USPS -- 09/09/11

I've been thinking about the USPS lately - the United States Postal Service (to be formal about it) or (as we always called it) the Post Office. (For those of you who live outside of the U.S., our postal service is on shaky financial ground and says it has to make drastic cuts in costs or it will run out of money and will be unable to operate.) Then Bev Sykes wrote a USPS-themed entry the other day. (It has a special meaning to her since her father worked for them his entire career.)

I grew up with the penny postcard and three cents to send a standard 1st class letter (the cost to send a letter that weighed up to one ounce). I can remember the end of the penny postcard. It was in 1952 that they doubled the charge for sending a postcard. It took them another six years before they raised the charge for a standard first class letter to four cents (and at the same time, they raised the postcard rate to three cents). Rates kept on going up. I can remember the increase to eight cents for fiirst class (May of 1971) because a year later I bailed out of grad school (having decided that I didn't really want a PhD in English above all else in my life) and took a job as a life insurance agent. That meant buying lots of stamps to send birthday cards and holiday greetings and thank-you-for-buying notes to customers and sales pitches to potential customers. (I left that job just a few weeks before the next increase took first class postage to ten cents -- and raised postage for a "penny postcard" to eight cents.)

Shortly after that I was living in between the towns of Oxford and Norwich in upstate New York. Oxford is a village with around four thousand people; Norwich, with slightly over seven thousand people, is the City of Norwich. Yet less than forty miles away, with more than twice the population of Norwich, you will find Johnson City which -- despite its name -- is legally just a village. It is said that the state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, will never allow the creation of another city, no matter what the population figure may be, lest it decrease the amount of pork available to the existing cities, no matter how low their share of the population may become.

Ah, but I digress... My apartment was on the second floor of a building next to a former motel that had been remodeled into (very small) apartments. All of the mailboxes (including mine) were on a rack at the entrance to the former motel's parking lot. Arriving there in late August, I mentally pictured walking eighty feet or so over and through mounds of plowed up snow in an upstate winter and quickly decided that I wanted to get a mail box at the post office in town (which was right on my way to and from work). But when I stopped there to get one I was told that they had none available... all of the boxes in the post office were taken... and there was a waiting list for the next available box if someone should leave. However, they told me that I could just use "Care of General Delivery" and just stop at the counter and ask for it.

So I did. I think there were some people who wondered if I really existed or not with "C/O General Delivery" as my mailing address and no telephone number. Yeah, that's right -- I didn't bother to get a telephone. I could use a pay phone for the limited number of phone calls I would want to make and save money.

I wasn't really incognito. It was a small town. I would stop at the post office on my way home from work in the afternoon and -- on most days -- by the time I actually entered the post office, the clerk behind the counter would have my mail ready to hand to me. In fact, after a year or so, my name moved up on the waiting list and they told me that they had an open mail box and by then I was so accustomed to the routine that I passed it up and let them give it to the next person on the list.

I thought it was ironic that one of my students (I was teaching high school) could graduate from high school, take the postal service exam, and if they had a high enough score and there was an opening, they could get a job with a starting salary that was a little bit better than I was making (with several years of experience, a B.A. degree, and more than thirty graduate courses).

And now we are in the 21st century and postal volume is down. One figure I have read says volume has dropped more than 22 percent since 2006 and continues to decline. The advent of email and online bill paying has certainly cut down on the outgoing mail in most houses. And the continuing economic difficulties -- we can't say "recession" because the professional economists (who all have nice-paying jobs) determined that it ended two years ago -- mean that companies are sending out less junk mail. Oh, but wait -- they don't like us calling their vital documents "junk mail" -- so let us call it what it is: SPAM. Except unlike email SPAM -- which costs us nothing but time -- the SPAM that is delivered by the post office is not free; it is subsidized by us through the higher prices we pay when we send first class mail. Not SPAM? What else would you call the heap of credit card offers, hearing aid offers, solicitations for "charities" that spend most of what they collect on the process of soliciting, advertisements, self-serving lies from your district's CongressCreep, more advertisements, magazine offers, and on and on. Stuff that goes through the shredder and then into the recycle bin.
(Wait! You may already be a winner!)

Actually, our house is probably on the high side of mail totals because we all have magazine subscriptions. Ignoring publications from groups like ASTD (that's American Society for Training and Development -- and I've just decided not to renew my membership because I don't have time for all stuff they send me, not to mention all the stuff they want to sell me), I do subscribe to several magazines: New England Runner, Runner's World, Running Times, Analog Science Fiction, Forbes, and Reason. I think that, in itself, labels me as being somewhat old-fashioned. I had a subscription to Men's Health for several years but apparently I failed to renew it because I realized a few months ago that I hadn't seen an issue lately. Well, it can take me a while to realize something like that because it's difficult to find time for all this stuff so I am frequently several weeks (or more) behind in my reading. It's like if I don't read it as soon as it comes, a magazine gets buried under new things and then gets found two months later. Oops, I almost forgot to mention Consumer Reports (yeah, I remembered when I went out to our mailbox to bring in today's mail and there was the latest issue, along with a combination of mostly junk mail with a few pieces of wanted mail).

I may not write many personal letters (as opposed to email) other than a few birthday cards and a Christmas photograph/letter inserted into a couple dozen Christmas cards, but I do have half a dozen magazines in my mailbox, so I think I'm doing my part to keep the USPS going. Hey, and I order lots of stuff from Amazon and they sometimes use the USPS for delivery.

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