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A Postman's Final Salute: A Celebration of America and New York City

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/2/2018 Josh Barbanel
Shinji Kagawa standing in front of a store © Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Mailman Choi’s love affair with America reached full bloom delivering the mail to 643 addresses on East 88th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“It is in this country that I’ve gained countless blessing over the years,” Mr. Choi wrote in an unusual note he inserted into dozens of mailboxes along his carrier route in his final days before his retirement from the U.S. Postal Service at the end of this month.

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He signed the note Mailman Choi. He is leaving the post office after a career of close to 20 years, all at the same branch on East 85th Street, including 11 years wheeling his mail cart along the same two-block route on East 88th Street, where he said he came to appreciate and celebrate the diversity of New York and America.

“I’ve gained a love, respect and appreciation for humanity,” he said of his work as a mailman, in his farewell note.

The letter caught the attention of many people who live along his route and it has been shared widely and warmly. “I almost cried when I found out he was leaving”, said Ida Pedras, standing in the doorway of a five-story tenement walk-up near First Avenue on Wednesday. “The man is a wonderful person, always smiling courteous and the mail was always in the right box.“

Mailman Choi described in his note getting to know a billionaire, a TV news anchor, a foreign diplomat, as well as a homeless woman who used to sit in front of a neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant who was a “friend and mentor.” There were also countless doctors, professors and fellow postal workers, he said.

“I believe that we can learn a great deal about ourselves and about life when we open up to the world around us,” he said.

Il Soo Choi, 62 years old, emigrated from Korea in 1982. He is living a version of the American dream, with his wife Linda Kim, who worked for many decades in nail salons in and around New York. She is now retired, too.

As a postal worker he is an unusual apostle for diversity in the city. He wears his black hair, now streaked with gray in a ponytail, and is uniformly described by fellow postal workers, as modest, shy and helpful. He speaks English with a heavy accent that is sometimes hard to decipher.

“He is a very gentle, and very generous guy,” said Eric Lu, a fellow mail carrier after a farewell breakfast in a sorting area known as “the workroom” at the Gracie post office on East 85th Street on Wednesday morning. Afterward, he quickly sorted through the last of his mail, packed his bags with small packages from Amazon and letters and catalogs bound in rubber bands, and headed out into the not-so-mean city streets.

His customers and managers say he is a model mail carrier—courteous, reliable, someone who shows up on time—at a time when postal officials said many new workers have relaxed standards. Susan Goldberg, a management consultant who lives along Mr. Choi’s route in a 46-story high rise known as Leighton House, said he calls out to her by name, and even knows the name of her dog, Blu.

“He knows who you are,” she said. “If he sees me, he will say ‘you have a package’ or ‘you haven’t picked up your mail for a while.’”

After serving in the army in Korea, Mr. Choi became a firefighter in Seoul, where he met his future wife who was about to move to the U.S. He decided to follow her.

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

After years of financial struggle, moving from apartment to apartment in Queens, Mr. Choi and Ms. Kim were able to afford a modest attached house in Haverstraw, N.Y., in Rockland County, about an hour drive north of his postal route.

In early 2009, as the financial crisis hit they bought their 1,600-square-foot townhouse in Haverstraw for $250,000. After the downtown, home prices tumbled and it is still worth about 25% less than they paid, he said.

Mail carriers typically earn between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, and Mr. Choi said he often jokes that three-quarters of the house belongs to his wife, since she contributed more to the down payment.

They have one daughter, Gina Choi, who is 33 and is a minister at a church in Stamford, Conn. Mr. Choi said Gina looked over his shoulder as he wrote his note and helped him clean up his grammar.

His note ends with hope: “In this land, in this city, I’ve learned and gained so much by encountering each of you and consider my life full and abundant. It is my hope that your lives will also be full of peace and joy.”

Write to Josh Barbanel at josh.barbanel@wsj.com

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