For the 8,000th time, mailman Arnold Delgado retraced his steps through Maywood: up Atlantic Boulevard, down Slauson Avenue, through quiet neighborhoods and past busy storefronts.
But it took longer Friday than it ever has for Delgado to cover his 13-mile route. People were stopping him and begging him to stay.
“You can’t retire,” dental office assistant Veronica Wilson told him. “You’re too young. People here depend on you too much.”
A few blocks away, Nellie Sales leaped from behind her desk and grabbed Delgado when he stepped into the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church rectory with the mail.
“You can’t leave us. Please don’t,” Sales pleaded. “You’re always in such a good mood. You always have something nice to say.”
For 34 years--through good times and bad--Delgado’s dependable good nature has been part of the glue that has helped hold things together in Maywood, a tiny city surrounded by industrial plants and rail yards eight miles southeast of downtown.
Delgado was there when the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant closed in 1982, uprooting a generation of blue-collar residents. When newcomers arrived, the burly letter carrier was the first one to welcome them to town.
“I’ve been through all the changes,” Delgado, 57, said as he pushed his battered mail cart down Atlantic for the last time.
“A lot of Okies lived here when I first started. Then Cubans came. Now it’s mostly Hispanic. But I can tell you, the people here have always been nice.”
At 61st Street, he pointed to a freshly painted corner building. It was a major furniture store when he first started delivering mail in 1964, Delgado said. Then it became a stationery store, then an auto parts shop. These days it’s an ethnic grocery.
Many of Maywood’s 450 or so retail stores are mom-and-pop operations--tiny markets, cafes, beauty parlors and auto repair shops that often have been passed from father to son.
But sprinkled among them are dozens of empty buildings. Delgado said it was heartbreaking to watch struggling business owners fail to ride out the setbacks of the 1980s and the recession of the early 1990s.
“I can tell when a new business isn’t going to make it. It’s tempting to warn the shopkeeper. But I’ve never done it. I always think that maybe they’ll make a go of it,” he said.
Delgado’s Maywood memories are good ones.
“I’ve seen little kids in their yard and played with them, then watched them grow up and get married. I’ve gone to lots of weddings,” he said. “Now I see their kids playing in the yard.”
Twice, Delgado rescued toddlers he found wandering in the street and knocked on doors until he found their parents. “One man told his kid that the mailman saved his life. To this day the kid waves when he sees me. He’s in high school now.”
Delgado befriended shut-ins, becoming the only person that some of them talked to each day. He expedited delivery of welfare checks to poor people on the verge of being kicked out of their apartments. He has enjoyed the regular bag of backyard fruit plucked for him by the woman who calls herself the “Avocado Lady.”
Only once was he bitten by a dog. Although six of his mail-route customers have died in gang shootings, Delgado was never robbed--or even menaced. When one resident saw a stranger flagging down the letter carrier, the homeowner stepped outside with a gun in his hand to make certain Delgado wasn’t in danger.
His fellow letter carriers chipped in to buy Delgado a few rounds of golf, and local Postmaster Mike Orland presented him with a watch Friday morning. Delgado figured that would be it. “I hadn’t really told people on my route that it was my last day,” he said.
But the word got out.
Transmission repair shop owner John Contreras was waiting with a gift of golf balls and a ball-imprinting machine when Delgado stopped by with the mail for the last time. “I’ve known this man for 30 years,” Contreras said, offering a big hug.
Banner printing shop owner Bibi Tanya Hill thanked Delgado for his good service. “Of course, you’re always in here showing off your muscular legs!” she said with a laugh.
“You’re always looking,” Delgado kidded back.
Across the street, auto parts shop manager Manny Garcia jokingly chided Delgado for being late with the mail. But as shop worker Vilma Flores handed him a bouquet of balloons, Garcia added: “We love this man. We’ll miss him.”
Miguel Garcia, a homeless man who yearly received a Thanksgiving turkey from Delgado, invited him to “come hang out with me” after retirement. “I’ll get you a shopping cart,” he added with a laugh.
Maywood librarian Rosemary Gurrola gave Delgado two hugs--"One for me and one for Edith,” a former librarian who knew Delgado for 28 years. Gurrola handed the postman a card. “Don’t get excited,” she said with a grin. “There’s no money inside.”
Barbershop owner Donatila Del Rio was so flustered when Delgado popped in with her mail that she forgot to present the gift she’d wrapped. So she jumped in her car and chased down the street after him to give it to him.
City Clerk Sam Pena shook Delgado’s hand when the mailman stopped in City Hall for the last time. “Thirty-four years with the Postal Service without being disgruntled or anything!” Pena said with a laugh of mock surprise. “Of course, the day isn’t over!”
At a tire store, manager Steve Raysik informed Delgado that Saturday would be his final day after 34 years with Goodyear. “The difference between me and you is all I have to do is clean out my desk,” Raysik said with a laugh. “You’ve got to take care of that undelivered mail you’ve got stashed in closets!”
Back at the Maywood post office, all Delgado had left to do Friday afternoon was turn in his mailbox key. After walking 103,900 miles in Maywood during his career, his feet felt fine, he said.
But his heart was heavy.