Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Report on the postal system in a Third World country: The United States of America

We don't need no stinkin' post office. We can
dance our messages. (Art cribbed from the
Bodlian Library.)

An aunt of mine died a few years ago at the age of 92. During World War II she had been on, or close to, the front lines with the Red Cross, which followed the 88th Infantry Division as it battled its way up Italy's Po River. She sent many letters home vividly describing the war, and the people she met who fought it. I worried that the letters had been lost when my parents died.

But no. My brother came across the old letters and saved them when he cleared out out my late mother’s apartment. He lives on the West Coast now. I live in New York. Recently, he photocopied all the letters, a big stack of them, and sent them to me via Priority Mail.

That was almost two weeks ago. I still haven’t received them.

The long, slow, painful trek
via USPS "Priority Mail"

With "Priority Mail" shipping is promised in what the USPS website says will be “1, 2, or 3 business days based on where your package starts and where it’s being sent.” You’d think a package promised within three days would have gotten from California to New York within, say, oh, five or six days. Maybe even seven days. No such luck. I finally checked with my brother, who checked with USPS priority mail tracking. And yup, there was a problem.

The package evidently had gotten all the way to New York. However, my sibling had inadvertently reversed a couple of number in the zip code. You might guess that somebody in the New York Post Office would have a precise idea — okay, even a rough general idea —  where East 36th Street, New York, NY is, and tossed the envelope into the right basket.  But no, they sent it all the way  back to my brother in California to be correctly zip-coded.

This he did, when the package finally got all the way back to California. He even got on the phone with me to double-check, line by line, character by character, my street address, apartment number, and zip code. Then he priority mailed it to me again.

And still lost

Two days went by. I went down to the lobby and checked with my building's concierge to see if the package had arrived. It hadn’t. I checked my mail box to make certain the package with those precious documents hadn’t been scrunched into my mail box instead. It hadn’t.

I went back upstairs and called my brother, who checked with USPS tracking.

“It says they delivered it to the front desk at 10:30 a.m., today” he told me.

“The front desk of what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, all they say is 'the front desk,'” he told me.

So I went downstairs and checked again with the concierge .

“They don’t deliver to me directly,” said the concierge. "They drop off a few baskets of mail in the mail room at 10:30 in the morning. Then, around 6 in the evening, a post office delivery person comes back and sorts it into the mail boxes. If it doesn’t fit in your mail box, they’ll give it to me. I should have it by seven or eight p.m., if it’s actually here."

So maybe I'll get it this evening, before I go to bed. Or maybe not. But I can’t leave things at that. I have to tell you a story — it goes back over 59 years — about something that happened to me when Donald Trump was still a snot nosed brat in a military prep school, and America was still a First-World nation.

The true tale of the 
un-discardable notebook

In my third year of college, I studied abroad. During Christmas week I found myself in Paris, in a small, cheap, second-rate hotel across the street from the Sorbonne on Rue Victor Cousin. (The hotel is still there, by the way — still cheap, and still just as second-rate.) At any rate I had a few minutes of conversation with the woman who served as combination proprietor, concierge, desk clerk and maid of the hotel, during which she asked me what university I went to.

I said it was Antioch College. This took some more explaining, since in France, a “collège” is the equivalent of an American middle school, and my conversational French was not quite comme il faut. But I think she finally understood what Antioch College is.

A few days later it was very cold and raining hard, so I spent an afternoon indoors, killing time by trying to write dirty limericks in a notebook. Hey, I was only nineteen.

The following day I packed up to return to the University of Leeds in England. I didn’t want to take the notebook with me. What if some customs inspector found it in my baggage and read it? So I tossed my filthy limericks into the hotel room’s wastebasket, and then headed by rail to the English Channel ferryboat.

Evidently, after I checked out, the proprietor must have gone to clean the room and possibly even change the sheets and the one pathetic towel. She must have seen the notebook in the wastebasket and figured it might be something important that I needed for my studies. She couldn't read English. Perhaps she thought the hermit named Dave was some important literary figure.

So she put the notebook in a manilla envelope. She addressed the envelope as best she knew how: My name. And then, “Collège d’Antioch, USA.” Then she dropped it in a French mail box. Without a stamp.

"Neither rain, nor snow, nor lack
of a proper address or postage..."

Five days later, the package had wended its way from Paris, to some post office depot in the United States, to a postal clerk who took the trouble to figure out what “Collège d’Antioch” was, and to look up its address (1 Arthur Morgan Place, Yellow Springs, Ohio, 45387) and send it speeding on its way, postage due. The Yellow Springs Post Office next got the package and delivered it to the college mail room.

Then somebody in the Antioch College mail room paid the postage due and sent the package along to some college administrator, who looked me up and figured out I was in Europe, and who then — presumably because the envelope might contain something urgent — opened the package and found my notebook full of filthy, and not-necessarily-well-rhymed-or-well-scanned limericks. 

The administrator must have gotten quite a chuckle out of my failed attempts as a porno poet, because the notebook evidently made the rounds of the administration building, finally landing on the desk of the college public relations director. Her name was Marge Fried. She was a late-middle-aged former reporter for the Dayton, Ohio Daily News. She wrote a press release about the travels of my notebook, and sent it out to the newspapers.

Well, to be fair, Marge cleaned up my act a little bit. She wrote that I was studying with Antioch’s Education Abroad program, and rattled on a bit about what a great program it was. She then went on to explain that while I was in Paris, I filled a notebook with poems — because after all, it was Paris — about “l’amour.” Never mind sex and hermits named Dave. Just "L'amour."And then how the package found its way from a hotel waste basket to a college administration building in Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387, thanks to the intrepid detective and delivery work of two great national postal systems.

All this happened in less than a week! Before "Priority Mail" was even a thing.

The pain of embarrassment

The whole story embarrassed the hell out of me then, and still does today. I merely bring it up to illustrate the difference between what First World nations like France and the United States could do rather matter-of-factly when the USA was still a First World nation, and how badly things work today now that Donald Trump has turned us into a “shithole country” — a country in which a “Priority Mail” package for which you pay extra takes forever to get delivered, if it ever gets delivered at all.

There once was a cranky old bum
Who sent messages by jungle drum
Saying, “What use is mail
When deliveries fail
And ‘priority’ means it won’t come?”

1 comment:

Steve M. said...

Great story. I don't blame the decline on Trump, however. The Republicans have been gunning for the Postal Service since the Reagan years, if not longer than that, and they've been successful at weakening it for a long time before America turned orange.