A mailman’s first-class farewell


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For 20 years, he delivered the mail – along with good cheer and bundles of joy, hope and love – to the residents of the Upper East Side


Photos



  • Veteran letter-carrier Ilsoo Choi outside the Gracie Station Post Office on East 85th Street on Thursday, July 26 as he prepares to deliver the mail for the last time along his route on East 88th Street. After 20 years on the job, the postman sent his patrons a farewell letter before retiring. Photo: Douglas Feiden




  • Postal worker Ilsoo Choi delivers the mail with his trademark smile on East 88th Street between First and Second Avenues on Thursday, July 26, his last day on the job after 20 years as a letter-carrier on the Upper East Side. Photo: Douglas Feiden




No one knows East 88th Street between First and Third Avenues — and its 16 businesses, 56 residential buildings, 643 delivery addresses and roughly 1,400 renters and homeowners — better than Ilsoo Choi.

He’s friendly with the “kindly local billionaire,” though he’s too discrete to name him. He’s encountered “countless doctors and professors,” a foreign diplomat — and a healthy number of down-to-earth celebrities.

Veteran Fox TV anchor Rosanna Scotto is one of them. She lives on one of the two long blocks that comprise his territory. And she couldn’t be any sweeter. “She’s simply a beautiful, beautiful lady,” Choi said.

He’s befriended the area’s dispossessed, too, like the homeless woman — “Nancy,” she called herself — who sat by the Vietnamese restaurant on 88th Street at Second Avenue. “She was my mentor,” he said.

A former schoolteacher who lived in the East 90s and fell on hard times, Nancy was a “beautiful soul,” he said. “We’d talk every day for seven or eight years. She was lovely. And then one day, she just disappeared.”

The 62-year-old Choi knows them all — and he just said his goodbyes to many of them — because after 20 years as a letter-carrier on the Upper East Side, including 12 years walking the same route on 88th Street, he is starting what he calls a “new chapter as a retiree.”

Nancy always knew this day would come: “I’d sometimes try to give her a few bucks, but she’d say to me, ‘Choi, save it for your retirement!’” he recalled. A tad wistfully, he said he’d have loved to say goodbye to her one last time.

Warmth, optimism, kind-heartedness and a love for humanity are not the qualities one typically associates with the employees of the United States Postal Service. With his trademark smile and distinctive ponytail, Choi proves just how wrong such assumptions can be.

In a “Dear Friends” letter he placed earlier this month in the apartment building mailboxes of about 40 of his favorite postal patrons, he summed up what he’d learned, what he’d seen — and how the residents of two multicultural blocks on East 88th Street had enriched his life:

“Interacting with people of various ethnicities, cultures and religious backgrounds, I have gained a love, respect and appreciation for humanity,” he wrote. “I’ve interacted with both the wealthy and the poor in Manhattan, and I believe that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, and about life, when we open up to the world around us.”

English is not the first language of the Korean-born Choi, and he says his 33-year-old daughter, Gina Choi, a church minister in Stamford, Conn., was a most attentive editor, tidying up his spelling and grammar as he crafted the missive.

“It is in this country that I’ve gained countless blessings over the years,” he wrote.

And he concluded, “In this land, in this city, I’ve learned and gained so much by encountering each of you, and I consider my life full and abundant. It is my prayer and hope that your lives will also be full of peace and joy in your everyday encounters with the world.

“It has been a privilege serving you as your mailman.” The letter was signed, “Farewell, Mailman Choi.”

Recipients were deeply moved. Nancy Ploeger, the former president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and an 88th Street resident, said that during “these trying times” with the leadership in Washington, the Choi letter speaks to the nation’s better angels.

“It tells us that this is still America, that’s what the letter means to me,” said Ploeger, who stepped down from the Chamber in 2016 after 21 years and is now executive director of the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge Foundation.

“This is the America that I know. This is the America that I love. This is the America that the majority of our citizens know and love and care about it,” she added.

FROM SUNGLASSES TO SPECIAL DELIVERY

Born in South Korea and raised in Seoul, Choi has devoted his life to public service, first in the Korean Army, then as a firefighter in his homeland. When his future wife, Linda Kim, moved to New York to work in its nail salons in 1982, he made the snap decision to follow her aboard.

“I immigrated to the U.S. to follow the people I love,” he wrote in the letter.

It wasn’t easy. In an interview on July 26, his last day delivering the mail, Choi said that, “Like a lot of immigrants, I had a lot of jobs.” He worked on construction sites, and at one point, peddled sunglasses on the sidewalks. “I learned English on the streets of New York,” he said.

After 17 years, he finally achieved the stability and security he sought.

He went to work for the post office in 1999 and was assigned to the Gracie Station P.O., at 229 East 85th Street, which has been his home base ever since. Choi’s average delivery is an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 pieces per day.

“His customers love him,” said Anthony Carlo, who is the USPS station manager at Gracie. “He’s happy, reliable, hard-working, and that letter of his was straight from the heart,” he added. In 32 years on the job, Carlo said, he’s never seen a mailman post a farewell letter to his patrons.

Asked what he liked most about wheeling his mail trolley up and down East 88th Street every day, Choi cited two fixtures of daily street life — the children and the diversity.

“At first, I see a little baby,” he said outside the entrance to the Gracie Station as he prepared to walk his route for the final time. “Then, the child starts to walk.... A few years pass, and suddenly it’s, ‘Oh, Choi, I’m going to school now.’”

There was a certain sameness in Korea, he said. Not on the East Side:

“Where I grew up, everybody had the same language, same culture, same background, same way of thinking, same way of looking at the world,” he said. “Here, it’s all different people, different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions.

“We are not the same, everybody is different, and I love it,” he added. “Immigration made this country great and special.”

As he pushed his mail cart on that last trip down 88th Street, Choi paused briefly on his rounds as neighbors embraced him or said their affectionate goodbyes, and at one point, as he took his leave of one woman, he said to her, “I love, love, love your country.”

And he repeated, “This is a great, great, great country.”

invreporter@strausnews.com





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