Freeman

ARTICLE

Going Postal

APRIL 17, 2003 by TED ROBERTS

I like my mailman because in a drowsy occupational environment where dismissal for sleeping in the mail truck is unheard of and battlefield promotions are rare, John delivers the goods. He’s the real McCoy. He could have been a dust-crusted, hard-riding pony express rider. Big John would have lugged his horse — mail satchels strapped to his side — the last quarter mile
into the relay station.

Sometimes, instead of stuffing my mail and packages into the mailbox, John brings them to my door. With a smile, too. No question about it — John is an all-star on the team that’s woefully short on incentives. There are no bonuses for the men and women in blue; and the coach never makes a halftime speech. His only muse — his only well of inspiration — is his work.

But John carries Christmas in his heart all year round—especially those visions of holly-wreathed, green envelopes that contained a matching green picture of Alexander Hamilton. Happy customers always remember their mailperson in latter December.

But I owed him more than a Christmas tenner for his devotion, I reflected. So, one morning I drove over to the post office to put in a good word for this servant of the people. It couldn’t hurt.

My intentions were totally honorable. I did not want to privatize the postal service — nor did I want to reduce the price of stamps.

But there was always the danger of a misunderstanding. My last tete-a-tete with the local postmaster had gone badly. I had gently suggested that instead of a line of 20 customers loaded like mules with bulky packages, why not shorten that line with a self-service technique? Why not put a scale out on the counter? The customer (“we are customers, ya know,” I said civilly) weighs his own package, buys the requisite number of stamps from the machine, and he’s on his way without perturbing a post-office employee.

The manager smiled at my faith in my fellow man. Problem was, he said, that the public would not get it right. They’d flub the weighing operation—apply incorrect postage. The package would be returned. I knew what he was thinking. Even if we could read the scale correctly, somehow we would lick the stamps wrong.

But that was then—this was now. And initial omens this morning were good. No line, which was unusual. I went right to the window. And I bought a whole roll of stamps at 37 bucks, which was a 9 percent increase over last year. (I figured maybe it would go better if I bought something first; my image should reflect “customer” not “Inspector General.”) One of life’s cosmic mysteries is why the price of postal services perennially inflates even though the prices of PCs, airline fares, long-distance communications, chicken-leg quarters, and Big Macs have plummeted.

But I paid my bill with a smile and then announced I’d like to see the boss, quickly adding to show my benevolence that I wanted to commend an employee. This provoked a long discussion between my stamp salesman and the stamp salesman in the next cubicle about the identity and location of the boss. Finally, a head with a suspicious expression peeped out of the portal that separated the mob in the lobby from the uniformed post-office employees.

I announced my mission. The head with the suspicious expression almost smiled. He said there was a form for this purpose. He searched the public counter for the form. He couldn’t find the form. “I’ll tell him,” he said over his shoulder as he disappeared intc that open portal leading to the nonprofit world of the Postal Service, where losses multiply, stamps go up every year, and nobody is ever dismissed, even though the employees aren’t efficient enough to access a form that testifies to their efficiency.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t want him to tell John. I wanted him to do something rewarding for John. I know they don’t deal in stock options, bonuses, and vulgar incentives, but maybe a free flight on the mail plane to Vegas. Or the use of that cute little red, white, and blue trucklet for a weekend date. Poor John, how long before the system dries up his heart?

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April 2003

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