As I walked into the post office, a bum politely said, “You don’t want to go in there.”

“Why not?” I inquired.

“They don’t have anything to drink,” was his answer.

Fifteen minutes later, I understood why he needed a stiff one. I was in one of those long, Saturday-morning lines of people shifting impatiently from foot to foot. Only two windows were open, and the clerks looked depressed and dazed. A small Chinese boy was pushing a tiny silver car through people’s legs, while his mother hissed at him from across the room, unwilling to lose her place in line to retrieve him. Ahead of me was a short, crazed old man with no front teeth, bushy hair, and an overcoat that looked as if it had been rinsed in mud. At one point, he darted ahead of everyone and demanded a three-cent stamp from the clerk, who wearily told him to wait his turn. The guy quickly returned, pointed to the spot he’d just left in front of me, and cackled, “My spot, my spot.”

Behind me I heard a teenager’s voice: “Don’t they have zoos for things like him? He looks like Mongo from the Congo.” But Mongo wasn’t paying attention. I could hear him muttering, “Much too slow, never fast enough. Not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet.”

Farther ahead of me was an elderly woman carrying a box that was wrapped in pink and purple birthday paper and looked big enough to live in. She kept turning around to glare at Mongo, until her eye was caught by a young woman standing directly behind her in a red velvet coat, multicolored scarf, and silver earrings that looked like machine guns. The women looked at each other, smiled, then the elderly one asked in halting English, “Are you Russian?”

The young woman looked annoyed.

“Am I Russian? No, are, you?”

“No,” replied the woman, surprised. “No, I’m Polish.”

“So what made you think I was Russian?”

“Well, because of your red coat. And your scarf.” Then, pointing to a violin case in the woman’s hand, “And your music box. I thought you might be with the circus.”

“The circus?”

“Yes, isn’t the Russian circus in town?”

“I see, and you thought maybe I played violin for the lions.”

“Yes, that’s it!” answered the woman, and they both laughed.

Meanwhile, Mongo was still muttering, “Not yet, not yet, not yet,” so rapidly that it sounded like “Nyet, nyet, nyet.” This whole scene was taking on a Soviet flavor. The women fell into conversation. It turned out that the big box was a doll’s house being mailed to Poland; the young woman was a music teacher. The slowness of the line had Mongo talking louder and louder.

“Oh, this is terrible, this is terrible. They should be reported. I’ve reported them seven times already.”

As we neared the front of the line, I noticed a man standing alone, off to the side of one of the windows. He looked a little like a nervous Buddha, his small potbelly accented by a white shirt with green horizontal stripes. His hand gripped a Ziploc sandwich bag filled with quarters. When he said something to the clerk in an agitated voice, the clerk got up, disappeared into the bowels of the post office, and returned a few minutes later with his supervisor, a tall black woman with bright yellow hair. The moment she saw Buddha she started hollering at him.

“I told you already I’m not giving you anything. How dare you tell this man to bring me out here again?”

That said, she stormed into the back room, her outburst having silenced all talkers except for Mongo, who came out of his private fog, looked over at Buddha, and offered, “There’s a much faster post office at Montrose and Damen, but it’s closed on Saturday.”

As if he’d just been touched with a cattle prod, Buddha started bellowing at the top of his lungs, “I don’t care where it’s faster or where it’s not faster! I’ve lost my money and they’ve got it and I want to get it!”

Dead silence. The clerk looked coldly at Buddha and said, “There’s a big sign on that change machine that says ‘Out of Order,’ so you’re out of luck.” The woman in the red coat nervously shifted her violin from hand to hand. Suddenly Buddha exploded. He started throwing all the forms and fliers on the counter up in the air; he knocked down a big wooden sign that landed on the floor with a thud. Paper was flying everywhere. Then, like a little boy, he ran to the glass exit doors, yelled “Bastards,” and took off.

In a moment everyone was talking at once, giving opinions that ranged from “Call the police” to “All he had to do was ask nicely”–this from the Chinese woman with the little boy. Even Mongo joined in, chanting, “He’ll never get away with it. He’ll never get away with it.”

All the commotion brought out the supervisor, whose yellow hair was practically standing straight up. She started yelling at the clerk, “Am I crazy? Am I crazy? Can’t you see why I want to get out of this place after 20 years? After 20 years of this stuff!” She looked straight at the woman in the red coat and demanded, “Do you think I’m crazy?”

The woman tucked her violin securely under her arm before answering. “No, I don’t think you’re crazy.”