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.