“What do you call an Austin musician whose girlfriend just dumped him?” Tom Bowser joked as he stood outside a post office. “Homeless,” Bowser said with a laugh.
Bowser, who has worked for the United States Post Office in Austin for 36 years, doesn’t immediately show his age. He moves quickly, talks fast and peppers his conversation with jokes like the one above. But when Bowser remembers seeing artists like B.B. King and the Kinks in long-gone Austin music venues like Liberty Lunch and Armadillo World Headquarters, it becomes clear that he’s seen more of Austin than most UT students can imagine.
At one time, Bowser was a UT student.
“I didn’t get very far,” Bowser said when asked what he studied at UT. “My daughter was born and they put me on the midnight shift at [the post office] and I just couldn’t do it all.”
Bowser began working for the post office in October 1976 at the Main station downtown at 300 E. 9th, because he needed a job. At that time, Austin was a city of 308,952 people, and the post office was very different.
“There was a lot of manual work and there wasn’t so much sorting,” Bowser said. “We would sort mail by hand and key it in a machine, whereas now it goes by a machine that sorts letters.”
When he started there, the downtown post office had three or four letter sorting machines that the employees would key the mail on. Now, nobody keys mail according to Bowser.
Back then, the post office saw more personal correspondence than it does today. It wasn’t unusual for Bowser to notice the back-and-forth between two people who frequently wrote each other. Now, he and his coworkers see more parcels, with floods of correspondence on major holidays (Mother’s Day in particular). Most of the P.O. boxes lining the walls of the post office’s back room now have thin pieces of white tape crossed over them, indicating that they are no longer rented out by the people or businesses who used to pay for them.
In 2007, Bowser transferred to the station on the UT campus. The move was good for him.
Downtown, Bowser said, customers were “busy, busy, busy, and a lot of people were just all business. Here? It’s so different. Everybody’s so easy-going.” Bowser noted, almost proudly, that at the UT station people display a generous “no-you-go-ahead” behavior in line, something he said would never happen downtown. If somebody looked down, somebody would go ahead of them.”
Bowser is a friendly man; partially because of his own gregariousness and partially because of the faculty and staff who frequent the post office, Bowser has made a lot of friends in the five years he has been there. He remembers having a paleontology professor come into the post office and identify a fossil for him that he had found in his free time. Bowser also spoke enthusiastically about an English professor with whom he exchanges books, and he remembered the stories of the Iranian Revolution told to him by a former faculty member in the Middle Eastern Studies department.
“I mean, students, faculty, staff, everybody is so nice,” Bowser said. “I think people [here] are really nice and have a good attitude. I love working down here too.”
When closing up the post office last Monday, Bowser noticed a frequent customer and made sure to ask him about his roommate, family and Thanksgiving break, all of which Bowser knows about from chatting with the man while he gets his mail. There are several customers of the post office who will miss Bowser come January when he will take the severance package offered to post office employees who meet the age requirement.
“I’m not real comfortable [with leaving the job], but that’s what I’m going to be doing,” Bowser said.
When Bowser started working at the UT station, there were eight employees. Now, there are two and a half. Bowser has had to take on extra duties, as has everyone in the post office.
“We don’t have eight people anymore. And that’s mainly because of the budget, not because of the mail,” Bowser said.
In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which requires the postal service to prefund the retirement health benefits of all its employees, passed and plunged the postal service into debt.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens down here next,” Bowser said.
Come January, he will be looking for a job, and the regular customers at the post office will no doubt be looking for him.
Printed on Thursday, November 29, 2012 as: So long, Mr. Postman