IT HAPPENED again this year: the annual Christmas news story about how the Postal Service would, after all, be able to cope with the flood of holiday mail. That story makes the papers every year, describing with sweaty accuracy the long lines at the post office counters, the crammed-to-overflowing mailboxes on every street corner and the struggling letter carriers, bending under the weight of the heavy pack.
It's seasonal; it's sweet; it's a perfect Christmas story. Unfortunately, it's hardly true.
Again this year, the Postal Service did not cope with holiday mail. The counter customers may have been served, but mailboxes overflowed with misdelivered mail, and those of us waiting for the contents of the heavy pack waited . . . and waited.
I live in the city -- in a bad neighborhood. I know it's a bad neighborhood because I was told by the person on the phone at my local post office. It was his explanation for why our entire development had been skipped by our carrier the previous day.
"It got too dark for the carrier to see to deliver the mail," he said.
"What about rain and sleet and dark of night?" I asked. That's when he said mine was no kind of neighborhood to be walking around in dark of night.
"Don't worry," he said. "When we miss a delivery, we make an extra one the following day." It's true, too. Twice in December, my neighbors and I had two-delivery days. What a waste of time and money! One delivery, in the daylight hours, would be quite adequate. One delivery of my mail to my house -- mine, and no one else's.
But this was not to be. Twice during the height of the season I got mail for an acquaintance who lives more than two blocks away.
And my neighbors complain that the letter carrier isn't clear on his L-words. Two street names in our little complex begin with L. The residents routinely walk a block to exchange mail. At the height of the season a large and much-needed check of mine, properly addressed, appeared in a mail slot around the corner (with the all-too-familiar "not at this address" scrawled across it). Fortunately, it was noticed by the regular carrier, who brought it to me. I shudder to think how long a trip back to the post office for the correction might have taken.
When I recited my list of complaints to a nice man on the phone at the main post office, he explained all the travails of the job: how some carriers work two hours of overtime to help out when things get backed up; how the Postal Service hires seasonal workers for only 88 days and gives them virtually no training; and how the daily starting time was moved from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. -- thereby ensuring that I would continue to get my mail at 5:30 or 6. But actually, what he said at first was, "Five-thirty! I didn't know they worked that late."
But they do work that late. Just before Christmas, at 5:45, a seasonal employee knocked at my door. He wanted to know where the communal mailboxes were. This was a man who was standing a foot away from my front door and a foot from my big, shiny, brass mail slot!
So here I am, sitting in my kitchen, in my little townhouse, in my bad neighborhood, holding the clipping -- the one with the story about how the postal service would get the holiday job done. I clearly remember talking again to someone at my local post office.
"Why," I asked him, "can't you stagger the late deliveries? Why do we continue to get our mail in the dark of night? Why always us? Why not some other, safer neighborhood?"
He said I wouldn't have to worry. "Next week," he told me, "we'll be starting a stagnation program."
"Thank you," I said, and hung up.
I think the stagnation program is well under way.
Sharon Miller writes from Baltimore. %