Friday, September 23, 2011

Go Postal: The USPS Evolves for the 21st Century

Go Postal:
The USPS Evolves for the 21st Century
Ellen Jo Roberts
October Outs 2011
The Noise

Mr. Zip! circa 1961

Fax. Fed-Ex. Anthrax. E-mail. Internet. Automatic Bill Payments. Over the past 20 years, our beloved and beleaguered United States Postal Service has struggled to keep pace in a world of ever more instant information. In 1861, the Pony Express delivered Lincoln’s inaugural address to California; just seven days on horseback to Sacramento from railroad’s end in Missouri. At the time, it was considered record breaking, remarkable, lightning quick. 150 years later, news of similar importance is delivered to us almost before it even happens, in real time via television, smart phones and Twitter.

1964 Postal Truck. Photo courtesy USPS

I know I am an analog girl living in a digital world, caught in a dreamland where everything is less instant and somehow more enduring. My cameras all shoot film. I read books, make mix tapes, listen to vinyl and the radio. I foolishly lament the demise of the telegram. I am a fan of handwriting, which they barely teach in school anymore.. And I get excited about mail. I subscribe to magazines. Sending and receiving post cards and hand-written letters from faraway friends and family is a regular occurrence, and far better than a Facebook wall post any day. The digital and the instant are oft forgotten as soon as they arrive, contributing to our insatiability for the constant flow of more. A card in the hand may be savored, revisited, treasured. Mail archives fill a file cabinet in my closet: artistic envelopes, picture perfect postcards, hand written memories forever captured at their peak ripeness, gorgeous stamps cancelled with dates and locations of various eras and past lives. It’s still remarkable the journey an envelope can make for a mere 44 cents, and the faith we have in its arrival as we feed it into the mouth of a big blue metal box.

In Arizona’s Verde Valley, each zip code is serviced by its own singular Post Office. Some of the area’s smaller communities, like Jerome and most of Clarkdale, do not receive home delivered mail. Instead, the town’s Post Office building serves as a central delivery location, with residents each assigned a P.O. Box for no charge. Jerome’s ancient P.O. Boxes are dialed open by alphabetical letters. With a decrease of nearly 30% in mail volume since the 20th century, the USPS continuously strives towards increased productivity, and “facility consolidation” is a term bandied about frequently. A euphemism for closure, facility consolidation is a threat to small town post offices nationwide, including my own.

clarkdale post office, 86324

The Clarkdale Post Office is staffed by hardy folks; smiling, friendly and proficient. The clerks are genuinely interested in the lives of their patrons, and we too are equally fond of them. They know everyone in town by name, and for this reason packages not addressed quite correctly will still always reach their intended recipient. The joys of small town life. You may apply for a passport, get a money order, purchase postage and send your envelopes and packages out fast or slow. Checking the mail is also a chance to see, and be seen by, your neighbors and catch up on local news. Always bustling with activity, the Post Office is an important element of Clarkdale’s identity. For a vintage company town, proud of its interesting history, losing the Post Office would be a huge morale buster, and great backwards blow to our identity on the map. Earlier this year, alarming rumors swirled that the Clarkdale Post Office was on the short list for closure. With no UPS Store, nor even a Fed-Ex drop box, our Post Office is our only method of exit from town. I sent several letters to local politicians, as well as to the Post Master General in Washington D.C., asking what we citizens could do to save our Post Office. Get signatures on a petition? Should I start a rally? Chain myself to the building? We would gladly pay a yearly fee for our (free) P.O. Box if it would assist in keeping the 86324 open for business. I received a form letter back from Washington, explaining that in order to be more efficient Post Offices nationwide were under consideration for consolidation, and though the Clarkdale Post Office was not slated for closure at this time, it could be reconsidered in the future.

our washer and dryer broke on the same day

“I can’t imagine life in small towns without the Post Office,” says Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens, “The Post Office is weaved into the tapestry of life in every small town. At a recent meeting, we were discussing public notices, and one Northern Arizona community said they don’t even have a local newspaper in which to post notices, but if public notices were posted at the local post office, everyone in town would see them. I hope there is some way we can economically and efficiently continue to keep Post Offices in small communities.”
Despite what you might think, our tax dollars do not support the Postal Service, and haven’t since the 1980s.  In the words of the USPS, “A self-supporting government enterprise, the U.S. Postal Service is the only delivery service that reaches every address in the nation, 150 million residences, businesses and Post Office Boxes. The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses, and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations. With 32,000 retail locations and the most frequently visited website in the federal government,, the Postal Service has annual revenue of more than $67 billion and delivers nearly 40 percent of the world's mail. If it were a private sector company, the U.S. Postal Service would rank 29th in the 2010 Fortune 500.”

The Postal Service is the nation’s second largest civilian employer, second only to Wal-Mart.
With the largest retail network in the United States, it has the world’s largest civilian fleet of vehicles.
Of these, more than 44,000 are alternative-fuel capable, operating with electricity, ethanol, compressed natural gas, liquid propane gas and bio-diesel. With the U.S. Department of Energy, the USPS is currently working on prototype electric vehicles, and testing hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles.

