When Christine Hannon was getting married a few years ago, she found herself at her local post office on East Sixth Street a lot.
“There was a ton of stuff I had to get sent out, you know, save the dates, wedding invitations, returning random gifts or exchanging things,” she says.
And while she was there, she couldn’t help but notice the chatty guy who worked there — seemingly the only guy who worked there. She knew his name was John, since most people who came in called him by name.
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"I feel like ... John is the embodiment of Austin. I mean he's just cool and everyone seems to know him,” Christine says. “He's just not your traditional kind of guy, and it's not a traditional place to walk into either for, you know, being a USPS.”
She wanted to be one of John’s people – folks in the neighborhood he knows by name. But she’s kind of shy, so she didn’t know where to start.
So, Christine got in touch with KUT's "Hi, Who Are You?" project. That’s where people tell us about people they don’t really know, but who make their neighborhood a better place to live in in some way, big or small. Then we introduce them.
A line of customers is waiting to buy stamps or drop off packages as Christine and I show up at the post office. It’s a narrow little storefront tucked between a trendy restaurant and a hipster bar. Quiet blues music drifts out from somewhere behind the counter where John Lawhon is standing.
He’s got a red beard, slicked-back hair, glasses. He talks easily with each person in line. He greets some by name; most seem to know him.
When it's time for his lunch break, he closes the metal curtain that blocks off the counter. The place just kind of shuts down during lunch, since he’s the only one there.
He grabs some food, and we sit down to talk.
John says his parents met in Austin. His dad was on a “three-day acid trip down the Colorado River” when he spotted John’s mom, who was going to UT.
"He saw my mother dancing in a circle with a bunch of girls,” John says. "And he was like, 'You know, I got to know her.' So, they met and I'm a product of that."
John grew up in Travis Heights, but the family eventually moved out to Bastrop County. They didn’t have much money.
“My dad was, you know, pretty much an alcoholic,” John says. His dad worked as a bouncer at the Armadillo World Headquarters – and got stabbed once, according to John. He ran around with Townes van Zandt.
John moved back to Austin in the late '80s, when he turned 20. The economy at the time wasn't great, and he had a hard time finding work. He wound up getting a job with the Postal Service.
It’s been 29 years now.
"It's a steady job, it's; it's a working man's job," he says. "You’re never going to get rich but, you know, you can own a house – well, I don’t know about now but back then.”
He came to the East Sixth post office about seven years ago. When he got here, he says, it had kind of a reputation for being unfriendly.
"There was a few disgruntled people that worked up there, to put it mildly,” John says. "And I just decided that I didn't want to work in a place that was hostile and angry. So, I just started waving at people and ... they started saying 'hi' back.”
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It’s a simple gesture, but it makes an impression.
"I think people, they crave or they long for someone out in the world to just, you know, say hello," he says.
John admits sometimes folks are annoyed by his conversations slowing down the line a bit. But most people are OK with it. Those are John’s people.
“The people that really have the Austin mentality — that are not trying to step on everybody to get ahead," he says. "You know, people that are trying to have moments with people.”
Christine asks John about the craziest thing that’s ever happened to him at the post office. He hesitates a moment, deciding whether to tell about “good crazy” or “bad crazy.”
He tells us about a woman who used to come into the post office.
"She'd come and just wash my windows, like, all the time,” John says. “She had a window washing business [and] she would come and just clean my windows."
Her name was Kim Terrazas.
"She was the kindest sweetest lady. And she just … cared. And that really just rocked my world that someone would just come in to say ‘hello' and bring me some tacos," he says. "And it really kind of caused me to re-evaluate my own life and my job. She was just doing this out of the kindness of her heart.”
Kim had cancer. But she was doing well, John says. Then, this past summer, John took his kids on vacation, and when he got back he got a text telling him she’d died.
“The last time I saw her she was doing so well," he says. "I mean she was great. She was happy. I just couldn't believe it. I mean it just like stunned me, you know, that …”
He takes a long pause.
“… something like that could happen. Yeah, I'm still trying to understand it.”
It strikes me when he’s telling this story — John has a deep connection with the people who come into his post office. Deeper than I would imagine your average postal worker.
"There is a lot of postal workers that care,” John says. "You know, a lot of people look at postal workers as the enemy and so it's easy to get into this mentality of 'I'm just here clocking in and clocking out.’ And when you're personally invested in something, you have to let things affect you and you affect other people when you become invested. That makes you feel like a human being.”
We’ve kept John too long. When we get back to the post office lobby, a line of people has gathered, waiting for him to re-open. He greets some of them by name. They’re happy to see him, even if they had to wait a minute.
Got a tip? Email Matt at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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