Sometimes the only thing you can do is learn to dance better.

Small-town life isn’t for everyone. In fact, even for those who love it, there are aspects that are downright annoying. The thing is, every place – regardless of its size or location has a ‘thing’. It’s generally easier to recognize the ‘things’ when you’re new to town. For example, I’ve lived in cold climates where, to some, it was considered to be a weakness to turn the heat on before Halloween – a completely normal purview to them. I’ve lived in hot climates where people bragged about having the A/C on and the doors open for the Super Bowl – again, normal for them. I’ve lived in areas where you’re only as good as your chosen college sports team’s results and I’ve lived in areas where you are your job – your worth practically defined by your title. I’ve lived in areas where ‘Jesus!’ is a word expressed as an adjective and in other areas where ‘Jesus’ is spoken with reverence as if in prayer. I’m still learning the nuances of my new hometown in remote northern New Mexico but without a doubt, one of its ‘things’ is the challenge of consistent mail delivery.

The back story and the dance.

Yes, I know. This is the 21st century, and even in a town with a population of 5,000, we have USPS, UPS, and Fed-Ex. But it’s not the same USPS, UPS, and Fed-Ex you’re likely accustomed to in a larger town – and its eons removed from a city the size of Austin, Texas where I moved from. Next day delivery is unheard of. Two-day delivery? Maaaaaybe but I’ve not yet heard of that happening. Mostly, you wait at least a full week – for express delivery that you pay extra for. Amazon Prime? Don’t waste your money – it’s not even an option when you place an order.

Almost no one has the actual USPS mail delivered to their home. That would be like having a Lowes, Target or a Trader Joes within 90 miles…not reality. So no, those USPS trucks that deliver mail to a mailbox at the edge of the driveway with curbs and manicured green grass isn’t a thing here. Most everyone has a P.O. Box for regular ol’ mail that arrives in regular, polite, standard-sized don’t-push-it envelopes. But for packages? Like a large manila envelope or egads, a box? Well, to consistently receive a package, there’s a dance you must first learn. Except there’s not a place to take the dance lessons. And the steps aren’t written down. There isn’t an instructor. My guess is some people don’t even know there’s a dance taking place.

When you decide to venture into the dance without guides or lessons, you must be prepared to fall flat on your face. Because you will – it’s all part of learning the steps you can’t possibly anticipate. Like when to use the P.O. Box address, and when to use the post office physical address with the street address written with exact precision (don’t spell out Norte, you must only use N) so no words or numbers are pushed to the second line. Because everyone knows they don’t read the second line. Really. They don’t read the second line of the address. It may as well not be there – and more often times than not – the second line isn’t included. Not here and I don’t know why – after all, I”m still learning this particular dance. Other times the second line inexplicably jumps to the top line so an address that would have a street name and perhaps an apartment number on the second line will only show, ‘Apartment C.’ Your package gets returned and the dance continues

There’s not a thing you can do but learn to dance better – or move elsewhere.

UPS or Fed Ex will deliver to your front step and that works well as long as you know which mail carrier will be used when you place your order. And you usually don’t. Ever order on Amazon? You don’t get to choose the carrier – sometimes its USPS and other times it’s not. How do you know? You don’t. So, you do the dance. The better you know the steps, the more likely your package will arrive where and when you want it to. I’ve fallen flat on my face twice – packages returned because of the whole, ‘second line‘ thing.

It’s a dance. If you can’t laugh and try to dance along, you’re better off in a convenient next-day delivery city. You don’t have to dance in those places. You don’t even have it get out of your chair. Although without a doubt they’ll have their own ‘thing’ – every place does.

The saga of GRAY CAT TREE LARGE.

The thing is, the dance is going on even when you don’t think you’re on the dance floor. I opened my side door one day to see a very large box propped outside. It was addressed to a rather unique name that I couldn’t begin to pronounce and that was clearly not mine and an address that was not mine although part of the street name had the same letters. Across the large cardboard box on all four sides was stamped in bold, capital letters: GRAY CAT TREE LARGE. There was little question as to its contents. The box was heavy and at least three feet tall. There was a phone number on the label so I called the number. I called the number many times. No one answered. Ever. I had no idea why I had received the GRAY CAT TREE LARGE and I wanted to return the box so the rightful recipient would receive the GRAY CAT TREE LARGE. But then I live in a small, remote town not known for all of those modern-day conveniences like being able to return a package that doesn’t belong to you.

I was learning more dance steps. After far too many calls and an inordinate amount of time invested for a package that didn’t belong to me, the local UPS store agreed to return it if I brought it to them. I dragged the large, heavy box to my car and loaded it in the back. I arrived at the UPS store in our shut-down small town. That meant I had to get the heavy box out of the car and stand in line outside the store until it was empty enough to enter. Dragging the box six feet each time someone entered the store and I was allowed to inch closer. Finally, I reached the doorway, had my temperature taken, signed the contact tracing form, and dragged the box in. With concerted effort and far too many questions in the “why are you returning it, what is wrong with it, so then why are you returning it?”, realm, I was able to give them the package that didn’t belong to me. At least they hadn’t asked what was in it – that was obvious. I pulled out of the parking lot thinking that I had done a good deed and the saga of the GRAY CAT TREE LARGE was over.

