Thursday, December 8, 2011

US Post Office ~ Darned If They Do...

I’m trying to muster up some nostalgia for the US Postal Service.  It’s not dead yet, but it is staggering around, clutching its chest.  The handwriting is on the cyber wall:  The check’s not in the mail. 

Depending on who you talk to, the US Postal Service lost as much as $7 billion dollars this year.  Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says they can’t wait around to take corrective action, though one wonders if the loss was sudden, or if he just now noticed that $7 billion slipped through the PO’s fingers.   

Its decline has been steep in recent years.  The USPS reported delivering 216 billion pieces of mail in 2006, and only 177 billion pieces in 2010.  Sounds about right:  I get almost half my junk mail electronically now.  What with e-banking and e-shopping, e-soliciting and e-advertising, the need for hard copies of almost everything has plummeted.  That saves plenty o’ reams o’ paper.   

The cost cutting measures under consideration at USPS include closing some 3700 post offices and half its processing centers around the country.  We’re warned that these closures will result in slower delivery of letters.  I don’t think this is going to bother me too much.  Ever since I switched to on-line streaming with Netflix, I’ve quit looking for the speedy turnaround of hard copy mail.  In fact, it kind of creeped me out when that distinctive red envelop reappeared in my mailbox even if I’d only turned my head to sneeze. 

And let’s say delivery of letters goes from one day to two or three days, it’s still pretty impressive.  What a bargain, for one thing.  I’ve written a letter to my girlfriend in North Carolina.  Will you pick it up at my house Monday, please, and drop it into her mailbox on the east coast on Wednesday?  Oh and here’s 45cents for your trouble.   

Reports are that the PO could wipe out its entire $14 billion deficit by raising first class rates to 63cents per ounce.  Whoa, you might say.  Another 15cents, just like that?  No way.  But consider mailing across country at FedEx’s $8.66 for one-day service, or UPS 2-day air service at $19.72. 

What’s more, the Post Office is an icon of mainstream living in the United States.  When I was a kid, I saved up my box tops and sent away in the mail for a Detective Dick Tracy decoder ring.  The “sending away” constituted a mystery in itself since I couldn’t comprehend what General Mills was and the 6 weeks return time comprised half the summer.  But even if the ring itself remains a letdown parallel to sugar-free chocolate, its delivery by mail was magic. 

As a supplement to the book mobile my mom subscribed me to the Weekly Reader delivered by US mail.  The miracle of having grown-up mail arrive with my own little girl name on it thrilled me.  

The USPS made possible my childhood membership in the Audubon Society.  Full color glossy pictures of exotic birds made me a nerd before I understood the implications.  Thanks Mom.  No, I mean it, thanks.  Birds still provide elegance and fascination. 

The US mail afforded an early sense of adulthood:  My first gas and electric bill – not exactly ecstasy, but a validation.  Kind of like that first book of pre-printed checks.  I have a bank account.  So I must have money.  I have bills, therefore I am. 

Of course the "yippee!" drained out of that scenario in short order.   

In 2011, I maintain hand-written correspondence with the 95-year-old mother of a friend of mine, and with my husband’s second cousin in Scotland.  It’s a lovely, sort of Victorian sensation, quaint, almost genteel, to discover their letters in the box.  Sure, sometimes I think it might be nice to trade emails with them.  But if something were to happen to either of them, I won’t be holding my HP touchscreen monitor to conjure up their memories. 

If the Postal Service closes its doors, I’ll miss my mailman, er, letter carrier.  We’ve gotten acquainted since I retired.  He’s a nice man.  It’s impressive how much he knows about our town’s history by virtue of his years crisscrossing the neighborhoods.

These reminiscences are premature, of course.  Since Congress has to approve any recuperative actions before they’re implemented, it’s unlikely we’ll see any change at all in our lifetimes.  But inaction creates a catch-22:  no cost cutting leads to bankruptcy, and full circle back to nostalgia.  

Oh, the irony.