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The Post, Her Go Prompter

The U.S. Postal Service's bagful of miracles.

By 12.27.06

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There is a place in Miami where you can get first-class service, push the envelope, get priority treatment and express your innermost desires, all for about twenty bucks. The name of this treasure? The United States Postal Service.

That entity has been too long maligned. Oh, sure, there was plenty of mud to be slung back when the mudslinging began thirty years ago. Packages were being manhandled, arriving bumpy, dumpy, lumpy and clumpy. Not only was there settling of contents, there was also unsettling of contents. The Alaska mail wound up in Nebraska and the Portland, Maine mail landed in Portland, Oregon. If a package came adorned with prominent FRAGILE markings it didn't pay to open it, because the result was predictable: FRAGMENTS.

This was the good news; at least your stuff had arrived in some form. Often the result was less fortuitous. Your letter wafted untethered into the aether. The check was in the mail all right, but what goes in must not necessarily come out. I lived in Chicago for five years in the '80s, and it was common for mailmen to be caught with months of backlog piled up in their apartments. One guy was even busted trying to hoist cartloads of mail into a store dumpster.

My address there was 6316 Monticello, a street running parallel to Lawndale and Ridgeway. Each day when the mail came, I got about a third of the 6316 letters, as did the 6316 Lawndale guy and the 6316 Ridgeway lady. We would walk to each other's homes afterwards, them giving me Monticello pieces, me giving them Lawndale and Ridgeway. The same thing was happening up and down the street. We became convinced over time that our letter carrier was actually illiterate and three street names of equal length was a puzzle he could not unravel.

A retired postal inspector here in Florida likes to reminisce about the horrors of that era. My favorite story is when valuable shipments kept going missing after passing through a certain transit point. One of the assembly line loaders was enjoying a newfound prosperity, so they trained a hidden camera on his work station. For months they watched as he transferred package after package onto the conveyor belt, never pilfering a thing; they were stymied. One day my friend caught a glimpse of white paper in his hand, and all became clear. The man would palm a label with his home address and affix it casually over the destination marked on some desirable item. He never walked out the door with stolen goods; it was conveniently mailed to his home.

As recently as 1998, a Chicago postal worker was arrested for stealing cash out of birthday cards; she had been doing it for 20 years. Forget the money, just think of the family feuds she caused when Grandma resented the lack of a thank-you and Grandson wrote her off as an old cheapskate. (Still not as bad as this British postal worker in 2005 who took 40,000 colored greeting card envelopes home and stole 80,000 pounds sterling.) We won't mention the rash of post-office shooting rampages which made "disgruntled" the most famous national adjective for a while.

Yes, my friends, all this has changed. Libertarians point to 1983 as the magic moment; Congress pulled the Federal subsidy and made the Postal Service learn how to break even as a business. The growth of Fedex and its sister companies and the aggressive move of UPS into the overnight letter business forced the Postal Service into ever more competitive streamlining.

The Post Office does a great job these days getting things thence thither for a few pence without dither. Instead of driving you certifiably insane, they deliver your certified mail. Not as fast as a missile, perhaps, but your missive will arrive. Not as forceful as a pistol, perhaps, but your epistle will hit its mark. You will get credit for paying the credit cards and your lease won't be rent for late rent.

The customer service is superior. The surly desk jockeys of old have been supplanted by a more pleasant and efficient crew. Smiling and joshing have returned to the mail counter, though flirting may still be a Federal offense. The current holiday season, while plagued by long lines, has been marked by patient and solicitous management. My local branch even has a lovely lady walking the line, offering each person advice how best to conduct their transaction; some discover ways to avoid the line altogether.

Where the Post Office mangled the mail of 250 million citizens two decades ago, it now smoothly processes the letters of 300 million. Let us give credit where credit is due; kudos and best holiday wishes to our brothers and sisters at the U.S. Postal Service. And sorry, Virginia: "They have put an end to Santa's reign, dear."

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.