A bulging sack of mail slung over his shoulder, postal carrier Jimmie Irving walks into the white-fenced yard with the barking dog, which quiets when it recognizes him--stops yapping just like that, as though its master has arrived home.
At the door of the West Los Angeles home, Lee Silber is there to greet Irving, not just to collect her mail but to give him a hug because she hasn't seen him in so long.
Jimmie Irving inspires such reactions from his customers. For the last 22 years, he has delivered mail in the same tree-shaded, lush-lawned Beverlywood neighborhood, pretty much to the same customers.
In that time he's seen young mothers become pregnant time and again, has seen little boys who once sent away for mail-order comic books grow up to become teachers or lawyers. Whether it's on Bagley Avenue or Oakmore Road, he calls people by their first name.
All along his busy route, Irving's 350 customers address him by a time-tested nickname: They call him Reverend Irving. Or simply, the Rev.
For more than two decades, the 48-year-old Irving has been a man with a foot in two worlds, working as both a Westside postal carrier and a Baptist preacher in Long Beach.
Through the changing seasons, commuting several hours to work each day from his Mission Viejo home, he has found a way to bring something from each world to complement the other. He's become a postman with a quiet, shoulder-to-lean-on reverence as well as a minister whose Sunday sermons are rooted in the reality of holding down a working-class job all week.
In the largely Jewish Beverlywood neighborhood, residents have taken to Irving, looking forward each day not just to the mail, but to the smiling countenance of a man of God.
"Jimmie has seen me in every state, from being all dressed up for dinner, to having no makeup and in my pajamas," said Anne Raiss. "He knows me."
For years at the Raiss home, Irving could walk right in the door, use the bathroom, help himself to a drink or a sandwich in the refrigerator. Even help the kids with their homework.
"Jimmie has always been part of the family," Raiss said. "My kids know him. My dog knows him. He looks out for our family, just like he does the whole neighborhood."
Residents care so much about their mail carrier, they'd rather fight than switch.
In past weeks, they've sent letters and petitions unsuccessfully protesting the Postal Service's decision to move Irving to a new route nearby, leaving 240 old customers to make do with a new carrier.
"My 10-year-old daughter was so upset, she canvassed our street collecting signatures from neighbors," said Raiss. "It's not like they moved Jimmie across town, they just pushed him two blocks over, so that we still see him, but now he's delivering mail to his new customers.
"How do you explain that to a child? My kids feel abandoned. And, frankly, so do I."
Postal Service customer service manager Thomas J. Egan explained in a letter to customers that Irving was among a group of carriers shifted as part of an experiment to improve service by equalizing the size of routes.
"I hope you can understand that Mr. Irving has 22 years of wonderful memories," Egan wrote. "They will never be lost, nor will they be forgotten."
Irving was equally upset over the change. "I don't want to go," he said in a slow Texas drawl. "This neighborhood has been my home for 22 years. But I don't have a choice in the matter. I do what I'm told."
One oddity in the route change means that Irving has been reunited with about 40 old customers he lost in a similar switch more than a year ago. Back then, at the thought of losing Irving, Lee Silber wrote letters to her post office, all to no avail.
But now she's getting her Jimmie back.
"This is great," she said, giving Irving a hug. "You're back in the family now, Jim."
Before his route was changed 18 months ago, Irving had delivered Silber's mail for 19 years. He saw her pregnant with all three of her children, had always smiled and asked "How's that belly coming along?" and later became a surrogate uncle to her growing kids.
"You go up the block and watch the reaction of the people once they realize that Jimmie's back," Silber said. "Just watch, you'll see people jump in his arms."
As he walks his route, picking up newspapers for vacationing customers, waving at passing cars, knowing all the names, Irving answers the question many people ask: Which came first, the preacher or the postal carrier?
He became a carrier first, in 1969, and almost didn't become a preacher at all.
Growing up in a rural town near Houston, the son of a minister who also worked as a full-time farmer, Irving decided he didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. After watching three of his brothers grow up to become preachers, Irving relocated to Los Angeles, where he spent several years as a substitute mail carrier before getting his Beverlywood route.
One day along his route, he recalls, he had this little conversation with God: "I gave him all my reasons for saying 'no' to the ministry, and he came back with better ones as to why I should."
And so God won out. Irving studied for his minister's license, which he received in 1980, all the while keeping his job at the post office. Over the next decade he worked as an assistant minister in several local Baptist churches, until he was named head minister at the new Liberty Baptist Church in Long Beach in 1991.
It was a test of faith. Over the next year, Irving worked 80 hours a week. After delivering a 12-foot-long stack of mail each day, he would fight rush hour traffic, returning to the Long Beach church to visit the sick, counsel substance abusers, plan Bible lessons, map out his Sunday sermon.
The schedule took its toll. Irving got sick. He couldn't sleep. He had little time for his wife, Barbara, or his six children. Friends counseled him to make a choice between his two callings.
"It's a very demanding life, being a working minister, especially if you have a family, and Jimmie did it for as long as he could," said Rev. Bruce Shaw of St. Mark's Baptist Church in Long Beach. "It's a heck of a triangle to be in--your work, your God and your family all pulling at you at the same time."
Barbara Irving recalls urging her husband to apply for a management job at the post office to reduce his physical labor. "He never wanted to do that," she recalled. "He wouldn't leave his customers. They meant too much to him."
Exhausted, Irving stepped down from the minister job in 1992 and later became an assistant minister at St. Mark's, where he continues to deliver sermons and work with the congregation's teenagers.
His dispensing of the faith doesn't stop at the church.
Irving said he recently found one of his postal customers crying on the front porch. She was pregnant and her boyfriend didn't want the baby, the woman explained. Irving talked with her, then gave her his home number and counseled her from there.
The couple have resolved their differences and plan to have their baby. "The boyfriend stopped me one day and thanked me for just being there," Irving said. "That meant a lot to me."
Now, customers along his new route are receiving a letter of introduction signed by "Rev. Jimmie Irving, Your New Postman."
If they're anything like the old customers, they'll have a postal carrier who'll attend their children's bar mitzvahs and maybe one day their weddings, one who will tell the lonely old woman in curlers and a robe how beautiful she looks.
They'll have a carrier who will skip lunch so he can spend a few extra moments with each customer, a father-figure who will shoot hoops with the kids in the backyard and even take time after work to attend their baseball games.
Eventually, they'll leave him their key when they go on vacation, so he can collect the papers and stack the mail--with permission to help himself to the fridge, of course.
In time, they'll make a new friend, one who prefers a soft-spoken word to fire and brimstone--his trusty pepper-spray canister--when dealing with their barking dogs, a postman who will go home at night and practice writing and pronouncing their last names so he gets them right, so they can feel his personal touch.
And if they listen closely, they might even hear Jimmie Irving talking to himself as he delivers the daily mail and the good word of God.
"Yeah, sometimes I work out my Sunday sermons while I deliver the mail," Irving says. "But I try not to talk too loud. I don't want people to think I've gone crazy."