MIAMI -- When letter carriers can't deliver, Nieve Fernandez and Bob Kosik step in.
They are among a small cadre of postal employees who decipher cryptic addresses, trace mangled pieces of mail and try to return anything dropped in a mailbox to their owners.
Ms. Fernandez and Mr. Kosik attempt to fulfill the U.S. Postal Service's credo: Deliver everything entrusted to it. "They are like Columbo's assistants," says Maria Sierra, the Miami branch supervisor of lost and found. "It's real detective work."
Postal authorities keep no figures on misaddressed letters or loose items in the mail, but they say they are increasing as society changes.
Dozens of wallets and purses get dumped in South Florida mailboxes by thieves every day. And with more non-English speakers living here, there is a flood of mail with hard-to-comprehend foreign words.
And there is another reason for a growing pile of lost mail, says Mr. Kosik, a 22-year Postal Service veteran: "People are getting geographically ignorant and can't write anymore."
Mr. Kosik is a nixie clerk who goes through a 30-foot tray of misaddressed or hard-to-read letters every day. He works in a small cubicle in the Miami General Mail Facility, where 6 million letters and packages are sorted daily. "Nixie means nothing, zero, nada. And that's what I got here," says Mr. Kosik, holding up a handful of letters with puzzling addresses.
One letter mailed from Hialeah has a street address but just one poorly written word underneath. Mr. Kosik peers at the word, trying to decode the script.
"I think it says 'H' and an 'I' and 'A' and . . . Hiawatha. I think it's in Kansas," Mr. Kosik says as he pores through one of his geographic reference books. "Yup."
A letter from England is addressed to "Cleveland Clinic, USA." He puts it in a slot for Cleveland, Ohio.
Another letter reads "Sonny Burnett, Miami." Burnett was the alias of Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) on "Miami Vice," and the mail goes to the California company that made the TV show still playing in reruns.
Mr. Kosik has learned from experience to read almost everything. The few addresses he can't make out, he sends to the Dead Letter Office in Atlanta.
In Atlanta, clerks have authority to open the mail and see if a clue inside will enable them to deliver it. If there's no clue, they destroy the letter.
In another part of the sorting center, Ms. Fernandez works in a 25-feet-by-10-feet lost-and-found cage surrounded by piles and piles of undelivered mail.
The cage also contains the flotsam and jetsam of the mail stream: stolen goods dunked into mailboxes by bandits and items that fell out of poorly wrapped letters and packages.
There are dozens of passports from all over the world, hundreds of purses and wallets, thousands of keys, mounds of eyeglasses, jewelry, checks and cash. Letter carriers recently found in a mailbox seven music books for clarinet, which ended up on Ms. Fernandez's desk. One of the books had a name in it and she found a similar name in the Miami phone book.
"I called up and a woman answered," Ms. Fernandez recalls. "She said, 'My son played the clarinet. He died March 15.' She didn't know how the books got in the mailbox but she was very thankful."
Sometimes even the mail detectives fail.
Several letters from Cuba written in Spanish were found in the mail without an envelope. They seemed to be addressed to a person named "Borghi," so Ms. Fernandez called Borghis all over South Florida.
"I couldn't find anybody who had relatives or friends in Cuba," Ms. Fernandez says. "One woman wanted the letters but she couldn't even speak Spanish."
The mail ended up in Atlanta's Dead Letter Office.
But there are many successes, such as the return of the wallet that had a piece of paper in it with a partial address that Ms. Fernandez traced to a Boca Raton man. The wallet turned out to have been stolen from the man's father-in-law.
"People are always surprised we take the effort to return everything," Ms. Fernandez says. "They say, 'I can't believe somebody in the post office cared.' "