NPF: WE DELIVER FOR YOU

With the recent news that US Postal Service losses in 2011 have been far greater than expected – They're now losing more than $3 billion per fiscal quarter – and with the continued decline in mail volume, it seems only a matter of time until Congress takes the austerity stick uses it to beat the agency half to death. Your anecdotal experience is probably enough to explain why; try to think of the last time you received mail that wasn't garbage. If I didn't occasionally buy something off eBay that arrived by mail, credit card junk mail is the only thing I would ever receive. The Postal Service is unlikely to disappear, but it is highly likely that we won't recognize it in a few more years. Post offices will be closed and consolidated, delivery will be limited to a few times per week in some areas, and the agency will devote even more of its resources to shipping packages as opposed to carrying letters.

In honor of the long history of the USPS (and its predecessor, the Post Office Department originally headed by Ben Franklin, here is a random, hopefully entertaining list of interesting postal trivia and oddities I've amassed over the years.

– As of 2011, the USPS still delivers mail regularly via mule train on one route. An 8-mile trip to the bottom of a canyon to deliver mail to Havasupi Indians in Arizona occurs weekly. Mules, people.

– Although it has been a source of controversy, the most expensive mail route in the U.S. continues as the only one with delivery solely by air. Once per week a subcontractor, who is paid over $50,000 annually in the contract, flies mail to 20 cabins and ranches in the Frank Church Wilderness Area in Idaho. (The cuts referenced in this NPR story were later overturned by the Postmaster General).

– The Zip Code 48222 is a boat on the Detroit River called the J.W. Westcott, which deliver mail to passing ships without either vessel docking. WTF. I have never understood this. But it exists.

– The longest daily rural mail route is 148 miles long and snakes through rural northwestern North Dakota. It serves less than 100 addresses over that vast distance. North Dakota is not a very exciting place, is it? And I bet the letter carriers draw straws to avoid this route.

– The very first daily, day-and-night transcontinental air mail route – from NYC to San Francisco – was established in 1924. The plane stopped between 12 and 16 times for fuel. Air travel has changed a lot, hasn't it.

– Zip Codes rise as one travels west. The highest, 99950, belongs to Ketchikan, Alaska, home of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" that became an issue in the 2008 election. The lowest, 00501, serves a single IRS office building in New York.

– The Pentagon has six Zip Codes. For a single building. The World Trade Center had one as well. Until 2008, Chicago's Merchandise Mart also had its own (60654).

– Marc Chagall's painting "Study for Over Vitebsk" was stolen the Jewish Museum in New York in 2001 and found in a Topeka, Kansas dead letter office. Legally, dead letters are the only kind of mail that can be opened by the Postal Service in an attempt to determine the intended recipient. Or to discover priceless art.

– Loma Linda, CA has no Saturday delivery but is the only municipality with regular Sunday delivery. The town has a large percentage of Seventh Day Adventists, including among its postal workers, who will not work on Saturday.

– The Post Office Department, forerunner of the USPS, had a seriously awesome logo:

– In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, mail was delivered several times per day. In major cities like New York, deliveries in business districts took place almost continuously during the day. Wall Street and Lower Manhattan were the last areas with two-per-day delivery, which ended in 1990.

– For the last 20 years, new USPS employees have seen a training video starring one of the most famous fictional mailmen, Cliff Clavin of Cheers.

– Mail delivery to and in Alaska is a major drain on the USPS. With a poor road network and low population density, it has hundreds of towns to which mail must be flown daily.

– The largest USPS facility in the country by far is Chicago's main post office / sorting facility. It is so large that Interstate 290 travels underneath it at one point. Most of the complex has been abandoned for years. Daley wanted to turn it into a casino.

– A little girl was mailed from Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparents in Lewiston in 1914. A cooperative postmaster invoiced the child as a "48 pound baby chicken", two pounds under the 50 limit on mailing live poultry. Rather than being sealed in a box, the address was pinned to her dress and she rode with the mail carrier in the cab of the delivery vehicle.

