Monday, September 14, 2009

Institutionalized: Saying Goodbye to Post Offices

Above: Art Deco letterboxes in the Chicago Stock Exchange

I just came from the post office, a place I visit at least once, if not a couple of times per week. Despite the occasional insanely mean postal employee behind the counter, I've almost always found a certain peace in the ritual of visiting the post office. When I was a kid it was something grown-ups did, so it felt important that I could run my own errand. Back then stamps were 29 cents, which was well within my means (candy at the corner store was 45 cents.) I loved choosing stationery and selecting a pen and setting to work. Then there was the mystery of dropping the letter into the blue box, followed by the gratification of getting a phone call from my grandmother thanking me for the letter a mere couple of days later. She once told me that the sign of a good woman was good penmanship, and I took that to heart.

On top of being infatuated with stationery and in love with critiquing my own cursive, I write a lot of letters as a self-righteous form of procrastination that few can argue with. So I buy a lot of stamps, and I've been doing that for more than 20 years. The United States Postal Service just raised the price of a first class stamp to a measly 44 cents. I could not believe my ears when I actually heard people complaining. I can't even think of anything else that cheap, let alone something that provides so much bang for its half-a-buck.

This afternoon I sent three small packages to Australia. I waited in line approximately 13 minutes, and paid a total of $9.76 for first-class service. No wonder the post office is going broke!

Standing in one particularly long line one afternoon at my local 125th street post-office, I got chatting with the woman in front of me about what it means now that the postal service is closing branches.

"We grew up with post offices around!" she exclaimed, "it's just not something I ever thought would go away."

"Same with newspapers," I interjected, and told her how my grandmother was shocked—almost hurt—that her evening paper no longer gets delivered every day.

"And you know, these younger generations," she nodded toward her daughter in front of her, "they don't know how to talk to the people around them. They can email. They can text. But they don't just strike up conversations. That's considered weird, or unsafe," she observed.

She was right. The post office line is a part of every community, and its elimination is just one more thing that forces a community indoors, apart from each other, unable to tolerate those around them. It's true that we stood in line for at least 45 minutes that afternoon. But I hadn't spoken to anyone else all day, because I'd been sitting in front of my computer, working at home. The more we talked, the more parallels we seemed to draw. The virtues of older generations—patience, manners, kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness—were all represented by a trip to the post office, and were systematically being stripped away. And for what?

I still have a few pen pals, and getting a postcard from them in my mailbox after a long day is such a welcome token. Taking the time to sit down and write a short letter provides catharsis, serving as a reminder to slow down for a moment, to phrase your sentiments carefully, and to practice your penmanship.


  1. You're old! JK. I love this ode to the post office. I usually just think of it as a task to get over with. But there is something to it, more than getting everyday groceries or filling up a tank of gas. A hopeful sense that you've put something out there into the world. Maybe something good will come back. Also, it does seem rather doomedly old fashioned. I just invented that word doomedly.

  2. I am totally old, you're right. "Stamps were 29 cents!" Eeeesh.

  3. Hey ecs, yours is so similar to my experience it's spooky. Of all my degrees/diplomas still in their mailing tubes, the one I wish I had to frame is the Pen License I got in Grade 4. And I have very fond memories of the 125th branch, and of the 116th street one (Hellgate – ha!) But strangely enough, I've been working on a show this year for Mailbox 141 that opens this week that's all about the pleasures and secrets of the postal service – I will post images on my blog when I have them. And do send me your mailing address.....