You Have Mail. Maybe.

Those of us of a certain age may recall backpacking in Europe and receiving mail at a local American Express office. This was long before cell phones, email and internet cafes with faulty keyboards. I mention this “old school” delivery system because the modern post office provides a similar service. Yes, General Delivery still exists.


Before I go on to trash the USPS, I want first want write about the important contributions of this once noble institution.

For starters, the postal service was considered vital to democracy, so much so that it’s written into the U.S. Constitution: Article 1, Section 8, known as The Postal Clause, empowers Congress “To establish Post Offices and post roads.”

From a review of How the Post Office Created America: A History,  written by Winifred Gallagher and published in 2016:

“The founders established the post office before they had even signed the Declaration of Independence, and for a very long time, it was . . . the central nervous system of the new body politic, designed to bind thirteen quarrelsome colonies into the United States by deliverying news about public affairs to every citizen — a radical idea that appalled Europe’s great powers. America’s uniquely democratic post powerfuly shaped its liverly, argumentative culture of uncensored ideas and opinions and made it the world’s information and communications superpower with astonishing speed.”

The role the Post Office played in establishing roads cannot be overstated. Transportation routes in the orignial colonies were primarily along bodies of water on the Eastern Seaboard. The Post Office was responsible for building roads, often at a rapid pace, that connected much of the country. In 1790, about 2,400 miles of post roads linked 75 post offices; by 1820, 72,500 miles of postal roads linked 4,500 post offices. Expansion was not limited to roads and post offices but to employment, too. By 1831, nearly 30,000 postal employees accounted for 76% of the civilian federal workforce. As January 2016, the postal service had close to 31,600 post offices; 500,000 career employees and 132,000 non-career employees (often part-time employees hired at lower hourly wages with limited benefits).

Unfortunately, few of these 632,000 employees care about customer service. I know because I have experienced the following:

  • Been turned away in Arizona from collecting my General Delivery package because I was there in the afternoon. At this particular post office, General Delivery can be collected mornings only.
  • Failed to receive a critical part for my RV that had been mailed for overnight delivery from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. Tracking showed it was on its way. After five days, tracking continued to show it was on its way. The postmistress explained mail is not considered “lost” until after its gone missing for at least 30 days. Naturally, the package appeared a week after I repurchased the missing RV part.
  • Saw a handwritten sign in a Los Angeles area post office notifying Passport applicants that due to a lack of film, no Passport photos would be taken that week, nor would passport applications be accepted. So here’s my question: Didn’t the person responsible for taking photos notice the dwindling film supply? I won’t even bother to ask why digital cameras aren’t used.
  • A particular decorative stamp was not available due to its popularity. It had sold out almost immediately. Can you think of any other business that wouldn’t order more of a fast-selling item? Me neither.
  • A package marked “Hold for Delivery” was returned to the post office because I had not provided a site number for the RV Park I planned to be at. Could the package have been left at the park office? Yes. Was it? No. Interestingly, the post card I received letting me know why the package couldn’t be delivered used the same address, i.e., no site number. This piece of mail WAS delivered to the park office. Go figure.
  • The website for a local post office in Texas indicated it provided General Delivery services. Turns out this means it will SEND General Delivery, not actually ACCEPT it. Why didn’t I call first? Because the post office does not answer its phones. Must be because the career and part-time employees are too busy serving customers by not taking passport photos and not selling popular stamps.
  • The postmaster of this particular Texas post office that didn’t accept General Delivery had the option of forwarding my letter, which contained a new debit card to replace the one that had been compromised, to the one post office that actually ACCEPTED General Delivery. Instead, he chose the “Return to Sender” option. It was returned to the sender. Eventually. Call me paranoid, but I sensed some hostility in this transaction.
  • My favorite hostile encounter occurred in Quartzsite, AZ, site of an annual January pilgrimage by thousands of RV’ers, some of whom want to receive their mail. I knew I was in trouble when I pulled into an empty post office parking lot on Monday. It was Martin Luther King’s birthday. I returned the next morning to the following scene: A post office employee (career? part-time? who cares?) opened the extraordinarily loud, screeching gate to the counter without a nod or greeting or apology to acknowledge those of us in line with our hands covering our ears to help

    It looks so welcoming. 

    block out the almost unbearably annoying sound.  When it was my turn at the counter, he informed me I would have fill out a form to continue receiving General Delivery mail. When I said I didn’t understand why this would be necessary, he recorded my name and in large, bold handwriting added an expiration date 3 days hence. He explained his branch would have to return any mail more than a week old, starting from Friday, the day the mail had arrived. No matter that the post office’s official delivery date was listed as Monday, not Friday, and that the post office was closed on Monday. Anything received after the coming Friday would be returned. By this time I realized he thought I would be in Quartzsite for the winter, not just a few days. He’s probably still wondering why I left the counter not angry, but chuckling.