In addition to automobiles, mail is also delivered via plane, train, boat, ferry, helicopter, hovercraft, subway and snowmobile. The mule also provides very specialized mail service in Arizona. Every animal in the mule train carries about 130 pounds of mail, food and supplies down the eight mile trail into the Havasupai Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, averaging 41,000 pounds per week! Of course in addition to all of these methods, mail is also delivered in a much more common (and very green) manner: on bicycle and by foot.  And regardless of delivery location, everyone pays the same and equal postage.

Solar-powered Post Office facilities dot the nation, from sea to shining sea, from California to Rhode Island. New buildings are being constructed, and older ones are being renovated, with the environment in mind, using green features like natural lighting, thermal windows, recycled fiberglass insulation, solar systems, rainwater harvest, vegetated roofs and native species utilized in landscaping. Sustainable features like high efficiency lighting/heating/cooling, recycled building materials, low water use fixtures and low-volatile organic compound materials combined with detailed energy audits aim towards the agency’s objective of a 30% reduction in energy consumption by 2015. They’ve already achieved a 24% reduction.

1923 Mail Carrier © USPS

“We are mothers and fathers. And sons and daughters. Who every day go about our lives with duty, honor and pride. And neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Ever.” This is the unofficial creed of the United States Post Office, corrupted from a translation of the Greek “Herodotus' Histories”, circa 440 B.C. Carrying mail is a heavy responsibility, literally and figuratively. Mail is federally protected and tampering with it and any of its containers is a federal offense, as is sending fraudulent materials. Through rain, heat, gloom of night and winds of change, your faithful mail carrier completes the appointed rounds.

Over the years, even famous folk have paid their dues handling mail. Bing Crosby, Charles Bukowski and Sherman Hemsley all spent time as postal clerks. Rock Hudson and Walt Disney were both mail carriers. Hotel magnate, great grandfather of Paris Hilton, and one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s many husbands, Conrad Hilton was Postmaster General of San Antonio, New Mexico. Future presidents Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln were both Postmaster Generals at one time, of Grandview, Missouri and New Salem, Illinois, respectively. The Postmaster position was once rather politically significant.
          On July 26, 1775, members of the Second Continental Congress decreed "that a Postmaster General be appointed for the United States, who shall hold his office at Philadelphia, and shall be allowed a salary of 1,000 dollars per annum.” That first Post Master General was Benjamin Franklin, whose guidance built a system that bound the new nation together, supported the growth of new commerce, and perhaps most importantly, shared information and a free flow of ideas so crucial in our developing country. Recognizing the agency’s importance to the nation, from 1792 until 1971 the Postmaster General of the United States was part of the Presidents Cabinet, and last in line of succession to the presidency.

The Post Office is also featured prominently in our pop culture, with rock ‘n roll songs pleading please to Mr. Postman, getting emotional that baby wrote me a letter, and angry girlfriends sending things back marked “return to sender.”
The Post Office is all about anticipation, and promises of love arriving in a stamped envelope. Thought there has never been a TV sitcom devoted to the life of a mail carrier, there have been plenty of notable post office characters over the years, like the dreaded “Newman!” on “Seinfeld”. I grew up with that guy McFeely from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”, Reba the Mail Lady on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and that loveable know-it-all, Cliff Clavin from the long-running “Cheers”.

“Ours is a proud heritage built on a simple yet profound mission: Connect every American, every door, every business, everywhere through the simple act of delivering mail. This idea of universal service is at the heart of a $900 billion industry that drives commerce, plays an integral part of every American community and remains the greatest value of any post in the world
.” –United States Post Office

Support your small town Post Office. Subscribe to a magazine. Pay the extra $1.00 for Priority Mail. Send charming postcards and letters to your people near and far. Not just for holidays, but for no reason at all. Go Postal.

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in a historic brick bungalow with Chad, Floyd, Ivan and Ned. Read all about it at
Send her a postcard at PO Box 832, Clarkdale AZ 86324.

Supplemental Photo Opinion Sidebar...

PHOTO OPINION: How would the closure of your local post office affect your life?

Rick Lovelace, Resident of Jerome, AZ.:
You can’t close that Post Office! Everyone’s gonna say that. It would drastically affect my life. I’d have to go all the way down the hill, using lots of gas and energy and whatnot to get my mail.”

rick lovelace of jerome az

David Wilder, Business owner in Jerome, AZ.:
“They can’t close the Post Office. We don’t get street delivery, so by federal law, I believe they can’t. That would leave 450 people without an address.”

david wilder- jerome arizona business owner

Birgitta Lapides, Resident of Cottonwood, AZ:
“In Sweden, the Post Office now is a supermarket. They have to have, as part of the supermarket, a Post Office. People in Sweden are very sheepish and they don’t complain. If the Cottonwood Post Office closed I think it will be bad. I don’t see how Fry’s, Safeway or Basha’s would act as a Post Office.”

birgitta lapides of cottonwood az

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