Tuesday 24 July 2012: Please Mister Postman
I remember the first time I walked into a music store and realized they didn't sell records anymore, only cassettes in tiny plastic cases. It was my first awareness as a young adult that something basic about the world had shifted without my having noticed.
These changes have happened again from time to time in the intervening years; only now the pace at which they occur has seemingly accelerated.
Now even butchers at the grocery don't prepare individual cuts of meat upon request but have narrowed their hours of service from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, when stores are busiest. I can't remember when there were last pump attendants at gas stations, let alone someone to check and change my oil or fix a flat.
So it felt this morning like my world had suddenly and fundamentally shifted again when I stepped into my downtown post office to find it empty. Desk closed. No postal personnel in sight, just an automated system called the "Self Service Ship and Mail Center." It can efficiently weigh packages, dispense stamps, and track deliveries-no smile or the ability to greet me by name.
Facing possible bankruptcy, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is closing facilities or radically reducing hours and personnel all over the country. My home state of Kentucky alone has nine USPS offices scheduled to close. For those of us who use email for correspondence and pay bills online, the postal service, though not a daily essential, remains a service we take for granted. But for those on the less fortunate side of the digital divide, a society without decent mail service is hard to imagine.
With this reality in mind, a report by the USPS Office of Inspector General offers an alternative to closing post offices, cutting window hours, getting rid of career postal workers, and selling off post office buildings. It suggests that local post offices be reimagined as vital community hubs that offer services like internet access and copy-making capabilities, places with the potential for bringing in new sources of revenue and revitalizing dying brick and mortar facilities. (You can read the entire report called "21st Century Post Office: Non-Postal Products and Services" here.)
Some argue in support of USPS cuts backs or outright elimination, suggesting two big competitors are waiting in the wings, FedEx and UPS. Yes, those shipping giants have a combined U.S. workforce comparable to that of the USPS, but they probably wouldn't fill the void left by the agency, since it's doubtful UPS or FedEx would be interested in delivering letters, postcards and bills. These companies instead have networks designed for more specialized, high-dollar shipping. Plus, private corporations have no social obligations to the public good the way the USPS does.
If the USPS is lost as a public asset, however, we risk losing much more than a value the US constitution guarantees American citizens. We risk losing an institution that our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them could count on. It would mean the end of an era, one marked for centuries by service with a smile.
Who but your local postal carrier will greet you by name when delivering that Beatles' album you ordered off of ebay last Wednesday?
Beatles - Please Mister Postman
This blip was a collaborative effort with my partner Kathy - who generously provided her writing and editing skills.
Also I dedicate this blip to Naturelover, who before her retirement and becoming a goddess among blippers, served many years as a US postal carrier.