The dance ain’t over ‘till it’s over.

Two days later I opened my front door (a different door this time), to find a box addressed to that same unique name that was not mine, and an address that was not mine. Across the large cardboard box was stamped in bold, capital letters on all four sides, GRAY CAT TREE LARGE. “Oh my god, it’s back“, I thought. Once again I called the number on the label – it just rang and rang like before. But this time, I reconsidered the efforts I made the first time, “Nope, I did my good deed, I sent it back and they sent another one. Isn’t there some sort of saying about if you let something go and it comes back to you it’s yours?” I decided to keep it. I have a cat and frankly, I’ve always thought those cat trees were a bit…not my style. But, I decided it was time for GRAY CAT TREE LARGE to become my style. I dragged the heavy box inside, opened it up to find what seemed like 200 pieces to assemble. I spent an evening assembling GRAY CAT TREE LARGE, for my cat Pine Cone. She seemed to know it was hers. She watched intently.

Somewhat puzzled, I noticed after completing my version of the assembly I had two large pieces and far too many screws left over. GRAY CAT TREE LARGE was wobbly. Pine Cone didn’t care. She loves GRAY CAT TREE LARGE, wobbles, and all. I found a place for it and didn’t give the saga of GRAY CAT TREE LARGE any more thought until a few days later. I once again opened my side door (back to the side door now) on a cold, Sunday morning to find, sitting on my step, a box with a label of that oddly-spelled name that was not mine, and an address that was not mine. Across the large cardboard box was stamped in bold, capital letters on all four sides, GRAY CAT TREE LARGE.

I thought to myself, “Oh my god, it won’t go away! I can’t get rid of it. What do I do now?” It was a quiet, unseasonably cold Sunday morning – the birds were taking the morning off, there wasn’t a sound in my small town. I decided on the spot, to take a different approach. I was determined to learn a new dance step. I wrapped up in my heavy coat, gloves, and hat, got my dog, Gracie, and put her fleece jacket on, and together, we set out to finally, ultimately, find the address of whoever was continuing to order, yet not receive, GRAY CAT TREE LARGE.

Common sense says to go to the address on the label. It just doesn’t work that way – part of the address was cut off due to that ‘second line’ thing. I live in a walkable village and so I left the box on my step and set out with Gracie to find the address. We walked through the sleepy village and I found an address that was close to the one on the label. As I approached I saw a sure sign and couldn’t believe it had been this easy! Four cats were sleeping together on the front porch. It was cold and the cats didn’t move much, curled up for warmth. I knocked on the door keenly aware of the sour, skunk-smelling odor coming from the cracks in the door. A person came to the door, very stoned and very polite. I explained about the package anticipating that he would be excited to know that I have his GRAY CAT TREE LARGE. He explained that he hadn’t ordered GRAY CAT TREE LARGE but seemed intrigued that someone stopped by a few days ago asking if he had inadvertently received the box. I took that as a good sign – I was close! The person who ordered GRAY CAT TREE LARGE had been on this very porch!

I thanked him for his time and started to understand the dilemma of mail delivery in the historic area of an already historic town where I live. This is not easy without the full address – it’s not easy with the full address! There aren’t a lot of street signs, the speed limit tops out at 20 and most everyone drives about 5 mph because it’s impossible to drive much faster on these old horse trails. There’s even a permanent handmade sign asking people to be mindful of the narrow road with a smiley face – there is no possible way even two compact cars could pass on one section of the road. I started feeling more empathy for our mail deliverers.

Before he closed his door, I asked the stoned man if he knew where the person lived who asked about GRAY CAT TREE LARGE and he said no but pointed me to a cross street that he thought he had come from. Off we went. I heard the church bells chime 9 am knowing my sleepy little town wasn’t likely to wake up for hours.

I played detective. The label on the package was a disaster because it had been cut off. My biggest clue was an apartment or casita letter, “C”. That and the four letters in the street name were all I had to go on. I laughed at how easy this would be if there were actual mailboxes with names and addresses on them – I was enjoying the dance. Down the winding, narrow historic horse trail of a road we walked. I knocked on doors, never finding anyone. The church bells chimed again on the half-hour. I had yet to see a car drive by. Then I spotted a courtyard that seemed to open up to many casitas. “I’ve got to be getting close.” Gracie was beginning to enjoy the walk with all new things to smell and pee on and I let her savor her experience – why rush, we had the town to ourselves. Cars were parked all along the pathways to the casitas and trying to be courageous, I knocked on doors that never opened. I was moved by all the nuances of the doors – beautiful ornate doors many with arches and bells over them and intricate carvings. I wondered why there isn’t a ‘Doors of Taos’ book. I felt like I was in Europe.

