SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- Forget Beverly Hills 90210. The cool ZIP code for kids is North Pole 12345.
Actually, the 12345 ZIP is exclusively assigned to a sprawling General Electric plant in Schenectady. But come December, the GE mailroom brims with letters addressed to Candy Lane or Iceberg Drive or Chillyville, North Pole. They all carry urgent messages for Santa Claus, and they all carry that child-friendly ZIP code.
"Whatever it is, they seem to write 12345," said Linda Susi, one of more than a dozen GE employees who sat down yesterday to spend a long lunch helping harried ol' St. Nick keep up with his correspondence. "That's the key to this whole thing."
It's been four years since employees at the GE Power Systems division, which builds parts for electrical plants, started their holiday custom of answering the letters to Santa. As they donned holiday sweaters and Santa caps to begin answering this year's batch with red and green felt pens, the workers found the usual mix of ambitious wish lists and heart-rending family biographies.
Many letters are read out loud. Some draw laughs: A New York boy apologized for his long list, then added, "My neighbor Dan Q has 9 pages on his list. Watch out for him."
Other letters left the GE workers shaking their heads. Those notes came from children who wrote of parents out of work or behind bars, or fathers neglecting child-support payments and mothers struggling to survive.
One letter that drew attention yesterday came from a California girl who hinted that tough times had befallen her family. She said the family had moved from a nice, warm house to a chilly apartment.
The girl didn't ask for toys or games. She told Santa: "What I'm pretty much getting at is that you grant me behavior. My mother really needs my help with my little sister. I love my family so much and I want them to be happy and filled with joy this season."
John McGuiness, a 30-year-old systems applications engineer at said, "Things like this help you remember how fortunate you are."
McGuiness, a father of three small Santa-loving children, added: "I just know how excited they get, so anything I can do to help, I'll do."
If kids say the darndest things, their letters to Santa end up in the darndest places. A small outpost in north Alaska gets about 25,000 of them a year. Then again, the town is named North Pole. Letters also pour into Santa Claus, a small Indiana town.
The main post office in Baltimore collects letters, and volunteers and postal workers answer as many as possible, providing gifts or Christmas meals for some needy families. Community groups such as the Glen Burnie Improvement Association also respond to letters.
These letters are part of the American holiday fabric. In its "Unforgettable Letters" display on its Web site, the U.S. Postal Service lists presidential letters, love letters -- and letters to Santa. In one, a 6-year-old named Terhon says: "I want a race car. I want a[n] electronic motorcycle race car. I want a lot of love." He dressed his letter with a drawing of an elf.
The easiest ZIP code
More than 30 years ago, when the post office unveiled its Zoning Improvement Plan Code to help speed mail to its destination, postal authorities had to use a cartoon mascot, Mr. Zip, to urge Americans to use the new system.
Now, the five-note cadence is so stamped in the American mind that a series of digits makes a memorable title to a steamy prime-time television series.
Even small children sense that a mailing address needs some numbers on the end. A series of five numbers sounds right. 1-2-3-4-5 works.
The nine-digit ZIP code? No problem. One letter opened at the GE plant yesterday was addressed to 1010 North Pole Drive, North Pole, Arctic Circle 12345-6789.
For years, these letters have been passing through the main post office in Schenectady, where mail with ZIPs starting with 1-2-3 is sorted. Elaine Wieczorek, customer relations manager for the Schenectady post office, said that in years past the post office received about 1,000 Santa letters annually.
Postal employees collect money from recycling bottles and cans FTC to buy gifts for the needy. Wieczorek recalls the Albany boy who asked for a funeral wreath to decorate his brother's grave, and the 27-year-old, severely handicapped woman who needed a new pair of pajamas.
She says adults who are down on their luck sometimes write to Santa.
"It's sort of sad to think that people have to write a letter to Santa to let people know they're hurting and need something," she said, "I suppose it's almost like writing a letter to an angel or something."
General Electric employees
The GE plant, a major employer in the central New York town, has had the 12345 ZIP code, at its request, since the late 1960s, Wieczorek said. Four years ago, company workers began helping the post office with the Santa duties, and now the letters are routinely passed on to the plant.