Feel free to add your own trivia or relay some amusing anecdotes. Before we forget all of this stuff.

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39 Responses to “NPF: WE DELIVER FOR YOU”

  1. ptx Says:

    Fred Clark has a great editorial on the USPS. Ahhh…. Idealism. http://www.patheos.com/community/slacktivist/2011/08/18/dont-lay-off-120000-postal-workers-in-the-middle-of-a-jobs-crisis/

  2. HoosierPoli Says:

    I understand the changes in the way we communicate have made a postal service a bit of a dinosaur. But I want to push back against the notion that each division of the federal government ought to be doing anything other than making a loss. After all, the ability to send a letter to anywhere else in the country for fifty cents is a huge advantage, and the postal service operating budget should be viewed not as revenue and expenses, but as an INVESTMENT in a public service.

    That said, 3 billion dollars for the last few things that still require physical communication (rent checks and birthday cards being the only two I can think of) is not a reasonable ROI.

    One last lament that we switched all our communication from physical letters (constitutionally protected from search and seizure) to electronic communication (available on demand without a warrant to any law enforcement agency or government snoop, or so it would seem).

  3. Maren Says:

    My trivia: once my father worked at the post office for 30 years and then they started retiring/laying off all the people in his quality control department at a processing plant and now he's only 57 and they are practically forcing him into retirement by having only 3 people do the work literally 10 people used to do, and whether I call him at 10 am or 10 pm he is probably at work with no overtime.

    Also: once you could send a letter to anywhere in the country in three days for 44 cents, regardless of whether the destination was a rural route or an igloo, and yet everyone complained about the postal service.

  4. Middle Seaman Says:

    Some other points of interest:

    1. The military loses several trillion annually and if they cut the USPS, let them cut the military by the same percentage.

    2. I get 5-8 pieces of mail a day. Most of it is junk although Chase, AARP and the DCCC don't agree with me on that. The NY Times, WashPo, HuffPo, CNN, NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS also delivery mostly junk daily. Blogs are enough; let's cut them all to size.

    3. My wife's grandmother was born in Vitbsk Belarus the birthplace of Marc Chagall; their parents went to the same synagogue. If you cut USPS, you must cut Belarus (a lousy dictatorship anyway).

    4. The $3 billion lose per quarter is a result of the infamous Hollywood accounting. They are simply lying. They know that Obama will allow them to fire 125,000 and steal all the pension money. God know, Obama may be practicing for SS cuts.

    5. Certified mail, priority mail are heavily used services. Personally I prefer USPS on Fedex (not unionized) or UPS (unionized); priority mail cost a fraction of the same service with green and brown trucks companies. USPS workers are treated way better than the constantly running workers of the private services.

    6. TBD

    7. After the cut we wont be able to go postal anymore. Even the Brits use the term now. It's like closing the Louvre.

  5. tommytimp Says:

    That Huge Frigging Post Office Ed told you about here in Chicago was used as the robbed mob bank at the very beginning of The Dark Knight. It was indeed built directly over I 290 E/W. The new hugeass Post Office is next door. It's still sprawling, but not quite as big.

  6. Major Kong Says:

    Priority mail goes (mostly) on FedEx aircraft.

    FedEx (and UPS to a much smaller extent) has a contract with the Postal Service.

    Note that FedEx pilots are union (ALPA) but their drivers are not union.

  7. Michael Says:

    The requirement to mail physical items is not going to go away (ever). Thus the requirement for a mail service is not going to go away (ever). The USPS' much-hyped fiscal woes could be solved by a 2-cent postage price increase.

    The fact that they AREN'T likely to be solved by that 2-cent increase but instead by union-bashing is a result of politics, not necessity.

    As always in these discussions I should point out that the USPS is funded solely by postage, so any statement along the lines of "it's a waste… of taxpayer money" is utterly false.

  8. anotherbozo Says:

    all interesting facts; a fave NPF.

    if USPS is cut back further, Netflix, Amazon, and its listed "private vendors" should have something to say. I use the two latter sources a lot myself. Nobody likes physical bills, bank and credit card statements, etc. but old-fashioned me?

