The snail-mail syndrome

The snail-mail syndrome

Post a letter and send it crawling on its way

Benjamin Franklin stands in front of the Old Post Office in Washington. (Wikipemedia Commons)
Benjamin Franklin stands in front of the Old Post Office in Washington. (Wikipemedia Commons)

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

There’s more snail than ever in snail mail.

I know that you know that. Not a neighborhood in New Jersey and New York, and for that matter nationwide, has been spared the impact of cutbacks at USPS and the draconian policies of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy (let’s be oxymoronic and make it DeMisery), an embedded Trump holdover who pulled sorting machines offline a few years ago at the height of the holiday season in the name of efficiency.

Ben Franklin, the father of the postal service and so much more in our nascent nation, would cringe if he were here today to see the challenged state of the system he helped birth. Over the centuries, it’s morphed from mounted couriers into a multibillion-dollar apparatus employing 635,000 uniformed (most of the time) drivers, deliverers, and clerks while deploying 250,000 vehicles. And that’s not counting contract carriers and seasonal temps.

Even with this critical mass behind it, and even though its reach is global and its impact local, USPS operates perpetually on the edge, with future prospects as precarious as ever for its mandated goal of functioning on a profitable basis. (The best it can do is claim a shrinking deficit.)

Franklin viewed a postal network as a noble and practical way to educate citizens through mass distribution of the periodicals and printed materials then becoming widespread with innovations in presswork. (He was, after all, an ink-stained wretch by trade.) The postal service did indeed become that instrument, but along the way it also evolved into a patronage pipeline with postmasterships handed out to the faithful of whichever party governed. And until the 1971 reorganization, the postmaster general remained in the cabinet, usually as the president’s chief political strategist.

With all that’s going on in the world, it seems a bit frivolous for me to choose such a mundane subject to write about, but it’s also one that periodically raises my hackles. The fuse for this particular broadside was lit after a first-class letter containing my missing credit card took 17 days to arrive from Ship Bottom, New Jersey, a Long Beach Island resort where my wife and I vacation, to our home in West Orange.

The alarms sounded after we returned from our shore stay and my wife couldn’t find her card. By process of elimination, Gail remembered she had used it at a new hamburger joint (restaurant would be stretching the term) just before we returned home.

Jonathan E. Lazarus

I immediately called the manager, and he couldn’t have been nicer or more reassuring. He confirmed that the card was indeed ours and promised to mail it out after his shift ended. I carefully went over my address, asking him to read it back and insisting that he wrap the precious plastic in several sheets of paper before putting it into the envelope. And, please, don’t forget to include your return address.

As the days passed and turned into weeks, my calls to him became more agitated. Yes, he reassured me, he had mailed it just after we spoke. Yes, the address was correct, and yes, the postal service was agonizingly slow. I also repeatedly contacted my credit card voicemail to make sure our balance didn’t show any suspicious bumps. My wife and I received the new cards just the preceding month after we had been hacked, and I dreaded the drill of going through a fresh round of emails and outreach to update our accounts so soon again.

Gail wanted to cancel the cards immediately, but a hunch told me to hang on, give USPS a chance to deliver, keep reminding myself that no matter how spotty the service, no letter of mine had ever been lost, coming or going, that I could remember, and to continue believing in the integrity of the eatery staff.

Also, there was a whiff of déjà vu hanging over the proceedings. Just weeks earlier, I sent my niece in Trenton a letter with important contents. Correspondence between us usually arrives in three to five days, but in this instance, it took two weeks and caused agita for both sender and recipient. Before that, another letter I mailed to her was in the wind for a fortnight before it was returned with a curt and deflating UNDELIVERABLE stamped across the front. Apparently, my penmanship lacked readability.

Despite these frustrations, I continue to stand behind USPS. Perhaps the most compelling reason is my stamp collection. I truly prize the 20-plus albums and philatelic ephemera accumulated over the 75 years since I adopted the hobby and stuck with it (couldn’t resist that one). Once, after memorizing the 1938 presidential series, I surprised my seventh-grade classmates and Mr. Zucker with a snarky recitation of chief executives. This enthusiasm, unfortunately, hasn’t attached to my grandchildren, although one did agree to curate but not necessarily expand the collection after I go to the big sorting center in the sky.

