By Megan McMorris
As the world’s gears are slowly starting to turn again, it’s almost hard to imagine what things were like just one year ago – streets eerily empty; restaurants and bars shuttered; traffic nearly nonexistent and Zoom Happy Hours versus hugs.
Meanwhile, other signs of life were taking their place: sidewalk chalk; kids playing outside; teddy bears in windows; neighbors stopping to linger and chat over their fences and exuberant dogs salivating at the sudden extra time with their humans.
During a time when taking out your trash and getting your mail suddenly became a new daily highlight, a SE mailman was quickly turning into a new favorite face.
“I wave and interact with nearly everyone on my route,” says Ian Simon, 40, of his SE Portland route which includes about 600 households.
One customer in particular was already eagerly awaiting Simon’s visit every day – after all, she’s known him since she was in a highchair. Every morning, three-year-old Ava Whitlow perches herself by the window to wait for her buddy.
Their relationship started two years ago “with just a little jig,” recalls Simon. “I caught her eye as she was sitting in her highchair eating breakfast, and I think I just waved from the window and wiggled around to make her smile, and soon enough her parents were purposefully bringing her to the window for her to wait for me, and we’ve been dancing together ever since.”
In 2020, Simon’s bond with the Whitlows’ has strengthened and made the now sheltered-in-place family even more appreciative.
“This year has been a particularly difficult time for parents when your children don’t have childcare and you’re working at home,” says Ava’s dad, David Whitlow, 38. “So it became a highlight of our day, too, to see someone else entertaining your child even if just for a minute.”
Little did anyone suspect, Simon’s audience was about to explode when David, wife Christina, 39, and a neighbor decided to film the action.
“I didn’t even realize they had been filming me and Ava, and one day David asked me if he could put up a video. I’m like ‘Yeah, sure,’ and then it just started blowing up from there,” says Simon.
The video, featuring Ava in a onesie, wiggling on the couch at the window while Simon dances in the yard, went viral in December and it wasn’t long before Good Morning America and Ellen called. Hugh Jackson and Sharon Osbourne became fans.
Simon’s Instagram page (Mailman of the Century) surpassed 10,000 followers. He’s even big in Japan…or will be soon. “It seems like every other day, I hear about us reaching a new country,” he says.
The jig, in other words, was up. It was time to step up his game from just a wiggle here and there.
“I’m teaching myself how to shuffle dance,” Simon says, crediting his natural quick-footedness not to a dance background, but from “practically growing up on the Burnside skate park.”
He suddenly started looking at empty streets, staircases and even the grocery store aisles as his personal dance floor and has dedicated himself to improving his moves, and showing his progress on daily videos.
“It makes my day when people come up to me and say ‘Hey, I love your videos,’ because I do it to make people smile,” he says.
“And some of my followers are also learning dances, too, and I can show them my progress and encourage them.”
Simon’s favorite dancing spot is his living room, where he and son Mason, 8, perfect their latest moves.
“For the most part, he’s more interested in cartoons than in what Dad is doing on the videos, but he does love to dance with me,” he says. Dancing, he adds, has become a great bonding tool between him and Mason, who is autistic and home-schooled.
“My wife has been so great with all of this,” Simon adds.
“Ian has shown us that even in a dark time, things can be uplifting and it’s the simple things that can make your day,” says Whitlow. “And it’s not just us he’s interacting with, it’s how he is in general; we were just the ones who happened to capture it on video.”
Now even as his fame continues to grow (followers of his Instagram are angling to get him attention on Dancing With the Stars), don’t expect him to give up his zip code for 90210 anytime soon.
With the exception of a year in Iraq for the National Guard, Simon has primarily lived in the SE Portland region and outskirts his whole life. On his current route of SE 82nd and 94th Aves. between Yamhill and Mill Streets, where he’s worked for five and a half years, he feels most at home.
“People say, ‘you’re not going to get famous and leave us, are you?’ And I tell them, are you kidding? I could win the lottery and I’d still be working here,” he says. “I consider my customers as my family and this is my dream job.”
Photo of and by Ian Simon.