    Meanwhile HoosierPoli has it right, I think, not that that point of view will ever prevail.

  9. buckyblue Says:

    Another example of corporate welfare that the crap that gets mailed to me is not charged the necessary amount.

  10. TheStone Says:

    Speaking of Cliff, the list of post office factoids is quite Clavinesque – love it!

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    Jeez, with the coming layoffs, and probable remaking of the USPS, we may lose one of the great expressions of all time: "Going postal!"

    Here's a joke you can still use for awhile:
    What does it mean when the post office has it's flags at half-mast?
    It means they're hiring.

    On a serious note, getting rid of postal workers now is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard.
    In this time of high unemployment, the USPS should be ordering new US made mail-trucks, and hiring people at, say $10 an hour with benefits, and let them deliver junk mail 2 or 3 tor 5 imes a day.
    It beats digging a hole, filling it in, and redigging it!

  12. Andrew R. Says:

    What most impressed and impresses me are APO and FPO deliveries (deliveries to deployed military personnel). Back in the 1990s, when not everyone had adopted e-mail, I could send a letter to my mother while I was at sea on the U.S.S. Belleau Wood and still have a turnaround time of something like two weeks. I sent a letter when I the ship had docked in Singapore, and by the time we got to Sattahip, Thailand, I'd received the reply.

  13. heydave Says:

    I remember when i used to get excited at getting e-mail and found regular mail boring.
    Now the reverse situation is back and I love it.

  14. BigHank53 Says:

    One of the biggest reasons the Post Office is running in the red is that Congress required them to fully fund their pension fund for the next 75 years…and only gave them 10 years to come up with the cash. Why, it's slomost like they wanted them to fail.

  15. Amused Says:

    What about Little Diomede? I thought mail is delivered there by air as well. There are no roads even in the City of Diomede itself.

  16. Brian Says:

    As long as the law (e.g., CA Code of Civ Pro) requires some things be served by mail, there will be some market. I'm not sure businesses have the same decline in demand, but maybe they do. Certainly residential deliveries could be effectively done say 3-4 times a week, generally speaking of course.
    @Michael – Forgive my primitive caveman mind, but if the "USPS is funded solely by postage," and it runs a deficit ever year, doesn't that mean postage is insufficient to cover expenses? Where does the balance come from? Math is hard (for me).

  17. Nate Says:

    Speaking of ZIP codes, I ran across a really cool website to visualize ZIP codes – where I've spent entirely too much time recently.

    http://benfry.com/zipdecode/

  18. c u n d gulag Says:

    BigHank53,
    Thank you for reminding me of that. I'd read that awhle ago. If I remember right, they're the only Federal (or private company, that I know of)) agency forced to do that.

    And yeah, that stinks to all high and holy Heaven

  19. Fossella Says:

    @Brian

    The operating budget is covered. It's the pension fund that has the giant gap.

  20. Ellie Says:

    We all have our associations with the post office, don't we?

    My dad was a 30+ year veteran. Some of my earliest memories are of him coming home late from the night shifts, and of his blue shirts that always had a signature scent – I think it was ink, from the cacelling machine. He studied at the dining room table, took civil service tests, and eventually got promoted to supervisor, and got to wear white shirts. He retired with a pension and benefits at 55, then took a new, easier government job – one that also had a pension and benefits – and worked for another 20 years.

    Because both my parents were lazy, over-paid union workers with too many entitlements, we took a nice long vacation every year. Our house, while tiny by today's standards, was paid off easily, as were the (union-made) cars. All of my childhood activities were paid for, we never had any real financial problems, and all of my college tuition was covered by mom and dad's exhorbiant union salaries.

    Now, they live comfortably in their paid-off home, collecting 3 pensions, and enjoying good health care. Since my job pays little and comes with no health care, my lazy, entitled, retired USPS/other union-worker parents now continue to subsidize me (I wouldn't have health care if it weren't for them, and I finally gave in and started accepting their help – as they always insist "We can afford it. Things have changed for your generation.")

