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Sonoma mailman hangs up his bag after 40 years on the job

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In a Mediterranean climate, it rarely snows. There is rain, and plenty of heat, certainly.

Mailman Butch Alvarez may have even faced gloom of night on occasion, prone as he is to progress-impeding conversation. Mail carriers are meant to be impervious to foul weather and swift in their rounds, but Alvarez always liked to make time to jaw. As storytellers go, he’s world-class.

He gabbed with the proprietors of the businesses on his route, delivering a bit of cheer along with the day’s mail. He gossiped with the old folks living alone near downtown, determined to push away their loneliness for a moment. For 32 years, he talked to kids on the playground at St. Francis Solano, watching as a generation of young people grew to maturity. Alvarez walked his daily seven-mile route for decades, making conversation with all the people he met.

But last week, Alvarez parked his mail trolley for the last time. He folded his navy shorts and pale blue postal shirt – sleeves customized to maximize both guns and sun – and checked them in at headquarters. After 40 years working for the United States Postal Service, 32 of them in downtown Sonoma, Butch Alvarez was done delivering the mail.

Catalogues, circulars, junk mail, bills. Priority mail, registered mail, first-class mail, periodicals. And packages! An almost uncountable quantity of packages in the years since Amazon morphed from David into Goliath.

He’d been thinking about retirement for a while. Truthfully, the knees were probably the first to consider it. Fifty miles on pavement every week for four decades can leave a man with a hitch in his giddyap – and Alvarez, 63, was definitely feeling the miles.

Born in L.A. and named Jose Luis, how Alvarez became “Butch” is a long story, of course.

Labor pains had begun but were still intermittent when Alvarez’s dad decided he could squeeze in a trip to the racetrack. What’s a man to do when the ponies are running?

Hours later, after missing the birth, his father showed up at the hospital with a fat stack of winnings. His horse, an aging longshot with the double-digit spread, had beaten the odds and come in first. Its name? Brother Butch. What else was the man going to name his new son?

The nickname stuck like the best kind of omen and Butch Alvarez – like his equine namesake – just ran with it.

When Alvarez first began delivering the mail, Sonoma was more provincial than it is today. Back then, some people were wary of a dark-skinned mail carrier. “There wasn’t much color here when I first arrived,” said Alvarez, whose ethnic heritage is Hispanic and Native American. “People used to pull their mail from the boxes when they’d see me coming.”

Some of the worst even turned their dogs loose: he’s been treed, he’s scaled fences, been bitten seven times. It was a tough way for a brown man to make a buck in the day.

But Alvarez was raised with a solid work ethic. He did his job, kept his head up, and waited for the culture to evolve. When he delivered his farewells in his final rounds last week, many patrons embraced him. Some even cried.

At St. Francis School, the last stop on his last day, the K-3 teachers had herded the kids onto the blacktop. They called out to Alvarez, then rounded their mouths into O’s and slapped their cheeks, Home Alone-style. The gesture was homage to a Pepsi commercial Alvarez had made years ago, where he, among others, performed a redux of Macaulay Culkin’s trademark gesture. “I did that in 1991! Nobody knows that! It brought a tear to my eye,” Alvarez said. “And then they brought me around front to the signboard where they post announcements. They’d written ‘Happy Retirement, Butch!’ on it. They took a picture of me in my uniform and just made a big deal. That was pretty special.”

As someone who’d always made an effort to remember the people he met, having the particulars of his own life noted by others felt alright.

On his first day of retirement Alvarez rose at 5 a.m. He went for a walk and then let the hours unfold. He’s not sure what he’ll do with the liberty retirement affords, though seeing his daughter in Seattle and his mother in L.A. are priorities. Maybe he’ll get back to the longboard surfing he did as a kid, or the woodworking he’s always enjoyed. Probably, though, he’ll start with those knees. “Gotta get healthy,” Alvarez said.

Soon, the 570 customers on his route will break in a new mail carrier, selected via bid and based on seniority. But the friendly guy with the good tan who wheeled countless parcels across town for nearly 40 years won’t soon be forgotten, embedded as he is in a town’s history and heart.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.