Chances are if you’ve mailed a package or letter in downtown Napa over the past 30+ years, you know who Jose Charles is.
Charles has worked at the Napa Post office, first at the original Franklin station and now the Second Street station, for almost three decades. And on Dec. 18, he’ll stamp the last letters, weigh the last packages and ask customers if there’s “anything fragile, liquid, perishable or potentially hazardous,” for the very last time.
After 33 years with the postal service, Charles is retiring.
“I wish I could stay longer, but it’s time,” said Charles. After all, he’s 57 and officially eligible for retirement from the USPS.
“I gotta move on and do something different,” he said.
That something different will definitely include spending more time with his wife Gina, kids Vanessa and Tony, and two grandkids. Plus, his art.
“Art has always been part of my life since I was a little kid,” Charles said. “Now I can do it full time.”
Locals may already be familiar with Charles’ artwork. Working with other artists, he created the Latino Heritage mural on the outside of the county building on First Street. He also created a mural in Calistoga, exhibited in solo and group shows and taught art through a program called Hispanic Artists of the Valley.
Born in Mexico, Charles and his family moved to Napa when he was about 7 or 8 years old. He’s a Napa High School grad, class of 1982.
His first job out of high school was in construction and concrete, but that was a backbreaking job, this Napan quickly realized. “You can’t sustain that for many years.”
After seeing post office jobs advertised, he applied for an entry-level job as a mail handler. His first assignment was in Oakland where he worked for about nine months. Next Charles worked at the San Francisco post office for about three years. Still living in Napa, he commuted to the job, Charles recalled.
He really wanted to work in Napa, though.
“I bugged the postmaster every day and he finally got tired of hearing from me,” and transferred him to Napa, said Charles with a laugh.
Where he’s been ever since.
Charles said he was hired in Napa as a general clerk but quickly became a window clerk, the same job he’s kept all these years. Aside from a brief stint at the Trancas Station, he’s worked downtown.
The window clerk job suited him fine, said Charles. Unlike letter carriers, he works Monday to Friday and gets his weekends off. It’s warm and dry inside, he said. “I don’t want to deal with dogs or weather, no.”
Yes, he’s on his feet all day but, “it’s part of the job,” said Charles. “It’s like anything, you get used to it.” Plus, he wears special cushioned postal service shoes. Color: black.
Actually, there’s a more personal reason why Charles wanted to be a window clerk, or associate as they are now known.
“When I was younger, my mom used to send registered letters to Mexico,” he said. “We used to go into the Franklin station and I’d translate for her.” So when Charles interviewed for the job and was asked why he wanted to become a window clerk, “I said ‘I want to help people.’ That was what’s got me into it.”
Help people he certainly has. In fact, Charles is so popular, some customers will let the person behind them go first if Charles is busy with another customer, just so they can be helped by Charles.
“I’m outgoing,” he said. “People come in (and) they feel comfortable” asking for him.
“It’s just like if you got to a restaurant you have a server that’s always treated you well,” and you might ask to be seated in their section. “It’s basically the same thing,” he said about his “fans.”
Working downtown all these years, “you get to meet a lot of people, great people,” said Charles. Some have even become friends.
That’s been the best part about his job, said Charles. “Just being around people.”
Charles was assigned to the old Franklin station at 1351 Second St. when one of Napa’s biggest natural disasters hit the area, the 2014 South Napa earthquake.
From the severe damage to the historic building he could tell right away it was bad news, he said. Inside the post office was a shambles.
Charles had been planning to paint a mural inside, he said. He’d been working on sketches when the quake hit. “It was a depressing moment” to realize that wasn’t going to happen, he said.
The damage was so significant that the USPS closed the building and proposed demolishing it. After community opposition to that plan, eventually, Napa developer James Keller bought the building and announced plans for a hotel. The redevelopment has not yet begun and the old post office remains fenced off.
Charles visited the historic post office after it had been closed and said the sight of the abandoned building was heartbreaking. “It was like going back in time.”
Customers now use the downtown post office at 1436 Second St., a modern building that is much smaller in size.
“The old building, it felt like it was my home,” said Charles. “There’s nothing special about the (new) building. No history. But there’s nothing you can do. Life happens.”
Charles recalled a few funny moments from his career, like when people would try to mail drugs like marijuana. “People would try and sneak it through,” he said. But, the smell was always a dead giveaway.
One customer wanted to mail his grandma’s ring but make sure it arrived safely. “We ended up insuring it for $125,000,” said Charles. “It must have had a lot of carats. But it got there.”
How did Charles deal with long lines and frustrated customers during the busy Christmas season?
“I had a supervisor (who) told me just deal with one customer at a time. I took that to heart and don’t look at the lines,” he said. “Just help the person in front of you.”
Charles is used to hearing complaints and the occasional compliment about the USPS. And he can’t go anywhere without people recognizing him.
After all these years, “people know who I am,” he said modestly. He figures over the past decades, “I’ve probably seen most of Napa” at the post office at one point or another.
Did he ever want to move up in the ranks and become, say, the postmaster of Napa County?
“Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed. Not him. “I like to leave the office and just forget about” work at the end of the day, Charles said. “Managers, they take everything home. It’s not worth the stress.”
When asked what he would be thinking on his last day at the USPS, Charles paused and then said: “Happy thoughts. It’s been a long road and I’m happy to be at the end.”
To his many, many, many customers over the years, “I want to thank them for being supportive of the Postal Service,” said Charles. “I’m glad I was able to help them.”
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You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or firstname.lastname@example.org