    So yeah…that's where "USPS" takes me.

  21. Denn Says:

    My beef with the USPS is the daily loose-leaf pile of ad trash that I must diligently sift through to get my legitimate mail, terrified that I might inadvertently discard a bill and thus ruin my meager credit. If they're going to give these fuckers a discount on postage for using a scattergun approach, they should at least require this shit to be bound or quarantined in an envelope of some kind.

  22. ladiesbane Says:

    Skip this if P.O. nostalgia bores you, but I love the Post Office, I really do. Growing up too far out of town for rural delivery meant trips to our P.O. box in town were a social event. So I was hooked at an early age.

    One of my joe-jobs in college was the mailroom, and I may be discreet to the bone, but I am also nosy as hell. Who received Playboy, who took Catholic Digest, and who got love letters from his ex while in a big-deal relationship on campus? I never told, but knowing was delicious.

    I miss non-self-adhesive stamps. One of my former clients used to send correspondence with postage from the sixties, and he had to line up quite a few 4c Project Mercury stamps to get things to us. I loved them.

    I also love how cheap our postage is. Corresponding with loved ones overseas nearly broke me one summer, long ago. Dealing with some other countries' posts also made me appreciate our efficiency. No, really.

    But I still write letters. Email is wonderful, but dry. I like letters that show smeary thumbprints, doodles in the margins, and words of love in the handwriting of the swain. One beau mailed me frangipani petals from his yard in Botswana, and I mailed him petals from the wild rose outside my bedroom. An old girlfriend mailed me lipstick kisses in every color she owned. Wineglass circles and tea stains and heather from Scotland, sand from the Red Sea, crayoned Valentines from adorable children, and $20 in a card from my grandma every birthday until she died. How can I do without this?

  23. SA Says:

    Well clearly the fiscally responsible thing to do is to cut Alaska back to once a week delivery in most places. I'm sure all the Tea Partiers up there would agree that's sensible, right?

    I am rather sad to think that in 75 years, there will be no opportunity for our grandchildren or great grandchildren to discover a cache of our letters and learn about our lives, because we've done it all through email.

  24. JohntheCheap Says:

    Trivia: My grandfather courted my grandmother by mail, and I don't mean like pen-pals. They both lived in Baltimore City, and there was twice a day residential delivery (many people did not have phones at the time — 1919 or so). He'd ask her out with a morning letter, get a reply in the afternoon mail, and take the streetcar over!

  25. Ike Says:

    I lived in Alaska for two years. Shipping from most online retailers is atrocious, but Amazon still honors their free shipping rate to Alaska and Hawaii. Netflix even has a DVD distribution hub in Anchorage. The ladies in the post office would see me coming in the door every other day and grab my bundle of stuff.

    My first year of college living in a dorm, my specific housing area had a "dash four" zip code dedicated to it, which meant technically, all that anything needed to reach me was my name and the zip+four. I regularly send parcels overseas to friends, family, and ebay buyers. The USPS is definitely one of the best there is, for cost, reliability, and speed.

  26. Daniel Says:

    Getting mail is a good way to get free rubber bands!

  27. Kulkuri Says:

    The operating budget is covered. It's the pension fund that has the giant gap.
    The reason the pension fund has a "giant gap" is because Congress has said they have to pay it all up front unlike all other pension plans that only have a small fraction funded.

    - The longest daily rural mail route is 148 miles long and snakes through rural northwestern North Dakota. It serves less than 100 addresses over that vast distance. North Dakota is not a very exciting place, is it? And I bet the letter carriers draw straws to avoid this route.
    Most rural routes are contracted out.

  28. Scott Says:

    It's fashionable to rag on the Post Office, especially if you're a right-wing congressperson. I watched a congressional hearing recently where some cheeseball Representative thought it was OK to be personally rude to the director of the PO, I guess because he (the Director) is a "Socialist". Or something.

