Addressing a holiday blitz Mail: The Postal Service in Baltimore is relying more on its human troops and less on its electronic gizmos to handle the Christmas onslaught of cards and letters.

December 16, 1997|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Attention, postal procrastinators: Would you consider getting with the program?

The Postal Service has prepared for the avalanche of Christmas mail like an army preparing for an enemy blitz. The onslaught typically peaks two Mondays before the holiday.

Yesterday was the peak day, when an estimated 3 million cards and letters -- nearly three times the typical load -- were due to pass through Baltimore's main post office on Fayette Street.

To handle the volume, the Postal Service has high-tech gizmos that would make the Pentagon proud: video- and laser-equipped readers and sorters and bar coders, each capable of handling a quarter-million letters an hour.

It has extra troops on duty, extra materiel greased up and ready to roll. All it needs from you is a little cooperation -- say, a clean white envelope with a legible address and a stamp in the usual place, preferably mailed as soon as you can manage it.

But some of you won't cooperate. You'll let your kids address the Christmas cards in pink crayon on red envelopes. You'll slap a stamp on a plastic Santa figurine, scrawl an address on the bottom and drop it blithely into the nearest mailbox. As the holiday mayhem gets more and more intense, you'll write more and more illegibly, forget your best friend's ZIP code, put stamps in all the wrong places, leave envelopes unsealed.

At times like these, the Postal Service relies less on its gizmos and more on its troops. On an average day, about 70 percent of all cards and letters zip through the Fayette Street distribution center virtually untouched by human hands. But at Christmas, says senior manager Jeffrey Becker, that number drops to barely half. The other half needs the human touch.

That touch starts with people such as Lisa Powell and Deanna Johnson, among the first Fayette Street workers to get their hands on incoming mail. They'll seal the envelope you forgot to seal. They'll fish out the dirty socks that you, in your haze of holiday exhaustion, dropped into the mail box instead of the laundry bin. They'll snag those stamp-bedecked Santas and coconuts that some people insist on sending, hand-canceling them and saving them from oblivion in the sorting machine.

"You wouldn't believe the stuff people put in the mail," said Johnson with a world-weary smile, as she scooped fistfuls of mail from a yellow forklift onto a purple conveyor belt. "Paper plates with stamps on them. Bottles with messages in them like an SOS from across the ocean."

"Once we had a banana with a stamp on it," said Powell, fingers flying over incoming mail. It's her job to pluck out the misfits, letters torn and crumpled, unsealed, unaddressed, too wide or fat or gooey to fit through sorting machines.

It's dirty, sometimes dangerous work. Wearing gloves to protect themselves from filth and the occasional hypodermic needle, the two women will be standing at the conveyor belt for at least 10 hours a day from now until Christmas.

As they work, they'll keep up a steady stream of talk -- stories of Powell's two daughters, 2 and 7; recipes from Johnson's kitchen; tips on the best places to Christmas shop after 11 p.m., when their shift typically ends.

"We're a team, me and her," said Powell, an immigrant from St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and a single mother who is quick to volunteer for overtime.

"She cries when I'm not here," said Johnson, who would rather go home to her husband when her shift is over. "She'll call me at home and beg me to come in."

Farther down the mail-sorting line, high-speed belts and miniature video cameras take over the job of coding letters for delivery. A fancy backup system is for letters that a conventional machine can't read: Miniature video cameras take a snapshot of each letter as it zips by, and the picture is electronically sent to a service center in Greensboro, N.C. There, a clerk takes a look at any address that isn't neat enough for mechanical readers and types in the information. A coding system matches up the faraway clerk's work with the right envelope.

But at Christmastime, a plethora of red and green and snowflake-imprinted envelopes can defeat even that system. So on the second floor of the Fayette Street office, in a long row of cubicles, clerks on the midnight shift do it the old-fashioned way. Perched on high stools, they decipher those devilish addresses and sort the letters into tiny pigeonholes.

And if those night clerks are anything like Johnson and Powell and most of the rest of the afternoon shift workers, they haven't sent out their Christmas cards yet. Too much overtime.

"I'm really in a tizzy right now," said Powell.

So have a heart and print plainly, please.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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