Going Postal in Puna

I was the mailbox manager for our small, agricultural community in Puna, Hawaii. I took the volunteer position because no one else wanted it and it would be easy with only 63 mailboxes, mostly rented. What I thought would be fun and a great way to meet new neighbors quickly turned me into a gate-locking recluse.

One of our tourist guidebooks, “The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook” says this about the town of Pahoa, in Puna: “Known as the Big Island’s outlaw town, this is where guerrilla gardeners, dreadlock enthusiasts, FBI fugitives, and the never-bathe crowd coexist.” A lot of people come here to escape something or simply to be left alone.

I inherited a large folder of paperwork from the previous mailbox manager and proceeded to do some accounting. The community made a little money off the one-time fee to rent a box. There were more people than there were boxes, but out here in the jungle, people tend to come and go. The money that was collected was to be used to finance neighborhood projects.

What I mostly found, was the money was lost, misplaced or simply didn’t match up to the record keeping. Supposedly, there was a small bank with money but no one knew how much or even where it was. There was a gray area in which some of the mailbox managers were simply told to do whatever they wanted with the money they collected as well as it supposedly being a resource to fund local projects.

One of the projects the money was used for was to set up a local currency. They needed real money to make fake money. Unfortunately, when the project was nearing completion it was dropped as a bad idea. Ironically, every once in a while someone new will suggest we start our own local currency without knowing exactly how many times it has actually been attempted. No local currency has stuck around long enough in theory or actuality to have much success.

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The first major vandalism to our mailboxes

One of my first jobs, as the new mailbox manager, was to act as a liaison between the post office and the community after vandals ripped the doors off the mailboxes and stole all the mail.  Every time we talked, the Postmaster would say it was the last time she would replace the boxes due to vandalism. (During my five-year tenure there was a new Postmaster every 8-12 months.) She told me our boxes were the most vandalized in the state of Hawaii; with bullet holes, jammed locks, pried open boxes and the now missing doors. In the meantime, we had to drive 20 minutes, for six months, to the post office in town to pick up our mail.

When they were finally replaced, the Postmaster gave me the job of passing out the new keys to the box owners since I knew many of my neighbors. They were reluctant to do it themselves because many people who live in our neighborhood go by completely different names than their legal name. For instance, when “Walking Stick,” came to fetch his keys, I knew his legal name was Thomas Nelson and was I able to give him his keys without going through the rigmarole of checking his ID. It also seemed like a good time to clean house and make sure everyone was compliant to the rules of mailbox ownership the community association imposed.

There were just a few incidences where I was lucky enough to get out of without being physically harmed. I found out that trying to take someone’s mailbox away was life-threatening even though they never used it, moved from the neighborhood or had multiple boxes.  Some people believe that the mailboxes were their property and that even if they moved to the other side of the county, they could stop by monthly and pick up their mail.

One guy even wrote me a letter saying the mailbox was his only real home and that by taking it away from him, he felt he was homeless. Never mind that he actually now lived closer to the post office then he did to our community boxes. One woman told me she was on a year-long waiting list to get a post office box in the next town and ask if she could keep her box until then. Since we were friends, I agreed. After three years, I suggested it was time to give back the box. We were once friendly, but now when I see her in town she scowls at me.

Finally, all the keys were passed out and a few corrections were made so that people who actually lived in the neighborhood held boxes here. A few issues were overlooked just to keep the peace and to stay alive. Things moved along pretty normally for a while and I collected the money and handed it over to the board appointed Treasurer. I managed to make over $600 for the community. I pointed out in a few board meetings that it would be a good idea to get a bank account. Even if everyone agreed to it in one meeting, by the next one, it was denied.

People would often tell me that their boxes wouldn’t open, or that they found keys or that they lost their own keys.  I would often post on the neighborhood list serve that my job was to lease the boxes and not maintain them or replace keys. (For that they would have to go to the post office in town.) One time, a vengeful ex-spouse actually paid $50 and tried to have the post office rekey her ex-spouse’s mailbox. The post office took her money for the new lock but simply left the lock in his mail box (since it was obvious he was still collecting his mail) for him to replace. He was puzzled about why he was offered a new lock.

I was in town to speak to the Postmaster about how to handle a mailbox who’s holder had passed away. When he came out and the first thing he said to me that he hated to talk to mailbox managers and that we were the worst. “Really,” I said, “it’s a volunteer position, perhaps you’d like all the keys back and you can take over the job.” I ran into our carrier one day and ask her if he was the type to let things pile up on his desk or was he one to get things done. She replied the former.

