lettermuseum

a year in the life of a postal customer

Thank you

Something was wrong at my local post office when I drove into the parking lot shortly after noon today, the last day of the year. A man leaving told me they were closed. I went inside to see for myself. The two mail slots were blocked shut and the door to the darkened inner lobby was locked. Would Felix and Eudora close early on one of the most important postmark deadlines of the year without leaving an explanation? I looked on the door of the inner lobby. No sign. What about the front door? I walked outside. Yes, a “Special Holiday Hours” sign was taped to the door. It blended in with the other signs and decals plastered all over the glass entrance; you really had to look for it. Also, whoever taped it to the inside of the glass door didn’t walk outside to see how it looked to someone trying to read it. Large white decal lettering about normal service hours obstructed the sign’s printed information. You could read the line that said “For alternate locations open later, visit” but not the next line with the detail you cared most about. You had to twist your head around to look sideways behind the white decal letters. The last line was one I’ve seen again and again during this year of paying attention to life as a postal customer: “Thank you for choosing the U.S. Postal Service.” For a while I stood in the lobby directing people to the sign that was hard to read. Then I gave up and went home.

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Public service

The biggest postal surprise of the drive around Long Island this past weekend occurred on Shelter Island, between the South and North Forks on the eastern end. The post office there has a plaque identical to the one in my local post office back home in my Connecticut zip code: same words, same year, same President of the United States and Postmaster General. It was as if I’d been on a yearlong scavenger hunt and had just won the prize. In front of the post office I met an old man going inside to check his PO box. I told him my post office and his were built the same year and have the same plaque. “You mean about Lyndon Johnson?” “Yes, and dedicated to public service.” He said the problem with this post office is that there is no mailman. Everyone on the island is given a free PO box, but he needs a bigger one and has to pay for it. Yikes, I hadn’t noticed the absence of mailboxes on Shelter Island. He said he thought mail delivery was supposed to be free. I agreed with him and said it may have something to do with dedication to public service, and how it has changed.

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Green post office

I am driving around Long Island for a few days. I started at the westernmost end to get a better look at the places I fly over when landing at JFK, then continued east to the Hamptons. I’ve been noticing post offices along the way. This one in Southampton looks so different from others – new, with columns – that I went inside to talk to the postal clerks. They said it’s about five years old and that it’s a “green” post office. I said that’s a new one on me and asked what it means. They said they’re not sure, but they get a lot of complaints from residents about the easy-care lawn.

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Closing time

Today I was at the main post office using the Self Service Kiosk just before closing time. The time didn’t matter to me, because the Self Service Kiosk is available 24/7.  That post office always has music playing in the lobby, and I remember thinking how long it had been since I’d heard “I Am the Walrus.” My thoughts were interrupted by loud voices coming from the inner lobby. “You can’t be closed!” “We close at 5:30.” “It’s not 5:30!” “Our clock back here says 5:32.” “I checked the time before getting out of my car – it’s not 5:30! – and this package to Italy has to go out today!” (I looked at my watch – it said 5:28. I moved closer to the lobby.) “I’m sorry, we’re closed,” repeated the clerk. A woman arriving with a bulky package saw what was going on. “It’s not 5:30!” she shrieked, sounding just like Woody’s wife in the movie “Nebraska,” which I’d seen the night before. The postal clerk didn’t budge. “It’s like this every day,” she said, staring straight ahead, looking at no one. “This wouldn’t happen if you people would get here a few minutes earlier.” I felt bad for everyone, but couldn’t think how to improve the moment.

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Lost and found

Today is Christmas, the tenth and final postal holiday of the calendar year. For Christmas this year I received the new book of John Lennon’s letters, a sheet of Early TV Memories stamps from 2009, and a USPS totebag from 2011 promoting a new slogan that was soon discontinued: “We’re everywhere so you can be anywhere.” The blue background in this photo is a large, sturdy, blue cloth bag from my sister Tracey in Colorado, who found it on the lawn outside a post office next to a motel and assumed it was an abandoned mailbag. She took it home and washed and ironed it and saved it for my Christmas present. From spending as much time as I have in post offices this year, I’ve noticed that property belonging to the U.S. Postal Service has their name stamped on it somewhere. My guess is that this is a laundry bag from the motel.

