Ecumen Blogger Jim Klobuchar: A Post Office Love Affair

 Once every five or six minutes the pre-Christmas line in the post office where I live revealed heroic symptoms of actually moving.

If you stood on tiptoe you could catch sight of the postal worker explaining the difference between regular and express mail to a customer who wanted to ship four cardboard boxes of honest-to-God  Scandinavian cooking to relatives in Fresno, California.

The post office attendant waited while the customer consulted his wife. The line waited while they argued. The customer signaled triumphantly that he would take the expedited option. The line cheered. I joined them.

But the customer behind me grumbled.

“It’s  a farce,” he said. “The post office in this country is dying. They’re trying to do this stuff on the cheap. They’re selling some of their buildings to pizza joints. They haven’t got enough money to handle the business they do get at rush time.”

I didn’t ask him, but he’s probably not going to ship his Viking horns to his  grandpa in Scottsdale by postal express.

There clearly is a powerful demand and need for private express shipping in America today.  It’s a critical part of today’s commerce and offers a speed of delivery around the clock with which the publicly supported post office cannot compete.

But I don’t think we want to see the post office disappear. And I’m not sure that we can.

There’s obviously more than sentiment involved here. The private express fleets make much of the old postal services obsolete. Until the 1970s if you wanted get in touch with somebody miles away you wrote a letter or telephoned long distance. Today you send e-mail or pick up the cell phone. If you want to talk face to face with them — laughs, tears and all — that too is available on the big screen.

So  the public’s post office has to grub along doing what is available and with reasonable speed—daily delivery of the mail to corner mail boxes. That’s not done, incidentally, with  budgeted taxpayer money but basically with the money the postal service makes in providing its services. And, of course, the demand for its services is shrinking, in the  letters we used to write. But its work load is still huge and some of it  simply irreplaceable.

Yet what much of the public doesn’t know is that the private delivery services often work with the postal service. And it’s not as though the post office is content to  pursue its business by forever increasing the cost of its “Forever” stamps. Those mailings you get from a hundred sources, the CDs you buy on the internet, the books you buy from Amazon—most of those are coming from the post office because that’s the cheapest way for thousands of businesses, churches, politicians and fundraisers to communicate.

And then add the mail you get from fundraisers who include two cents, or five cents or ten cents or more to shame you into contributing. Those, too, are coming in your postal box, but so, too, do your checks and your birthday card from grandma, who may be unfamiliar with Google and very probably unfamiliar with Skype.

All of this may not thrill you as much as a refund from the credit card company.  But that too comes in the mail because, well, the country pretty much can’t get along without the post office and the service it provides—and the mostly courteous service, I  have to say.

Maybe part of this reaches back to my love affair with the post office when I  was growing up in northern Minnesota during the depths of the Great Depression.

Each family rented a small mail box at the community post office. As Christmas approached, in the midst of our two week recess from school, some of the kids would stake out a watching vigil not far from the family mail box. The boxes were small, and if mail arrived that was larger than the usual letter or magazine, the postal clerk would put a little red slip into the box announcing: “Parcel too large for box. Redeem at postal desk.”

I had four married aunts in Milwaukee at the time, all of them sisters, who had moved there after high school because jobs were available for women in the Milwaukee manufacturing plants. They never failed my brother and me at Christmas. And so when that little red slip announced itself in our mailbox, (I still remember the mailbox number— 208), we raced to pluck it out of the box and present it to one of the clerks, who would retrieve the package from Milwaukee.

We didn’t bolt for home immediately. I did say there were FOUR  aunts, three still not heard from. So the scene played out again, and then again.

There’s more than sentiment here. The postal service  in this country cannot be what it was as the prime and solitary delivery service. This is the age of men on the moon, automatic  pilots, of superspeed and din, when screaming fans in the stadium decide who wins the game, when violence on the screen captivates our young people—as well as the old—and when the postman no longer rings twice because the postman is delivering mail to boxes on the curbs.

But he and she are not obsolete. They still have a need to fill.  And for all the heat and jibes the public  postal service takes, we don’t lessen that need by ignoring its struggles.