    I shipped a $300 item by Priority Mail at 7PM last night (Friday). It will be in New Jersey on Monday and it cost me $10 with full insurance. Standard UPS and Fedex are slower and more expensive, (although their tracking is better).

    I think they should raise their letter/flyer rate to 2 bucks or so, with maybe a special rate for real newspapers and magazines. Wouldn't bother anybody who really needed to send a letter, and it would price them out of the market for all the crap-mail that nobody wants anyway.

  29. Mike Says:

    If they start to severely curtail mail service, it will be interesting to see how people in deeply rural areas pay their bills, seeing as rural broadband is another thing that we can't subsidize for fear of SOCILISM.

  30. sarah Says:

    i love sending and receiving mail!

    APO/FPO mail is rad. i had a friend who was sent to iraq, and i was astonished to learn that i could use the normal flatrate mailing boxes to send him things. i used to try to figure out exactly how heavy i could make the box of treats that he shared with his soldiers, amazed that i could send a four pound box halfway around the world for $9.50. he's home safe and out of the military.

    denn: i too loathe unsolicited circulars. my mail carrier deposits them directly into the recycling bin beside my building's mailboxes, but i successfully removed my address from the redplum mailing list with this link: http://www.valassis.com/1024/Contact/MailingListRemoval.aspx i hope it helps you, too.

  31. Origuy Says:

    A nice article in the San Jose Mercury News about the Loma Mar post office, which serves 167 people in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
    http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_18722461?nclick_check=1

  32. Fearguth Says:

    I've been in the post office in Supai, AZ, which is in Havasu Canyon, which is in the western part of Grand Canyon, but is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation and not part of Grand Canyon National Park. I hiked in 8 miles and, wouldn't you know, there was no mail for me that day!

  33. Robert Says:

    My father, who was a combat-wounded disabled veteran of WWII, went on to work at the Post Office his entire working life. He told his four sons there were only two things we might do that he would not forgive – joining the Army of our own free will, and going to work for the Post Office. We got up to a LOT of things over our young lives, but neither of those, and he kept his word.

    Also, I read a collection of excerpts from science fiction stories that inadvertently dated themselves (e.g., radium as medicine, wire-spool recording devices, 21st Century Soviet Union). One of them was a man posting a letter, and chuckling with anticipation at the reaction it would produce when delivered – later that day.

  34. megamahan Says:

    For whatever reason, I have quite a few friends who work for USPS. It's been awkward for the past few years trying to help them realize that their careers might be in jeopardy. They get pretty good pay and benefits, so I can see why they'd want to ignore the obvious. I do have one issue with your post:

    "- The longest daily rural mail route is 148 miles long and snakes through rural northwestern North Dakota. It serves less than 100 addresses over that vast distance. North Dakota is not a very exciting place, is it? And I bet the letter carriers draw straws to avoid this route."

    Two words: space cruise. Most of my USPS friends would much rather take a puff here and there in between distant stops than have to park and lug a heavy bag of junk mail through any given neighborhood. I bet they draw straw to get this route.

  35. Screamin' Demon Says:

    "A little girl was mailed from Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparents in Lewiston in 1914."

    Kid probably could have ridden a horse faster. Grangeville and Lewiston are only about 30 miles or so apart.

  36. Halloween Jack Says:

    Like Denn, I loathe those circulars–the ones that get stuffed into my small apartment mailbox (really only designed for letters, and not many of those) are a plague. Plus, the only letter carrier that I've known at all personally was someone who moonlit as a bartender at my favorite bar, and given his lackadaisical approach to that job (he sometimes made a point of ignoring bar patrons to watch TV), I'm glad he wasn't on the route that included my building.

    That having been said, it's probably a bad idea to get rid of the USPS entirely. In fact, if they didn't have to break even, maybe they'd get rid of that circular crap.

  37. Matt Says:

    Shorter version of this: the biggest reason the Post Office is bleeding money is the cost of delivering to Dumbfuckistan. Why are we subsidizing those dumbfucks again?

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