McLoughlin Take 2: In praise of our postal service

If health holds up, I plan to be the last customer of the U.S. Postal Service.

If health holds up, I plan to be the last customer of the U.S. Postal Service.

I know the mail people keep telling us they are not going out of business, but the numbers say otherwise, and I want to be the very final customer to lick a postage stamp. The volume of stamped mail is down by 50 percent over the past 10 years; keep cutting something in half and eventually it becomes invisible to the human eye.

Look, I am a fan of the USPS. I consider it nothing less than a miracle that, for 44 cents, you can place a piece of paper weighing up to an ounce in a metal box on a street corner in Coral Springs, Fla., and a couple of days later that piece of paper will appear, not just in Seattle, Wash., but at an exact address in Seattle, where, if the letter carrier is in a good mood that day, it will be deposited into another box in reasonably decent shape. A remarkably cost-inefficient miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

Postal Service losses are projected to be $238 billion over the next decade (you other federal agencies can only pant in tongue-hanging-out admiration for that much red ink) but do not blame me. I have never, ever paid a bill or ordered anything online and never will. If email is killing snail mail as the kiddos call it, it ain’t my fault. And I frequently spend $3-plus for certified mail just to scare the bejeebers out of some miscreant who deserves bejeebers-scaring, even though I know that certified mail does not impress anyone anymore.

I am told that 80 percent of all post offices operate at a loss, but there is something about the USPS business model that intrigues. How about a venture that daily sends people in neat, blue-grey uniforms, some wearing white pith helmets, to remove all the mail that has accumulated in those street corner boxes; we transport it to a processing center in that general area, where we use very expensive separating and coding machines to determine its ultimate destination; then we place it on a plane (or maybe in a tractor-trailer) and we carry it to that destination where it will be further separated by code, packed into bundles that are assigned to more people in neat, blue-grey uniforms (who earn about $75,000 yearly, if you count benefits) who then drive the bundles to particular neighborhoods where they then deliver, by hand and foot, the envelope to the address on the front. And we do all this for 44 cents — and that’s the profitable end of our business! Would you care to invest?

I guess I’ve had warm feelings for postal people since that Christmas back in 1964. I took a part-time job for three weeks delivering the extra heavy volume of Christmas cards; you remember those paper things that people used to sign and mail to each other back then, wishing everyone a “happy this” or a “merry that.” I lasted only 2 1⁄2 weeks, sprained both ankles, was laid up for the holiday and gained much respect, even admiration for mailmen/women. Yes, it still hurts me when I hear about some letter carrier who went bad, hoarding first-class mail in his garage (junk mail, he can keep every bit of it for himself; I don’t care).

And don’t the postal workers make you proud these days, not assaulting one another like they used to? I don’t think I have heard the term “going postal” used in years. That’s what makes it all the more disheartening, hearing about all their money problems and such. They say 35,000 jobs could be chopped if Congressional members do not step in and demand that the USPS keep open a post office every 100 feet or so.

What’s the solution? Some experts say privatize like many European nations do. Others say drop home delivery from six to five days a week, eliminating Saturday. But a whole bunch of people who apparently get much more interesting mail on Saturdays than I do screamed and that’s on hold. Let us recall that until the Postal Act of 1863, letters would be held at the post office and you had to come get ’em, but why did we fight all those subsequent wars, if not for free home-delivery?

I believe that I have the answer: Drop delivery one or two days a week, but do not tell us that you have done it. I ask, if you come home tonight and find no mail in the box, do you automatically decide that delivery has been eliminated that day or that your favorite carrier has gone off to join the circus? No, you simply accept that you received no mail that day.

I have first-hand experience with this money-saving postulate. In 1968, when I was working at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle newspaper, there occurred a postal strike in Canada. For some strange reason, the folks who lived in Rochester considered Toronto, a sophisticated city even back then, to be their sister city. Believe me, the folks in Toronto did not reciprocate in their regard for Rochester.

Well, my editors insisted that I travel to Toronto on the second day of the strike to gauge the impact despite my having warned that it is nearly impossible for postal strikes to be felt for, I don’t know, three, maybe four days. Still, they insisted, so I drove up there, had a nice steak-sandwich lunch, talked with some local burghers, spent some time with the McLean magazine publishing people, and then wrote a story about the strike having had hardly any impact so far in Toronto, eh?

This is the kind of genius you could have expected from the first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin. Now there was a guy; he delivered the mail, did all that electrical stuff, wrote almanacs, and still had time for the ladies.

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