Brown paper packages tied up with string are not the favorite things of the people in the shipping business.
I learned this bit of information right after I had carried six -- yes! six -- brown paper packages into the United Parcel Service warehouse. They were Christmas gifts being sent to distant relatives.
Part of the UPS warehouse floor had been converted into a little store to help amateur shippers. Right inside the door there were tables you could throw your heavy packages on as you filled out forms.
No sooner had I deposited my family's half-dozen yuletide parcels on one of these tables, than a gentleman named Joe appeared at my side.
Joe told me my packages were inappropriately wrapped.
Joe was firm, but gentle. In a company that claims to run a tight ship, Joe seemed to be the guy who made sure that the hatches were battened down and that no wrapping paper was flapping.
These days, Joe told me, conveyor belts run the shipping business. And when you wrap boxes in paper, brown or other colors, the wrapping has a tendency to tear. And when the paper tears, Joe continued, the conveyor belt doesn't work properly. Joe didn't say what the machines do when they are frustrated. That I could guess. They eat packages.
As Joe brought me up to speed on the changes in shipping technology, he also attempted to push down the corners of one of my packages. A piece of brown paper had flared out, making a tempting target for a voracious conveyor belt. Joe said a strong, unadorned box sealed with tape is the best way to ship gifts.
The news hit me hard. As I looked around, I saw other customers lugging their naked boxes right up to the counter. Joe didn't have to correct them, but I was stuck at the form-filling-out table, with my inadequately attired packages.
I felt like a kid who shows up on the first day of gym class wearing wingtips. Moreover, my nerves were already frayed. I had spent most of the morning cutting up grocery sacks to use as wrapping paper. Then I wandered around trying to to find the industrial park that the warehouse sits in. (My best directions: From downtown, try to get in the one open lane of Interstate 395 south, hope the Caton Avenue exit is open, go right to Benson Avenue, left on Benson to Joh Avenue, to Vero Road. Alternate directions: Follow any UPS trucks in vicinity.)
At Joe's suggestion, I began to pull the paper off some of my packages, revealing the bare box. Then, using a roll of professional packer's tape, the kind with a serious cutting edge, I sealed the box. I then applied a professional packer's label to the box. Both the tape and the labels were sold at the makeshift UPS store, proving to me that I wasn't the first person guilty of attempted unsuitable shipping.
I soon discovered that the trouble with using a naked box is that boxes are like your suitcases: Strangers can look them over and make judgments about your lifestyle. While other people in the warehouse were using discreet brown boxes to send their gifts to their relatives, I was sending mine out to members of my clan in an empty beer box.
The strip-and-rewrap technique worked on only two of my six packages. Since the remaining four didn't have a ship-worthy box underneath their brown coverings, I didn't dare remove the outer paper. That would be like taking your sweat shirt off with nothing underneath it. It would make a scene.
To get these four packages ready for the conveyor belt, I was told to apply strips of my clear plastic professional packer's tape over the address. That way if the wrapping ripped, there was still a chance that the address would remain on the package and the package would not remain in some remote freight office.
It took me about half an hour to get my packages ready to ship. When I finally saw a clerk put my packages on a conveyor, I felt a surge of relief. It was over. The family shopping, wrapping, and now shipping duties had been completed.
The makeshift store also sold several discreet brown packing boxes. Next year will be be different. Next year Joe will be proud of me.
On my way out the door I resisted the urge, however strong, to look back and see if the Babe Ruth sweat shirt headed to cousin Scott in Georgia, or the Barbie spa bound for cousin Alexandra in Vermont, was being eaten by a machine.