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Neither Snow Nor Rain nor ... Oh, Screw It. The Post Office is a Dead Letter

Jen Sorensen

This is a very Harry Potter-like story, and, even though as a writer I shouldn't telegraph my punches, I'll go ahead and tell you that it has a happy ending. In fact, I'm so happy about it I'll go ahead and tell you what the ending is.

I obtained a package that was sent to me via the U.S. Postal Service. By "obtained," I mean I got that sucker. It's mine. The package is in the house!

Of course, it wasn't easy, and that is what our story is about today. Oh, there were adventures and mysteries and a really scary part too.

I have a true reverence for the post office. When I was a lad growing up in a little stone cottage deep in the darkest forests of Michigan, the arrival of the postman every day but Sunday was a reminder that, even though we lived in Michigan, we were connected to the civilized world.

In fact, we were even linked to a place called Washington, our mighty national capital, a place of grandeur and power galore. Back then, strange as it may sound today, we had respect for our national government. It built our highways, kept our planes from colliding and caught and punished the bad men who sold watered-down polio vaccine. What was not to like?

So it was with heavy heart a couple years ago that I made up my mind never again to check the "USPS" box when choosing a delivery method for something I ordered online. It was an emotional and psychological defeat.

But you know why I did it, right? When you check "UPS" or "Fedex," you get a package on your porch. When you check USPS, you get some kind of legal notice telling you ... something. It's unclear what. But you're not getting a damn package.

I even went to a lot of trouble to see if it was the fault of the shippers. I emailed them and asked them if they were telling the postal service not to give me my packages. Maybe they were telling them to make me sign or something. But, no. That seemed to have nothing to do with it.

There was always a place for me to sign on the notice. I always did sign and then left the notice where the postman could find it. The notices disappeared — picked up I assumed by someone from the federal government. Then I got nothing. Ever.

So sadly and with regret, I stopped checking USPS as my preferred method of shipping and delivery. But some people ship USPS anyway.

I don't know how closely you've been following what's going on in Washington with the Postal Service. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said last week the Postal Service, which lost $3.3 billion last quarter, is looking at shuttering thousands of post offices and nearly half its mail processing centers nationwide.

This comes on the heels of a steep erosion in services and personnel in recent decades. In the last 20 years, the national corps of urban letter carriers has dropped 19 percent. Between 2010 and 2011, the most recent years for which I was able to get data for Texas, the total USPS workforce in Texas decreased by more than 15 percent.

The USPS, which has a top management cadre dominated by people who have worked their way up from letter carrier, has signed contract agreements with its unions that bar layoffs except where positions have been eliminated because of facility closings. So in the face of a tsunami of red ink, facility closings are the agency's only real way to stay afloat. This is all against a backdrop of privatization and high-tech success for European postal services.

I'm not quite sure how to describe what seems to be going on in our own neighborhood. We have a rotating crew of delivery persons, all with their own unique delivery styles. We have one woman who stands right out in the middle of the street with her mailbag for the longest, looking up and down and all around with a wide-eyed expression like she was just dumped out of a flying saucer.

There's Mr. Zig-Zag, who does a house on one side, crosses the street to the other side, crosses back, all the way down the block in a kind of zipper pattern. He's very OCD-seeming.

One day recently I saw Mr. Zig-Zag coming, and I rushed out to ask him if he could help me find a missing package. In an otherworldly sounding dialect with head down he muttered, "Checkata pozetoffitz, checkata pozetoffitz."

So a day or so later I did go to my neighborhood post office where I have mailed stuff and bought stamps for years, and I waited in line. Got to the head of the line. They told me they were not my neighborhood post office. Wrong ZIP code. My bad.

 

They told me to go to another one. I did. Waited in line. Finally the lady behind the window asked me if I had a notice telling me to come to that post office. I told her I had no notice, because the notice went away.

She wanted to know what I did have. I told her I had nothing. I was bereft. She said if I had nothing and was bereft, she could give me nothing. I said she had to give me something, because only she could give me anything, because she had it. She asked me what I thought she had. I told her I had no idea.

She nodded for the next person to step up. Zip, that's it. I'm gone. But this is where the Harry Potter part begins.

A guy comes up. I'm not sure if he's postal or what. He asks me if I remember the old University Station post office. Yeah, definitely! They tore it down. He shakes his head no. It's still there, he says.

No, it's not! Yeah it is. No! Yeah. Where is it? Go down the street, he says. Turn. Go to the construction site. Drive down the alley. It's still back there. Knock on the door.

No! But I go. I find myself bumping along over broken curbs and trash through the construction site, down an alley, then through a big open fence ... and there it is, shrouded in dust and rubble, the old University Station, with a solitary unmarked metal door on one side standing open just a crack. Mysterious!

In a tiny foyer inside, a single window is open but unoccupied. I lean in through the window and look. A narrow aisle of shelves extends out of view to left and to right, piled with drifts of battered boxes, envelopes and tubes.

I call out. No one. I call again. "Hellooo?" I hear my own voice, thin and uncertain in the close air muffled by mountains of cardboard, like the voice of a poor little waif in a stone cottage in a dark forest in Michigan. "Anyone there?"

Wham! Like a giant jack-in-a-box, a postal lady pops right up in front of me! Damn! Damn! Scares the shit out of me. Where was she? Damn! Under the counter?

I start to mumble my case — my address, how I received a notice, signed it, then nothing, weeks went by, I wandered from post office to post office, a waif from a stone cottage, and then I found this place, but I thought they tore this place down years ago ...

I get about that far into my sad story, and the lady blurts out, "Ah, yes!"

But it's like, "Ahhhhh, yeeessss," with her eyes really big and bright. You know? Like she's a w-i-z-a-r-d or something?

And then she says, "I think I remember that one."

No! What? That's not possible. What? She remembers my individual whatever it is? And I don't even know what it is? That's not possible.

She disappears. I lean in. I can see her way down there, rooting through a big mountain of boxes, tossing them in the air like a prehistoric creature tearing apart a stone cottage. She comes back to the window with a little box in her hands.

"Is this yours?" she asks. But it's like, "Izzz thissss yerzzzzz?"

Phew. I'm fighting off the shakes. But I look at it. Oh no kidding! The little digital recorder from YouGotIt.com in Korea or something. It's been so long I forgot I even ordered that thing. And I already bought another one.

"Is this yours?" she asks again, possibly for the third time.

For an instant I am tempted to say no. But then I'm afraid. This woman has powers. Is she the one who sends Mr. Zig Zag? I take it from her, thanking her unctuously and retreating backward out the metal doorway.

I have my package. I have obtained it. I shall take it and deliver it to my house. I know how to do this now.

I did reach McKinney Boyd, spokesman for the USPS in this region, to tell him I was working on a column based on anecdotal evidence saying parcel delivery had gone to hell in a handbasket. I asked for any evidence he might have to the contrary. Over several days we had multiple chats in which he seemed not to remember my questions from prior chats. Finally he said he had to check with a lawyer. Then I never heard from him again. Like when you sign your notice and put it back on the door.

Of course, I know where I could have gone to get the answer to any question I might have about the postal service, possibly also to questions about the future or about loved ones no longer with us, etc. But I did not go to her, because I need to keep that lady in reserve for when the next idiot ships me something via USPS.

 

I don't want to wear out my welcome. And I'm also just the least teensiest little bit ...

Afraid.


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