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Your attention, please

In Dallas I met a writer who told me his artist friend has moved to New York and is too busy to respond to voicemails or emails or texts. To get his attention, the Dallas man has written him a letter asking him to call. The writer seems confident that the letter will do the trick. “Does your friend check his mail?” I asked. “We’ll see,” he said.

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Dealey Plaza

I found the Dallas post office murals in the building downtown that longtime residents still call the Terminal Annex, though now it’s used as a Federal Building. This morning the security guard called upstairs and got approval for me to enter the lobby and take pictures. The two murals painted by Peter Hurd in 1940-41 are in good condition and depict “Pioneer Homebuilders” and “Airmail Over Texas.” Historical information about the murals and the Art Deco building is posted on bulletin boards to be read by visitors like me. It’s nice to know there are others. The written material happened to mention that on November 22, 1963, employees in this building watched the Presidential motorcade from fifth floor windows. As I left the building, I saw what a direct view they had had across Dealey Plaza to the Texas School Book Depository on the right and the grassy knoll on the left. I remember the sky was blue like today. I keep thinking about them and what they saw.

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Wonderland

I was in downtown Dallas today looking for the post office murals I’d read about. By mistake I walked into the wrong building and into an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. I found myself in a gleaming and spacious marble post office lobby from 1930, restored to its former splendor. The customers waiting in line with holiday packages were not scowling or sighing loudly. They probably enjoy standing there and looking up at the ceiling. There was none of the usual clutter I see in post office lobbies everywhere I go – no racks of retail items, no Priority Mail posters, no “We appreciate your business” floor mat, no bright blue Self Service Kiosk. Now that I think of it, there was nothing red, white, and blue. How do they get away with it? I learned that this project won an award last year from Preservation Dallas, and the upper floors are now luxury apartments. What a coincidence. That’s what a developer wants to do with the historic downtown post office building back home in Stamford that is tied up in a lawsuit.

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Folded stationery

There used to be a kind of stationery that unfolded. First you opened it the normal way, as you would a notecard that opens from the side, and then you could unfold it again from the bottom for more space to write on. If this kind of stationery still exists, I haven’t seen it anywhere. It’s probably considered vintage, found only at estate sales, or, in my case, among the things my mother left behind. The example below is from a box of stationery from New Orleans, with drawings of the French Quarter. Either it was originally cream color or it has faded over time. I used this one today for a letter I enclosed with a jar of honey in a holiday package. At first I wasn’t sure I’d have enough to say, but once I got started I kept thinking of things to write about, even an author to recommend. In fact, there wasn’t enough room inside, so I folded it up and continued writing on the back.

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How late can you wait?

I saw this bright red sign about holiday mailing deadlines on my Thanksgiving trip to South Carolina. It was reassuring to learn how long a procrastinator can wait to mail a Christmas package. The sign said “‘Tis the season to send!” and gave the dates of Friday, December 20 for First Class Mail; Saturday, December 21 for Priority Mail Flat Rate; and as late as Monday, December 23 for Priority Mail Express. That’s the new name for Express Mail. In North Carolina I saw a variation of the sign: “Dashing through the snow to deliver your boxes.” I’ll probably never know who decides which posters to display at post offices, and how they are distributed. The sign in North Carolina was a wall poster seen at a distance. In South Carolina it was a decal on the front door. The fine print in the bottom right corner gave helpful hints to the person in charge of displaying it: “Door Decal Exterior-Facing (Glass).” It also specified an expiration date: “DOWN 1/2/2014.” From my visits to post offices this year, I understand why it is necessary to say when to remove a sign. There was the Five-Star Rating decal from 2009 in Belfast, Maine, not to mention the Postal Pledge to Customers from 1987 in Kenai, Alaska. Today is December 18 – there’s still plenty of time.

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