up the block and watch the reaction of the people once they realize that Jimmie's back," Silber said. "Just watch, you'll see people jump in his arms."

As he walks his route, picking up newspapers for vacationing customers, waving at passing cars, knowing all the names, Irving answers the question many people ask: Which came first, the preacher or the postal carrier?

He became a carrier first, in 1969, and almost didn't become a preacher at all.

Growing up in a rural town near Houston, the son of a minister who also worked as a full-time farmer, Irving decided he didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. After watching three of his brothers grow up to become preachers, Irving relocated to Los Angeles, where he spent several years as a substitute mail carrier before getting his Beverlywood route.

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