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Aftershock: Putting on gloves tells a mail sorter: 'This is for real'

Friday, October 19, 2001

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sorting through a stack of letters, Amber Barton stops at an envelope adorned with patriotic stickers. She sets it flat on a desk and runs her index finger across it, feeling through a hospital glove for unusual bulges. She looks the letter over, front and back, and finds no stains. It is addressed by hand to Jim Quinn.

Amber Barton wears gloves to check the contents of a letter over a light. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

For Barton, there's nothing unusual about unusual letters. She is the head of the mailroom for Steel City Media, a Downtown company that owns two radio stations and the weekly City Paper. It regularly gets mail from unknown sources, whether it's listeners claiming prizes, companies promoting CDs or community groups seeking publicity.

Then there is Quinn, the outspoken conservative morning show host on WRRK-FM.

"Quinn sometimes gets weird mail from people who don't want to give their names and addresses," says Barton.

But she is more wary these days. Two weeks ago, she wouldn't have been so concerned about the letter with stickers, but now it gets careful scrutiny.

The penmanship seems casual and comfortable to Barton, nothing like the forced block letters on anthrax-laced mail received by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. The presence of a return address label is somehow reassuring, too.

 
 
AFTERSHOCK
How Lives Have Changed

One in an occasional series on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have affected ordinary Americans.


Previous Installments

What's on checks is as heartwarming as what's in them

Navy diver certain her next assignment will be in Mideast

Fascination and fear grip 10-year-old in equal parts

Kurt Angle embraces role as U.S. icon

He leaves his adopted country after ugly encounters

A volunteer confronts the pain at WTC

US Airways' mechanic escapes 'certain' layoff, but reprieve only prolongs uncertainty

Customers bring joy to Pakistani store manager


Aftershock Photo Journal

   
 

If the nation's war with terrorism has transformed mailrooms into checkpoints, this letter has cleared the border: She will deliver it to Quinn.

Quinn's mail caused a stir last Friday, after his co-host alerted management to a letter that had made her temporarily nauseous. Hundreds of people evacuated Centre City Tower before a hazmat crew could definitively say the letter did not pose a threat.

Normally, Barton, who works part-time sorting mail, answering phones and doing odd jobs, would have been in the building. But she had gone out for a rare lunch.

When she got back and saw ambulances and police at the building, a co-worker joked that it might be an anthrax scare. That's all it was, but the hoax has nonetheless changed the way Barton carries out and thinks about her job.

"Everybody is so paranoid right now. But it's appropriate. If that would really have been anthrax in that letter, it could have gotten on me. Monday, I was really nervous when I came in. I felt better after my boss said go buy the gloves. But having the gloves, it suddenly had a reality to it. It was like, 'This is for real. This could really be happening.'"

The layered reaction is similar to how Barton, who is 22, experienced news of the initial terrorist attacks. Watching the toppling of the World Trade Center was bad enough. But when Barton went home to Oakland that day, she saw one of her roommates packing his bags in anticipation of being called up with the Marine Reserves. In a minute, she was trying to phone her twin brother, who is a Marine at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

A wallet-sized photo of her brother, alongside four pictures of his baby girl, hang in the cubicle where Barton handles the mail. On her desk, she has taped a list of government dos and don'ts for mail-sorting.

After the false alarm last Friday, Barton came across an oversized envelope with no return address. She asked her boss, Should that be a cause for concern? How can you really know what's in any envelope, short of using an X-ray machine? When her boss learned that the postmark was from Coraopolis, he said not to worry about it.

Earlier this week, she came across a package that raised three red flags: odd shape, a previously-unheard-of sender in California, no postmark. It turned out to be a promotional CD.

No anthrax has been found in any mail received locally, and Pittsburgh might not present attractive targets for terrorists. Those facts combined with the experience of sorting mail these days leads Barton to a confusing conclusion: Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.

"This whole anthrax thing -- my mind is telling me this isn't going to affect us. And then Friday, it was like, 'OK, this is going to affect us.' I have to start thinking about it in a different way."

Through it all, the only strange powder Barton has found is the residue left by her gloves. After sorting the mail and delivering it to a grid of metal mailboxes, Barton performs her final new duty as mailroom guardian: knocking the powder from her hands and skirt.



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