By David K. Shipler
In this age of self-serving politicians and corporate executives, and of resentment toward big business and big government and everything else big that stomps on the little guy, it is worth telling the story of an unassuming man who has put loyalty to a community above financial security. This will not get national attention, but it should.
First, the geography and the logistics: For 28 years, L.J. Hopkins has loaded up his van every day, six days a week, to meet a variety of needs among folks living on two islands off the coast of Maine. He has driven onto the state ferry for its mid-morning run from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island, unloaded his cargo, and returned to the mainland on an afternoon ferry. To get stuff to the other island—Long Island’s town of Frenchboro, which has only two ferry trips a week—L.J. has subcontracted with an island resident who has taken it in his boat from Swan’s to Frenchboro.
L.J.’s work can be pretty frantic. On the mainland he races around picking up urgently needed prescription medicine, engine parts, groceries, and the like. If he can’t get it, you probably don’t need it. He’s even taken two blown tires of mine off to the mainland to get fixed, and brought them back. He transports FedEx and UPS packages. And, most central to his financial well-being, he had a contract to transport the mail to the Swan’s Island post office—until earlier this spring, when small bureaucrats wielding excessive power prevailed. For decades before him, his mother brought the mail as well.
(This account is not exactly the official version, because the Postal Service’s regional public relations spokesman, Stephen N. Doherty, failed to reply to any of my rather pointed questions.)
The shock came when the local postmaster in the mainland town of Southwest Harbor, Mary Saucier, told L.J. that Postal Service regulations prohibited a vehicle from carrying anything other than mail. So, if L.J. wanted his $100,000-a-year contract, he could not take anything else, no FedEx, no UPS, no prescriptions, no groceries, no tools or parts to keep lobstermen’s engines running—nothing but mail.
Now, $100,000 is not small potatoes, even though L.J. has lots of expenses that whittle down the profit, including fuel, ferry fares, and the Frenchboro boat subcontract. But the mail has been his mainstay, because while islanders might hand him 15 or 20 bucks for bringing something over (you offer: he never asks), FedEx and UPS pay only peanuts per package, and wintertime is slow, without the summer people here ordering up a storm. Without the mail contract, he might not be able to keep going.
A lesser man might have taken the deal: mail only, with the guaranteed income. But he would then be abandoning an island community that had come to rely on him for a service that has been completely dependable, as far as I’ve seen.
If there was a glitch now and then during the 28 years, I haven’t heard about it. The mail has been more reliable than in my upscale neighborhood of suburban Maryland, and so have FedEx and UPS. In Maryland, a FedEx driver misdelivered an important document to somebody I didn’t know one block over. On the island, I’ve never lost a package. I’ve always known where to find things he’s left for me—the tires leaning against a wall at the town office, for example. And if you’re nervous about something valuable arriving, you can always meet him when he drives off the ferry. He’ll gladly stop and hand you what you’re expecting.
Only once did a small package appear by an unorthodox route. A friend who’s a lobsterman knocked on our door one evening. He had found it in the back of his pickup, put it in his boat, tied up to our dock, and made sure I got it. L.J., who is nothing if not inventive, must have known that my friend had a bait float close by and would be over here anyway. Island folks might have their feuds and frictions, as all small communities do, but they help each other out.
And that’s what Swan’s Island and Frenchboro residents have been trying to do for L.J. After he refused to sign the post office contract that excluded them from his broader services, they held a benefit supper for him last month. They’ve written to their senators, Angus King and Susan Collins, and Representative Bruce Poliquin, to see if a little legislative muscle could make the Postal Service bend and recognize the unusual circumstances of island life. A notice in the lobby of the town office urges everyone to keep pressing, and its language is revealing in this time of political alienation and anger:
“In situations like this, bureaucrats and politicians just wait until the situation is forgotten . . . It is important that each of us reminds them on a weekly basis of how we have been wronged by an abuse of power. . . . Continue to remain courteous and give them no excuse to dismiss our legitimate claim of injustice to both our island and L.J.”
By regulation, it seems, you can’t mix mail with other cargo in a road vehicle, but you can on a boat—and presumably a plane.
The ferry is a boat, last I noticed, but it’s state-run so the post office is rumored to consider it a highway. In other words, L.J. never leaves the highway, even when he’s sitting in his van on the ferry, watching the sea go by and juggling cell-phone calls from islanders about pick-ups and deliveries.
So, what’s happened? A temporary contractor is carrying the mail to Swan’s Island, adding a van to the ferry just in time for the crowded summer rush. Thank you, Postal Service. For a while, Frenchboro was getting its mail only twice a week, when the ferry came, because of another show of loyalty to L.J.—this by Brian Krafjack, the man who used to run it over from Swan’s in a 34-foot lobster boat he bought for the purpose.
Brian and his wife, Kathy, own the only grocery store on Swan’s, and since they moved here a few years ago have tuned in nicely to a community that can be wary of outsiders. So when the post office asked him to continue transporting the mail, Brian was not about to undermine L.J. He told the post office: no L.J., no Brian.
The post office then found somebody else to take the mail over daily from the mainland, but in a 20-foot boat, which is small enough to be dicey when the wind kicks up, as it did one day a couple of weeks ago. Brian made the run that day in his seaworthy 34, delivering groceries and a pizza (which arrived still warm, he noted), but it was too rough for the mail boat, he said. Warm pizza but no mail. We live in interesting times.