This is the last in a series of stories on the people who do the behind-the-scenes work of the holidays.
The envelope was addressed to No. 2223, but after nearly 24 years on the route, Dudley Bradburn knew it didn't match the name on the Christmas card. He filed it where it belonged, with the mail for No. 2322 and a certain Michael Earley. Catching mis-addressed cards is one way he serves his customers.
But not the only way this time of year.
Take the time he hid a gift of golf clubs with a neighbor rather than deliver them when the intended recipient was home. Or the year a customer asked him to look out for Maryland basketball game tickets he bought as a surprise for his wife. The woman was home when they arrived, so Bradburn delivered them to the man's office.
"You have to knock. Otherwise, you've blown their Christmas," he says. "You gotta be like a little snoop sometimes."
A recent Monday morning finds 54-year-old Bradburn in his three-sided cubby in a U.S. Postal Service annex in Catonsville, sorting mail along with about 50 other carriers. The flood of catalogs has ebbed, replaced by Christmas cards; it wouldn't be possible to deliver them without a machine that sorts six trays of letters for his route - three hours of manual labor in the old days.
He delivers 3,000 letters a day usually, but 4,000 this month.
"Here's one for 225," he says, holding up a letter and crossing off the number. "I know it's 235."
The annex where he begins his route is filled by carts piled high with packages from retailers like Harry & David, Pittman & Davis and Amazon.com. He sorts them by street, and he has 22 of them.
If he notices a person getting a lot of cards, he holds one up to the light to see if it's for a birthday or bereavement, then knocks on the door to offer a "Happy birthday" or "I'm sorry." He sends a card, too, mailing it with stamps he keeps in a drawer in his sorting space.
"My job is to deliver mail, but you've got to deliver yourself, too," he said, stuffing an AARP Bulletin into someone's mail slot. "You've got to show them a little bit of God's love."
He used to walk most of his route, but with more mail to deliver, he now drives most of it. Still, people come out to meet him. After he sorts his mail, he loads his truck and heads for some side streets off Edmondson Avenue.
The other day, no one was at a house when he brought a package from England that the resident, a police officer, had been expecting. At the end of his route, he stopped by again, and this time, the man answered. He was delighted: The package contained toy soldiers like those he had painted with his father. Now he could continue the tradition with his son.
"Everybody is looking for something," Bradburn says. "When you hand it to someone, it's like delivering joy in a package."
Last month, Mary Lynn Forte, a teacher at Westchester Elementary School, reported missing one box of special cookies that her Italian mother had baked for her children and mailed a week earlier from Pittsburgh. There was money in the box, too.
Forte was at school a few days later when she was paged. At the front office, she found Bradburn "grinning from ear to ear" as he announced, "I found your package." He delivered it then, rather than leaving it outside her house in the rain.
Forte is a newcomer to the area, but many customers were raising kids when Bradburn started his current route in 1981. Now when he brings some of them Social Security checks, he rings the bell or knocks on the door. He doesn't wait, just knocks, in a kind of secret code customers understand.
This time of year, if he doesn't see someone, he makes a point of knocking to say, "Merry Christmas."
Last week he took fruit to a 90-year-old woman. She opened the door for him despite instructions from her daughter not to open it for anybody. "I knew it must be you," she told Bradburn when he took the perishable fruit inside for her. She reminded him again of his failure to show at her 85th and 90th birthday parties, and he reminded her that every year, her birthday falls on his wedding anniversary.
If anyone on Bradburn's route hires a house sitter when they go away, they tell him, because they know he'll call police if he sees suspicious activity. It's the same when the mail backs up. "The second day they don't come out, well, I've got to take some action," Bradburn said. About 15 years ago, an unconscious customer got help thanks to his watchfulness.
John Burk, 40, and his wife and three kids regard Bradburn as a mainstay of their lives. "We're not moving because we want to keep you as our mailman," Burk regularly tells him.
It's not unusual for Bradburn to show up at a funeral parlor when there's a death on his route. On Sundays, he mentions the names of sick customers during prayer time at his church. In summer when kids are outside playing, Bradburn throws a football back and forth with them a few times, enough to show he knows they are there. Once or twice when parents were late, he's taken kids off the school bus and to a neighbor's house. In return, he gets banana bread, pumpkin bread and cookies.
Some people on his route still get 25 Christmas cards a week, he says, but as younger people move into the neighborhood, written greetings are losing favor as much as mail carriers on foot. He thinks it's a shame.
"When you call someone, you hang up the phone and say, 'Now what did they say?' With a card, you know what they said, it's there."
His own cards were mailed early. Each customer got one, delivered in person.