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'The Greatest Human Drama': Walking The Route With Mailman John Rovnak

A man wearing a navy blue USPS uniform and hat smiles in front of a mail delivery truck
Matthew Smith
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VPR
John Rovnak has been delivering mail and taking photographs along the same route in Burlington's Old North End for nearly a decade. Moving on is bittersweet.

John Rovnak delivers mail in Burlington's Old North End, and he's been doing it for nearly a decade. Through his years on the job, he's chronicled the sights and scenes of the neighborhood with frequent photos he curates online.

“Basically, the intersection of Intervale and Archibald is where I’ve spent, you know, every day for the last nine years,” he told me.

pink mittens on the ground
Credit John Rovnak, Courtesy
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Hands Free features a pair of wayward mittens, from somewhere along John Rovnak's Old North End mail delivery route.

We met outside his tall white mail truck on a brisk October day, as he loaded his satchel full of letters, packages, and whatever else people in the neighborhood were getting in the mail. On this day, he was on the last leg of that years-long route.

Sliding the truck door shut, he gave me the run-down: “We’re gonna start here, go up a ways to that purple house there, cross the street, come down, and then we’ll deliver Cromby Street as well.”

Rovnak said he didn’t expect this route would become home for nine years. It was “the newbie” route, he told me – one most mail carriers would jump off of as quickly as possible. Maybe they’d last a year.

We walked and talked, with him dropping letters off as he went. “This use to be one of the most undesirable routes in Burlington,” he said.

That was partly due to its reputation. “You know, the Old North End used to have… used to be, quote-unquote, ‘the bad end of Burlington,” he said.

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But the route was also undesirable because of the neighborhood’s density. A lot of people living in the neighborhood meant carrying a lot of mail. But pretty quickly, John said, he fell in love.

“It’s a great neighborhood,” he said. “I like the dense population, I like encountering a lot of people during the day. And it just… I just stuck with it.”

A series of snapshots compiled into a large mosaic.
Credit John Rovnak, courtesy
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Clockwise, from top left: A Step In The Right Direction, Seasonal Dissociation, Cubism, Out To Pasture, Green Energy, Chill. While walking his route through the Old North End, John Rovnak documents compelling scenes he finds along the way, often of things discarded or left astray.

Over the years, he says he’s learned the rhythms of the Old North End.

He knows the most efficient way to move along each block – where to backtrack, where to cross the street early. As we moved along, a dog barked and he assured me, “That’s one of the friendly dogs in the neighborhood… luckily!”

He knows about more than those things, too: the births and deaths, graduations and weddings. 

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On one street, we came across a resident with a package. Rovnak greeted them warmly, saying, “Hey, I can take that!”

He was met with a resounding, “Thank you so much!”

Rovnak said he often thinks about all the people he’s gotten to know through the mail.

“I’ve seen a household that I’ve known for years, and then I start seeing, within the mail, they’re starting to get brochures form colleges, and you can’t help but think, ‘Ahh, that’s exciting!’” he said. “You kind of share in the excitement with them. Like, ‘Wow, this is a big step!’ You know, you’re obviously going from house to house, and each one has its own little story.”

"Some [photographs] are really great. Some are sad, some are tragic. But it's... It's like the greatest human drama, unfolding," - John Rovnak, mail carrier and photo taker

About seven years ago, Rovnak started documenting his route with photos he’d post online. But the snapshots were taken on the clock, so he says he had to make taking pictures easy —and fast.

“I set up these little rules I could follow to help it go quickly,” he said. First, he said, “If I saw something that was worthy of me snapping a photo, I’d only give myself one chance to snap it.”

Next rule: he gets just one shot to think of a name for the image. “I’ve discovered whatever the first thing that comes to mind is usually the best idea,” Rovnak said.

Third rule: each image gets only one quick pass in the photo editor. “You know: crop it, manipulate it, play with the dark and light; things like that,” he said.

His subject matter is wide-ranging. Over the years, Rovnak said he’s seen a lot of couches, but also: menageries of appliances escaping across lawns or down sidewalks, mattresses well beyond gently used.

He said assigning the images captions usually just makes him laugh. “When you sort of apply the name ‘free couch’ to this bed-bug infested piece of furniture on the curb, it suddenly takes on a different life,” he said.

But he’s also snapped photographs of sunsets, bone-white snowscapes, neighborhood cats, sculptures of cigarette butts and, generally, absurd moments of everyday life – all images he likes because of the unspoken stories behind them.

“For me… I’m seeing a whole different side of Burlington than most people get to see,” he said. “You know, that couch has a story to tell. What else is attached to that physical object?

A collage of 6 individual photos collected in a single image.
Credit John Rovnak, Courtesy
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Clockwise, from top left: Schmear, (I Don't) Care Bear, A photo of Rovnak on his route by James Buck, Trash Talk, Hang 'Em High, Trying to Blend In. The subject matter of John Rovnak's photos is diverse and features scenes he encounters along his delivery route.

“It’s just one glimpse into the people that live out here. And in my experiences they’re all really great. I just really enjoy the people.”

Rovnak shares his photos — and captions — on his website and on Instagram. They’ve hung in coffee shops and restaurants along his route, and he’s even sold some prints. But he doesn’t think of himself as a photographer — just someone documenting his day.

“And you know, some are really great, some are sad, some are tragic, but it’s… It’s like the greatest human drama, unfolding,” he said.

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But now, Rovnak’s route is coming to an end. “Nine years is a long time to be doing the same thing every day. I might be due for a change,” he told me. By this point, the mail in his satchel had melted away, so it was time to head back to the truck for more.

Rovnak said he’s not sure if he’ll bring the snapshot habit to his new route in downtown Burlington. “I’ll be done on this on the sixth [of November], and then off to my new route on Saturday the seventh,” he said.

We parted ways as he loaded up for the next leg of his familiar Old North End route – to Spring Street – and maybe some final photos.

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