Charming as it is to use old-fashioned General Delivery, I now use UPS or FedEx when I can. By the way, were you aware the Postal Service lost $5+ billion in 2015, 2014 and 2013, an improvement, nonetheless, from its nearly $16 billion loss in 2012.

Gosh, I wonder why.

3 thoughts on “You Have Mail. Maybe.

  1. Karel, I have to admit in advance that I am a proponent (probably a dying breed) of the US Postal Service. This is largely because my grandfather retired from the service. I have kept abreast of the issues facing the USPS for well over a decade. I don’t want to bore people on minutia, but there are some interesting facts about the USPS which goes back to around 1970.

    First, during the Nixon era, there was a major strike that postal workers conducted which resulted in two key things: 1) They got some of their union concessions, 2) they US Postal Dept. was changed into an independent government service, de-elevated from a cabinet level position. The latter change is critical to what has happened to the USPS.

    Prior to being an independent service, the US Postal Department was run via taxpayer dollars. After it was changed to an independent service, it pays for all of its expenses via the services it provides without taxpayer dollars. Additionally, it is not allowed to increase postal rates or change key services without Congressional approval.

    The US Postal Department had a typical government pension it offered to its employees. Sometime after it became the USPS, the pension has changed a bit similar to what may be found in current government service employee plans. However, the USPS was required by Congress to pay pre-USPS accrued pension payments through its revenue source even though they should have been part of the taxpayer-funded portion of the service prior to it becoming independent. This has created a continued strain on the service.

    In 2006, Congress passed legislation requiring the USPS to fund its retirement fund in full over ten years based on present value. No business, public or private, is required to do this in the US. This has created. In 2016, per the $5.8 billion required pre-funding retirement requirement, the USPS reported a loss of $5.6 billion. Discounting the pre-funding requirement, the USPS has net income of $200 million. Despite decreases in first class mailing revenue, contributed to both surcharge expiration and electronic payments, the USPS showed an increase in revenue of $1.6 billion in operating revenue on $71.429 billion total revenue.

    The USPS also is not fully part of Medicare for retirement health benefits. As a result, they lose out on pricing benefits. This is a problem with Congress not allowing the service to have the advantages that any other department or institution is permitted. It will continue for some time to be a financial drain on the service.

    As for delivery issues, this is a two-part problem. First, due to the aforementioned financial constraints that Congress has placed on the service, it is constantly trying to find new ways to be as efficient as possible. Unfortunately, that means slower service. For example, to cut costs, post office closures have occurred throughout the country, and first class service within the same city has changed from next-day delivery to 2-day delivery.

    Lastly, as a result of the Patriot Act, there have been various restrictions placed on delivery. There used to be a time when you could receive mail to your address with any name or company. That no longer is allowed. The government wants addresses to have specific names associated with it. So, for example, if you have mail to be delivered at an address, the delivering post office must know that you are allowed to receive mail at that address. Otherwise, the mail will be rejected and returned to sender.

    There is a little known workaround to the mail delivery issue. If you have a PO Box at a post office, you can have any kind of delivery sent to your name is the post office address is provided (not the PO Box number). For example, if the post office is at 123 Main St., you can have your mail sent to that address, even FedEx and UPS. That is not the same for PO Boxes themselves.

    As for specialty stamps, I got my Star Trek stamps when they came out. But the postal workers at the PO I go to know I’m a nerd, so they kept them for me. Yippie!

    • Too funny – before I got to your signature I was thinking, “Well, my uncle worked for the post office,” not realizing we were thinking of the same person! BTW, and I know this for a FACT, any package delivered to the post office by another delivery method (I.e., fedex or ups) will be handed over only after paying what it would have cost to send it USPS.

      Thank you for your insights, Larry. There always are at least two sides to a story.

  2. Karel, your posts always bring a smile. Thanks for sharing your travels with those of us who
    stay home and await the latest installment of Travels with Karel. Happy New Year. Nancy A

I love hearing from you. It makes me feel as if I'm traveling with friends.

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