Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Five weeks ago the small post office that has served my community since the 1950s closed. There was no fanfare or good-bye party, just a printed sign on the door telling customers to go to another facility a couple of miles away. The people who had PO boxes were instructed to find another way to get their mail, and just like that a small part of the neighborhood vanished.
As post offices go, this one wasn’t much. It was located between a second-hand computer store and a Korean dry cleaner, just across from a Sunoco so it always smelled of gasoline and motor oil. Two windows, one wrapping table, a rack of mailing supplies that more often than not was found wanting. The round institutional clock had been taken away some years before when an efficiency expert persuaded the postal authorities that it was better for customers not to see how long they’d been waiting for service.
The employees knew just about everyone by name and conversely, we knew that Miss J was quick and efficient while Mrs. T liked to talk and took her time. We knew whose kid had just graduated from George Mason, had returned from Iraq, had gotten married or divorced. We knew Miss P was a flirt who went on cruises every other year in search of love and romance. Mr. O’s told us his wretched Toyota had once again broken down at the bottom of the hill.
I’d been going there for years to ship stuff I sold on eBay—guitars, amps, effect boxes and microphone stands—and once showed up with four used Porsche wheels with tires, all enclosed in cardboard and rolls of packing tape. I was sending them to a buyer in California. Miss J clucked and laughed, then told me I really shouldn’t have bothered wrapping them. I could have sent them as is, that is to say buck naked, as long as the address and postage were visible. Live and learn.
The post office closed because the entire enterprise is losing money at a frightening clip. The USPS lost more than $5 billion in 2011, and needs to shed about $20 billion in annual costs by 2015. There is talk of ending Saturday deliveries, and overnight delivery of first class mail will probably cease as well. We—the customers—are partially to blame. Email, instant messaging, tweeting and all the other ways we have to communicate in an impersonal manner have taken their toll. Add to this the preferential treatment given to mass mailings and advertising, the increased cost of gasoline, salaries and maintenance costs and the demise of post offices throughout the land was inevitable.
On December 13th, the USPS agreed on a five-month moratorium on closures while lawmakers try to figure out a way to overhaul the system. That’s good, I suppose, since some POs tagged for closing were in truly rural areas that could not afford UPS or Fedex. The small space that was my post office is to be rented out to a dollar store. I suppose there might be a need for such a place where I live.
Mrs. T took the closing as an opportunity to retire. Miss P now works in the giant sorting facility in the town next to mine. Miss J, her talents and efficiency finally recognized, was promoted to an office job within the Services. She works not too far away but told me she misses seeing her customers. Mr. O retired too and was given a bonus. He had his Toyota towed to a junkyard and bought a second-hand Lexus. Life goes on.