If you’re old enough and have a better memory than me, you might recall the first time you walked into a music store and realized they didn’t sell records anymore, only cassettes in tiny plastic cases—your first awareness as a young adult that something basic about the world had shifted and you hadn’t even noticed. You might remember how these changes have happened again from time to time in the intervening years—realized how now the pace at which they occur has seemingly accelerated.
These days (at least in my corner of the US) even butchers at the grocery don’t prepare individual cuts of meat upon request but limit their service to 3 hours in the late afternoon and early evening, when stores are busiest. Neither my partner Sara nor I can remember when there were last pump attendants at gas stations, let alone someone to check and change our oil or fix a flat.
In fact, this past week Sara told me her world had suddenly and fundamentally shifted again when she stepped into our downtown post office to find it empty. Desk closed. No postal personnel in sight, just an automated system called the “Self Service Ship and Mail Center.” Sara says it can efficiently weigh packages, dispense stamps, and track deliveries—no smile or the ability to greet grandma by name.
Facing possible bankruptcy, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is closing facilities or radically reducing hours and personnel all over the country. Our home state of Kentucky alone has nine USPS offices scheduled to shut even their automated doors. For those of us who correspond via email and pay bills online, the postal service, though not a daily necessity, remains a service we take for granted. But for those on the less fortunate side of the digital divide, a society without decent mail service is hard to imagine.
With this reality in mind, the USPS Office of Inspector General recently offered an alternative to closing post offices, cutting window hours, and getting rid of career postal workers. A report suggests that local post offices be re-imagined as vital community hubs that offer services like internet access and copy-making capabilities, places with the potential for bringing in new sources of revenue and revitalizing dying brick and mortar facilities. (You can read the entire report called “21st Century Post Office: Non-Postal Products and Services” here.)
Some who love snail mail less than Sara (or me for that matter) argue in support of USPS cuts-backs or outright elimination, suggesting two big competitors are waiting in the wings, FedEx and UPS. It’s true, as Dave Jamison writes in the Huffington Post, that “those shipping giants have a combined U.S. workforce comparable to that of the USPS, but it’s also unlikely they would fill the void left by the agency, since neither UPS nor FedEx would probably be interested in delivering letters, postcards and bills. “ It’s not cost-effective. These companies, instead, have “networks designed for more specialized, high-dollar shipping,” says Jamison. Plus, private corporations—though they have proved themselves to be kind and caring, almost actual people, according to Mitt Romney— have no social obligations to the public good, the way the USPS does, and seemingly less ability to lovingly deliver your package in one piece.
If the USPS is lost as a public asset, we risk losing much more than a value the US constitution guarantees American citizens. We risk losing an institution that our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them could count on. It would mean the end of an era, one marked for literally centuries by service with a smile and the memory that you’re more than merely a package recipient; you’re neighbor, teacher, friend.
Who but your local mail carrier, his bag bulging with the expectation of Christmas, manages daily to greet grandma with a wave and a friendly face—grandma who has gray hair, a slight stoop, and no knowledge of online bill-paying?
It’s inevitable that time changes the world around us, but some institutions, like Santa, rock and roll, or the predictable rhythms of US mail, remain ingrained in the popular imagination.
It’s even possible your neighborhood USPS carrier will whistle “Please, Mr. Postman” as he greets you by name and delivers that Beatles CD you ordered off of eBay last Wednesday–not a Christmas gift, by any means, but a festive occasion, nonetheless.
How is mail delivery or any other cultural institution changing, for better or worse, in your corner of the planet? Would you be willing to lose your local postal carrier?
Note: This post was a collaborative effort with my partner Sara—who originally drafted parts of this and generously allowed me to edit and expand the piece to my own liking. You can see another version of this post on Sara’s blipFoto site, “Que Sera Sara.”