With no signs of life or addresses anywhere, I began to think, “What am I going to do with another one?” I took Gracie and headed back out of the courtyard thinking, “What if I drive up to this area with the box and just leave it?” It seemed like something out of a weird Lifetime Movie where the person leaves the baby on the doorstep. “What have I become, my god, I’m literally thinking about how to drop a random box and drive away.” The bells chimed again, 10 am.

As we turned and headed out of the courtyard, I noticed movement in a small casita – the front door was ajar. I walked up and gently knocked, pulling my mask up with Gracie at my side, Anita came to the door. I introduced myself and we chatted, she had not ordered GRAY CAT TREE LARGE. She invited me in and showed me around her adorable Airbnb while Gracie sniffed even more new things. Anita told me to let Gracie off her leash and we watched my little dog sniff and explore as we talked and visited. The thing that I love about this lifestyle is that despite not having all the modern conveniences, people have time – and to me, time is the more valuable asset. Anita had all the time in the world to listen to the saga of GRAY CAT TREE LARGE and I was aware of how fun it was to tell her the crazy-making story. We laughed loudly, like old friends and she shrugged her shoulders and suggested I try the courtyard across the street. “It has a large gate but just push on it and you’ll be able to walk in. There used to be addresses on it and I think there were lots of letters. Maybe you’ll find a C.” I was reminded of the small town I grew up in and once as I was learning to drive, the instructor told me to turn left where the apple orchard used to be. I had no idea where that was – later I learned the apple orchard had been gone for nearly 40 years. Every place has a ‘thing’. I laughed to myself and walked over to the large, ornate gate where the addresses and letters used to be.

I’ve met Death and I know where he lives.

Sure enough, the gate opened and I walked into a beautiful, historic courtyard. I didn’t see a ‘C’ but I noticed something. In the window of a casita sat a small cat watching me – mostly watching Gracie – but it seemed like a newly discovered clue – something finally felt right, I was truly excited with anticipation – could this be the place? I walked up and knocked on the door. A sheepish looking man in pajamas promptly opened the door, clearly surprised to see the masked woman and her dog standing on his front step on a frigid Sunday morning. Rather than introduce myself and explain the story, something told me to just ask it right out. So instead of saying hello or greeting him I just blurted out, “Did you order a GRAY CAT TREE LARGE?” and he immediately threw up his hands and proclaimed emphatically, “YES!”

It was as if he and I were old friends. He in his pajamas and an ill-fitting leather coat scraped the ice off the windshield and both of us wearing masks jumped in his truck on the cold morning with the windows rolled down (hand cranks, not automatic). Gracie sat on my lap as we rode to my house where GRAY CAT TREE LARGE was sitting on my step.

He explained to me about his odd name which is the literal Hebrew translation for ‘death’. He explained that his mother liked the word and gave him the unique name but they didn’t know it meant death until he was in the 4th grade and a classmate told him. I never thought I would be so happy to find Death – who happens to be a really nice guy. We laughed about his name and he said that most of his friends call him Death, “Well, then Death it is, I’m Haven and this is Gracie.”

He then told me his story of ordering GRAY CAT TREE LARGE, re-ordering it, and finally re-ordering it a third time while he fought and argued with the company because they were told the package was delivered yet he never received it. We both looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Taos.”  We may not yet know the steps, but we both knew there was a dance – this is one of Taos’ ‘things’.

We got out of his truck and Death picked up the box and told me that it weighed 30 lbs which is why he wasn’t sure how to order or have it delivered – not that he had a choice. I understood. He hadn’t yet learned those dance steps. We nodded knowingly in only the way you can understand if you’ve joined in the dance because the address had been deleted – the second line was the only line – rendering Death’s casita address nearly impossible to find.

As Death started to pull out of my driveway he turned to wave and as Gracie ran into the warmth of the house I asked, “Is there a small cat tree or are they all large?” and he replied, “I could have ordered the small one but I wanted her to have the large one. She was a stray who showed up on my front porch a couple of months ago and I wanted to give her something that was just for her. And she’s gray and I thought she would like it”, and with that he pulled back onto the road, heading home, finally, with his GRAY CAT TREE LARGE.

I walked back into my house and was amazed to see that Pine Cone was sleeping on top of her wobbly version of her very own GRAY CAT TREE LARGE. I thought of Death assembling his GRAY CAT TREE LARGE for the little cat who found him. It was a very happy moment.

We live in the historic district, of a small historic town. Mail delivery hasn’t caught up yet and while it can be annoying and frustrating, it’s also one of the things that endear us to each other. We have the luxury of more time here and sometimes that luxury comes at the cost of convenience. It takes time to slow down and learn the steps and doing so is well worth it, if for nothing else so that people like Death and his little cat can have their GRAY CAT TREE LARGE.

Thanks for reading,

~ Haven