It truly amazed me, how a few people would fib and make up intricate stories to get a mailbox. It is during this time, that I actually felt sorry for people in public service jobs. I hope that postal workers have more good experiences then they do bad ones. Do people really think their made-up stories sound real?  One guy even told me that he was on the list to get a mailbox for 16 years. Since, I had been the manager for only five years, I thought, well, he never checked with me to see if he was at least moving up the list!  One woman, wanted me to support independent, strong woman by rallying behind her to help her get a mailbox. She wrote countless emails to the community list serve pleading. The board even took a vote. In the end, I simply gave her a box because it wasn’t worth all the drama and effort.


The vandals stole the other three mailbox banks.

I was in Oahu, HI, in the hospital waiting room, when I looked up at the TV to see a picture of our community mailboxes, or lack there of, in the news. Again, our boxes had been vandalized, actually stolen this time and we had made Island-wide TV news. I was later interviewed and the story aired on television. The receptionist at my dentist, told me she saw me on TV.

By this time, we were on our third Postmaster. Which was kind of good because, the new one didn’t know about the threat to not replacing them if it happened again. Luckily for me, and everyone else, this efficient Postmaster replaced the boxes right away and handed out the keys. They were very strict about handing out the keys at first and made people show IDs, but towards the end they were assigning boxes to people circumnavigating our dues collection process.

I waited about three months to pick up the remaining keys to vacant boxes and to pick up keys to assigned but unclaimed boxes at the post office. I was hoping enough time had passed that everyone who had boxes would have by now picked up their keys. A week hadn’t gone by before I had at least two people wanting to pick up their keys from me.

The one guy called me everyday. He wanted me to physically hand him the keys and not leave them at my gate for him to pick up. I had somewhere to be and at the last-minute,  I left them at the gate along with a note. For some reason, he thought it was important to leave me daily phone messages for four days in a row telling me the same story of how he picked up his keys. He told me how he would like to put a face to a name. I was literally frightened and thought it was borderline harassment. I thought, you got your keys, now go away.

Just as I was getting over that incident, someone called me for a box. I tried to explain how to get a box and this man was already irate. It took me some time but I finally understood that he was gone for five years and now he wanted his same old box number back, his keys and he didn’t want to pay new fees. This particular box was assigned to three people since I managed the boxes and now belonged to a man who had been in the neighborhood for many years. The man became increasingly pissed-off and I hung up on him. Before I blocked his number, he left a message on my voicemail saying I’d better not get in his way of getting his mailbox back.

The next day, we had a board meeting where I jokingly told the board that one person couldn’t keep all this fun to herself and that I was now ready to share the fun with someone else and for someone to come forward and volunteer to take over the mailbox manager position. They offered me $20 for each box I rented or to whomever else would like the job. There were no takers and I was not interested in the offer either.

During the meeting, the idea to give the job back to the post office came up. The board imagined that there would be some rental fee associated with the mailboxes if we stopped managing them. But when I talked to the Postmaster, she told me that there was no fee and that they would simply take it over but we would not be able to collect anymore dues from the community. That was okay, I thought, considering we’ve never actually been able to hold onto the dues anyway.

Since that time, the mailboxes were again vandalized and a few of the cabinets rock back and forth when removing ones mail from a blotched attempt to steal them. I shrug my shoulders and don’t give it much attention since giving up the position. I can no longer jokingly put on airs and say I’m the mailbox manager for my community. I’m relieved not to have this job anymore and can go on with my life and only have to deal with the shenanigans on my farm. The job is probably still available if anyone in my neighborhood wants it.

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2 thoughts on “Going Postal in Puna

  1. Wow. A very interested read, but I’m sorry for all the trouble you’ve been through. Each time I’ve driven by those boxes, I’ve thought how fortunate you guys are to have them. I live nearby with no opportunity to receive mail. I’ve been working with the post office to get a P.O. Box for the past 4-5 years. Each time I ask for an update, they tell me they have no record of me ever having applied. I then fill out the paperwork again, wait a year and repeat. Each time they’ve lost the application from the previous year and can’t find me on their list.

    • My guess is that they probably feel, those boxes too would be a target. They can only be placed off of Government Beach Road, not down any side street. But at least there are a few neighbors around in those parts? One of the past Postmasters wanted to push for more boxes in the area but he’s gone now. It may be bigger than the Pahoa post office to grant you permission. Maybe you can put down a concrete pad and buy your own boxes and ask them to deliver? Of course, you could be out some money if that didn’t work. I know our community put down the cement pad. Many people thought the community had purchased the mail box cabinets but I think that wasn’t true–the USPS did. I could ask Manis Martin who lives in Maui.

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