Additionally, memories of greeting the same mailman (only men in those days) for 25 years remain vivid. When our carrier retired, another careerist got to know family members and pets by name and pedigree, while thanking us every year for our inflation-adjusted tip. I also recall the rich leather pouches slung across their shoulders before pallid cloth sacks replaced them. And also, twice-a-day service if some VIP (very important package) was sent to the house, arriving in a van painted the same olive drab as military vehicles because the postal service ran very much like a military operation.

Naturally, this amounts to rear-view sentimentality. Those days will never be back, nor should they. But still, a first-class letter merits first-class treatment, especially when the rate is 66 cents and rising in what seems an all-too-often rinse-and-repeat process and one that is kept as hushed as possible by USPS. In 2011, the service even dropped denominations on stamps and labeled them as “forever.” (Their rationale: when the rate reaches $1 per letter, you can still use the stamp bought at 66 cents years prior. What a convoluted bargain! What delayed gratification!)

And just after the latest increase, Postmaster General DeJoy declared without apology that average delivery for a first-class ounce would rise to five days from three days, unless a customer paid dearly for priority express, starting at $28.75 for next day to two days, or basic priority at $9.75 for one to three days. My own unscientific survey shows the range for conventional delivery runs closer to three to seven days.

It’s clear USPS sees a limited future in first-class mail, which peaked at 103 billion pieces in 2001 and plunged 50% by 2020. The vertiginous trend proved so alarming that eliminating Saturday delivery was considered and narrowly averted in 2009 when Congress intervened. But the price became evident quickly: shorter window hours, longer lines, fewer neighborhood mailboxes, and the closing of facilities nationwide.

To be fair, USPS operates at several disadvantages when compared to such nimbler competitors as UPS, FedEx, and Amazon. Run by a board of governors and a postmaster general as an independent entity within the executive branch, it remains very much a creature of government, with layers of rules and bureaucracy and the whims of politics clouding issues further.

For instance, the 1971 reorganization mandated that USPS pre-fund pension plans for two very powerful unions representing clerks and letter carriers. After several defaults, Congress last year passed reform legislation modifying the obligation, and President Biden signed it. And it should be noted that when the Biden administration took office, efforts to oust Mr. DeJoy failed to gain traction because Republicans controlled the board of governors at the time and saved him from being canceled.

At one point, the Postal Service entertained high-flying notions about a fleet of its own jets to compete with UPS and FedEx. But that pie-in-the-sky proposal never got off the ground because of prohibitive costs. USPS, always on the prowl for new business, has since entered into agreements with Amazon and makes Sunday deliveries for profitable parcels and e-commerce. And its philatelic division now sells mugs, hoodies, and stationery in addition to, well, stamps.

Where the Postal Service could become a leader, though, is by converting to an all-electric fleet. Its familiar armada of Grumman vans have been patched up and kept running well beyond their 25-year wear-and-tear date, and replacements are on the way from Oshkosh Defense Corporation. The 10-year contract calls for 165,000 vehicles, the first 50,000 of which would be split between EVs and gas-powered. After 2026, all would be fully electric. The familiar van design and right-side steering are retained, but with a raised roof and huge front window.

Oh, and about that credit card. As I pulled into the driveway and raised the garage door, I had a premonition that D (for delivery) Day had finally arrived. There, atop a pile of advertising mailers, charity appeals, and bills, sat the envelope, none the worse for the wear. I called the restaurant manager, thanked him up and down, and told him I would be mailing an appreciative gratuity for the staff’s tip box.

I only hope it didn’t take 17 days to arrive.

Jonathan E. Lazarus, a retired Star-Ledger editor and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard/NJJN, plans to continue using the mails in the new year even though he knows faster methods are available. He’ll just send his correspondence early and remember the lessons of the tortoise and the hare.

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