A recent trip to the post office reminded me how little has changed at that strangely limp American institution during my lifetime. A clerk noted that the box I was shipping really needed more tape around the label. “Thank you,” I said. “Can you help with that?” She demurred, saying, “We don’t have tape – only for sale.” That’s right, the post office doesn’t have tape.
The clerk apparently expected to me to travel back to wherever I packaged the item–in this case my house–to apply two strips of tape. I told her I would take my chances and sent the box, anyway. She accepted it with the familiar flat countenance that has been in place at post offices for decades and must be carefully cultivated by those processing our mail. The clerk succeeded in doing as little as possible.
The US Postal Service has a long and storied history that includes the romantic notion of heroic mail carriers enduring “rain, sleet and snow” (might as well add oppressive heat and pestilence), to make six-day-a-week deliveries to you, the noble and courageous American citizen. But we actually find it easier to accept Wayne Knight’s depiction of a mailman – Newman in “Seinfeld.” Newman was cowardly, slovenly, mean-spirited and larcenous, and he somehow managed to maintain an apartment on the Upper East Side. He acted out a stereotype we tend to believe about our postal employees, with an understanding that stereotypes, like cliches, sometimes develop for good reason.
Over the years I remember standing in line on multiple occasions at a crowded local PO, watching helplessly as a clerk closed down a window and went on break. Of course, breaks are essential – we all take them in every walk of life. However, if that worker was in the private sector the break would either be delayed a few minutes, in case the crowd thinned, or a replacement would step-in at the window. But not at the post office. Nothing will stand between clerks and their 10-minute rest period – not rain, nor sleet, nor snow…or actual work.
I have discovered that problems with the Postal Service extend beyond mere public/private comparisons. Several years ago our family needed to renew our passports and went to Sacramento’s main post office to try to take care of it. We walked into an administrative train wreck that made the DMV seem painless. It was mid-morning, and dozens of people were already sitting and standing around, looking thoroughly defeated. When I asked the *one* postal employee on duty how long the wait would be, she said she had no idea. “What, ten hours?” I asked. “Possibly,” she said. We bolted and a short time later discovered that the city of Sacramento offered passport services by appointment (not sure if the city still does this – I hope so). We were in and out in less than an hour. Bravo, USPS, bravo!
Having said all that, for the most part the Postal Service succeeds in its role–perhaps in spite of itself–as a vital part of American life and commerce. Even as we shift steadily to internet-based billing and payment, not to mention communications, a tremendous volume of those activities continues to move the old-fashioned way, and it all works because the mail system remains effective – efficient enough, as they say, for government work. And for that postal employees have our admiration and our sincere appreciation.
So merry Christmas, and good luck mailing your packages this holiday season. Just remember a couple of simple guidelines: a postal clerk’s schedule is more important than yours, and don’t expect any of them to cut loose with a couple of strips of tape.