A Package From Home.

Last week I received a written notice that a package from the U.S. had arrived for me at our local post office. The notice listed several attempted deliveries, but nobody had notified me previously.

Passport and official package notice in hand, I went to the post office. The lighted red letters on a wall sign behind the counter signaled that Client 322 was being served.

An elderly lady, seated with her cane, informed me: "Man, ..." (Russians no longer refer to each other as Comrade and have resorted to calling each other "man" and "woman." It's democratic, if not exactly elegant, and it works.) " ... the client numbering machine isn't working. Although two clerks are serving customers, its a general line. I'm last in line."

(A general line means that anyone in line had the right to go to either clerk in case his turn came. In Russia it's important to know just what kind of a line you're standing in.)

A handwritten sign on the counter informed all customers: For technical reasons we're accepting no packages for mailing. The Administration. Since I was picking up a package, I was comforted by the sign, settled in and for a moment became posledniy, or last in line.

The lady with the cane proved to be a skilled line manager, abruptly fending off any other Russian who tried to worm his way to the counter ahead of others with, "You there, man with the red shirt, we've got a general line here!" and the like.

That, too, was comforting, for Russian lines have a way of devolving into chaos, with people suddenly reappearing out of nowhere and insisting that somebody in line was holding their place or newcomers suddenly discovering friends in line. In these instances your wait drags on endlessly. The authority in her voice kept all in check.

I've encountered similar self-appointed officers of public order in special mini-van taxis called marshrutki. Here they oversee communications between the driver and the customers. Driver: "Anybody for Kantemirovskiy Bridge?" Lady Field Marshal: "They're all silent. Drive on!"

After a half-hour my turn came and I handed the package notice to the clerk. "We don't give out packages here," she growled. In reply to my question of where do they hand out packages, she offhandedly said, "Go out the door, turn right and then turn right again."

Those directions took me to a courtyard of parked cars, mysterious doors and no trace of any post office. I approached two women who were on a smoke break in front of a metal door that had a poster with a laser-printed sign pasted on it:

"Open from 9:00 to 17:00.

Lunch break 14:00 - 15:00."

No mention of what was open during these hours.

I asked one of the women if she knew where the post office gave out packages. "Just a minute," she said and ducked through the door with my slip of paper. And sure enough, in less than a minute she came back smiling with my birthday present in hand.

My in-laws had send me David Cay Johnston's new book, Free Lunch: How the wealthiest Americans enrich themselves at government expense (and stick you with the bill). Could he be writing about Russia, too? I'll have to see.