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The total package

After 21 years walking the same neighborhood, Sam Darrigo is more than a mail carrier. He's a friend.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published April 27, 2007


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SULPHUR SPRINGS

The soles of Sam Darrigo's faded black sneakers are worn smooth. The 46-year-old letter carrier has walked the same streets every workday since 1986. In those 21 years, Darrigo has seen his temples gray, his kids grow and Highland Avenue sprout deluxe riverfront homes. He grew up nearby, before he moved north to Pasco County and bought a house of his own. But Darrigo never took a route closer to home. He didn't mind the 30-minute commute to work every day, and he still considered the people of Sulphur Springs his neighbors. He watched over kids walking home from school and attended their weddings. Now, he watches their kids board the school bus in the mornings. Some leave him candy in their mailboxes.

One drew a picture he keeps at the post office on Nebraska Avenue. I love the mailman! it says in bright pink marker.

Darrigo walks 4 to 5 miles a day, carrying a 35-pound mail satchel. He can match a face to every mailbox, a name to every dog.

He knows that Tracy O. Harding on Highland Avenue doesn't like to walk downstairs to his mailbox, so Darrigo places letters in a bucket attached to a rope for the 69-year-old to fish from his second-floor balcony.

And he knows he can get a free drink on a hot day from KFC, the first stop on his route. Jackie Bustamante and other workers greet him outside.

"Everybody knows Sam," she said. "Everybody loves Sam."

- - -

Nobody awaits Darrigo's daily visits more than the seniors at the J.L. Young Garden Apartments on Florida Avenue.

On a recent Thursday, 85-year-old Armando Santiago waited outside in a wheelchair next to a grocery cart that Darrigo uses to bring mail into the 450-resident affordable housing complex.

"Hola," Darrigo greeted him. "Buenos dias."

Darrigo practices his Spanish on the residents, who greet him in the hallways, in the cafeteria and in the mailroom.

When they're too weak to go downstairs to get their mail, he takes packages up to their rooms. He helps them get stamps, fill out forms and write checks.

The residents took a Polaroid photo of him years ago, which he still keeps in the mailroom. Every time he takes it out, he hopes someone will tell him he hasn't changed much since then.

Usually, they just marvel at how young and good looking he used to be.

Still, he says, "My spirit is the same."

If mail piles up in a box, he alerts the complex's staff to check in on the elderly resident. Sometimes he learns that a friend has died.

"Saddest thing on this route," Darrigo said. "I hope I've touched some of them, made their stay a little bit nicer."

- - -

Darrigo has felt at home in Sulphur Springs since he was a kid. He was raised in Wellswood, just south of here.

He'd get butterflies in his stomach every time his mom accelerated her car on the bridge over the Hillsborough River. Now, he drives his mail truck over that same bridge.

He'd get ice cream with his twin brother at Bo's every Sunday afternoon. Now, he hands mail through the drive-through window.

He finds comfort in the neighborhood's landmark tall white water tower. It's the one thing he can count on always being there, like it was when he watched Saturday Night Fever as a teenager at the Tower Drive-In.

On drives with his wife and four kids, ages 10 through 21, he passes the tower on the interstate. He always points at it, telling his kids: "If someone lived there, I'd deliver their mail."

- - -

When you work the same route for 21 years, visiting 777 mailboxes a day, you see a lot.

Darrigo was once accosted by a woman with a brick who threatened to smash his head in if he didn't hand over someone else's Social Security check. She was arrested.

And a kid once threw a bottle rocket into his mail truck. Darrigo jumped out as it whizzed and banged inside.

He has seen miracles, too, like the time he saved a woman's life.

Three years ago, he walked up to her house and saw that the screen door was open.

"Peggy?" he called. "Are you there, Peggy?"

No response. He peered in and saw her lying on the floor.

He rushed in and felt for her pulse. It was faint.

He told a neighbor to call 911. The paramedics told Darrigo that the woman's heart was weak, and if someone hadn't found her within an hour, she would have died.

Instead, the woman and her husband celebrated her life with Sam and his wife, treating them to a StarLite Cruise.

There were also times when Darrigo needed saving. Cody, a black neighborhood chow/Lab mix, was there.

Cody used to wait at the end of his driveway every day for Darrigo and would follow him from mailbox to mailbox. When Darrigo was done, he would say, "Cody, go home." And Cody obeyed.

Once, when two Rottweilers attacked Darrigo, Cody fought one while Darrigo sprayed the other with Mace.

Four years ago, Cody's owners were moving and couldn't take their dog.

Darrigo claimed Cody as his own. The man who leaves so much in the neighborhood got to take a piece of it home.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 26, 2007, 07:54:16]


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