Ryan Bradford is a writer. The problem, he says, is that these days, most writing gigs are for websites that call stories “content,” and search-engine optimization—not creativity, or even quality—is the goal.
So, Bradford writes when he can and carries a satchel filled mostly with bright red Netflix envelopes and junk mail. He’s a “transitional employee” for the United States Postal Service (USPS), makes a decent wage and spends most of his day in the San Diego sun.
Sounds kinda nice, doesn’t it?
If you consult his self-published zine, Slave Labor Makes You Look Great!: A Brief Memoir of Carrying Mail in San Diego, you’ll quickly see that it isn’t. For one thing, that dog-and-mailman cliché—turns out it’s true.
“I was hoping to save some scary-dog swings for you to tag along on,” Bradford said, pulling open the back door of his USPS-issued white minivan and sifting through stacks of mail, “but it’s cloudy and the dogs usually aren’t out on these days.”
A “swing,” in postal parlance, means a mail route. Bradford is currently stationed in Point Loma. Clad in baggy blue shorts and a hand-me-down, pin-striped shirt, he looks like he’s playing dress-up rather than wearing a uniform. He’s blond, fresh-faced and looks too young to be a mailman.
He works quickly, taking a few opportunities to stop and point out funny things he’s noticed about the neighborhood—the F-word scrawled into the cement of some poor old lady’s front step or a cleverly hidden postbox that took him weeks to find—but it doesn’t take long before a vicious-sounding dog bounds from out of the shadows and attempts to force his muzzle under an inch-wide gap to get at Bradford’s feet.
“It’s the postal uniform,” he says, disappointment in his voice. “I swear—dogs like me when I’m not wearing this.”
Between April and May of this year, Bradford decided to document the phenomenon. He took pictures of fluffy little dogs glaring from behind wrought-iron fences and big dogs doing their best to leap through or over gates in order to rip him apart, and he managed to score a really good shot of a ferocious black dog that can just barely be seen through a lifted mail slot.
“So, I posted the photos and woke up with all these comments on my blog, and was, like, ‘Wow,’” he said.
Gawker linked to his post first, then NPR and USA Today. Next thing he knew, a 140-strong comment thread tumbled down his blog page, PETA was asking him to promote its vegan dog treats and a gallery in Memphis wanted to show his photos in an art exhibition.
“It even got picked up by a pretty well-known postal blog,” Bradford laughs. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of the inner-workings of the postal system.”
Usually, when Bradford posts on his blog, he gets about a dozen hits. But last he checked, “All the Dogs Want to Kill Me” had about 12,000 views. A lot of fellow carriers ended up reading Bradford’s post and responding to the witty one-liner captions he came up with (“‘He won’t bite you, but he will lick you to death,’—Every dog owner,” Bradford wrote to accompany one particularly evil-looking canine). The carriers chimed in and sparked a conversation about the maliciousness of dogs versus feral cats and whether or not carrying dog treats is a good idea. USPS does not condone the use of dog treats, it turns out; instead, every carrier is issued “Back Off” dog-repellent spray.
“It started sparking a big debate about how you treat dogs,” Bradford said, minutes after being barked and growled at by two wiener dogs and one mutt hidden under a bush. “I actually don’t have my dog spray because it randomly blew up and leaked all over my leg the other day. I was, like, Damn, this really hurts my leg; I don’t want to put this in some dog’s face.”
The surge in traffic and sudden flood of attention didn’t come as a complete surprise. About a year and a half ago, after having just moved to San Diego, Bradford was bored and stuck at home during a frustrating job search. In his spare time, he started a Tumblr blog, Peopletalkingonbananas.com, and sent a link to Gawker, and the same thing happened.
“When People Talking on Bananas got kind of big, I was, like, Oh, this is it; here comes my Tumblr book deal. But nothing happened,” he said.
Bradford, who’s been busy in his off-time as the creative director for So Say We All, a local literary performance and education nonprofit, genuinely loves the antiquated sentimentality of hand-written mail, and he’s fully aware that Charles Bukowski once donned the postal blues, too, but he feels over-worked. He says taking a break to eat lunch or even find a bathroom is difficult, and there’s no real incentive to deliver mail any quicker because he’s just sent back out with more. And Bradford’s transitional status means he’ll never be offered a permanent USPS position with full benefits.
Plus, mail isn’t exactly a growing market. Due to financial constraints, the Golden Hill and North Park postal stations are scheduled for closure, and Bradford says San Diego will soon get automated mail-sorting equipment that will probably put transitional employees like him out of work.
Aside from the initial hullabaloo that came after Bradford’s dog post, nothing very solid or tangible has come from his second brush with internet attention. There are still no book deals or new job offers. The gallery show could happen, but it’s tentative, and the PETA thing hasn’t worked out. On the other hand, he has another story to tell and, for now, he still has a job.
“Just like the banana thing,” he said, checking his satchel for leftover mail, “Internet fame is just very fleeting.”
If you want a copy of Ryan Bradford’s mailman-memoir zine, contact him through his website at ryancbradford.com.