Saturday, December 18, 2010

Going Postal and the Unfortunately Unforgettable

One of the worst places to be forced to spend any time in at this time of year is the post office. You know that no matter when you go or how prepared you are, you're going to wind up in a line that extends out the door. People, unfamiliar with the extended mailing process, will stand up at the painfully few open counter spaces, unable to decide between express or priority shipping. Although your transaction takes the 31 seconds you planned that it would, the guy in front of you with a dolly loaded up with poorly labeled cardboard boxes is going to ensure that any post office visit you make will require that you pack sustenance in advance should you face a choice between starvation and cannibalism.

All I needed was six international stamps--and the price of this excursion was $5.88 and 30 minutes of my time. As I finally approached the counter, I noticed many familiar faces among the overwhelmed post office staff--and one in particular. A young lady was one of these staff members. I recognized her right away--I knew she couldn't tell me from a crowd of a thousand people she had ever served in the post office. . .

But I would never forget her.

It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend over a year ago. I had put together a mailing for another organization that, through my place of employment, I am affiliated with. The day before, at around 5 p.m., I had used the postal meter machine to mark all of the letters. I organized them all in a box, and I figured it would be easier for postal employees to take them directly from me, so I drove over to the post office with them. After a short wait in line, I walked up to the counter where this same young lady was standing.

It was clear to me that this was a new employee. She seemed entirely baffled why I brought her these already prepared letters, and entirely unable to understand that all she need do with them is bring them to the sorting facility behind the public space. In her bewilderment, she happened to examine the meter stamp on one of them.

"We can't take these," she said curtly.

"Why exactly?"

"They're postmarked yesterday," she replied, equally curtly.

I narrowed my eyes at her.

"And why is that a problem?"

"We can only take mail that is postmarked the day we take it through the office."

I had a feeling I was dealing with a new employee here who was desperate to get it right in front of two or three longer-serving colleagues. I felt bad for her upon this revelation, but certainly not bad enough to ask:

"These were not postmarked until after 5 p.m. How could I have gotten them to you?"

Her answer: "Well, we're open until 6; you could have brought them then."

I was starting to get irritated: "My work day ends at 5 p.m, ma'am."

She was starting to get irritated: "That's not my problem. I can't take these letters."

Ok, now I'm getting angry: "So, explain to me why I can postmark a letter anytime AFTER the mailman comes through to pick up mail at 11 a.m., and he takes it the next day without a struggle."

She clearly didn't like being cornered on that one.

I sighed: "OK, since you're really intent on this, tell me what I can do. The postal meter debits our account when we mark letters. I can't just run them through twice because we will be charged twice."

"You have to set the meter to zero. Then, put the letters through so they have a mark with today's date on them."

My thought: Have YOU ever received a letter that was marked TWICE in this manner? I don't think so.

My parting comment involved the words "ridiculous" and "irrational."

I called one of my colleagues at work to ask about what I should do after both I and the box of letters were in the car. Was it even possible to set the meter to zero?

Her suggestion: "Well, here's what I think: just put them in a mailbox somewhere. Make sure it isn't one of the ones right outside the post office. Just pick one somewhere in the city. I'm sure there won't be a problem."


I had no idea that a quest for a discretely located blue mailbox was going to be such a trek. I needed to find one with a listed final pick-up time scheduled around 5 p.m.--it was already around 3, and I was sufficiently put on-guard by the postal worker to believe that the letters had to be carried that day if they displayed yesterday's date on them. As I drove around, checking times listed on each box, I found that it was gradually becoming more and more difficult to steer the car. As I pushed harder and harder on the steering wheel, I felt the pull of the elastic belt more and more taughtly. After about half an hour of driving around, I gave up and parked the car in one of the downtown spaces in front of a fully visible mailbox--one of the only ones with a pick-up time of 5 p.m. on it. I dumped all of the letters in the mailbox and got back into the car with the empty box.

Now, it was nearly impossible to drive--something was definitely wrong. I was about a block away from my regular mechanic's shop, so I forced the car in that direction, slowly driving it into the lot and parking it in an available space. After checking in at the front desk, the mechanic came out of the garage and popped the hood of my car.

"Oh, wow. Look at that."

He and I were looking at the same thing. The main difference was that I could have been looking at a car about to explode, and I wouldn't have any idea.

I asked.

"Do you see that there," he pointed to one of the belts, "that is the steering belt. See how the end is all torn up? And look, this distributes fluid to the belt, and it looks like all of the fluid has leaked out of it. This is definitely not a drivable car. You're going to have to leave it here."

If anything, this whole debacle gave me a greater appreciation for this mechanic--because it was Labor Day weekend, and he was concerned that I wouldn't be able to rent a car, he offered me the use of the shop's truck for the weekend. I very much appreciated it--I told him that I would let him know if nothing was available. Fortunately, I was able to get a small car for the weekend without inconveniencing him.

To be fair to the postal worker, had I not embarked on an exodus to find a mailbox, I may not have discovered this potentially dangerous car problem until I was well on my way home that evening. Or, on the other hand, it could have been that very trip that damaged the car somehow. Or, given our exchange at the counter, she could have called upon a legion of equally-disgruntled postal workers to compromise my car while we were speaking at the counter.

Whatever the case, one thing is true--

I will NEVER forget her.