Postal Mortem


I remember walking to the post office in the little town where I grew up. Some summer days, there wasn’t much else to do. The postmaster was a remote and taciturn fellow known to me mostly as a blurry hand rifling envelopes into the boxes. This was the early 1970s, and each trip to the building with the flag outside and the “Wanted” posters in the lobby filled me with a sense of possibility. I might discover I won a sweepstakes. I might receive an issue of one of the magazines that I subscribed to chiefly so I would get mail. And even if my family’s box was empty that day, I might overhear a bit of adult gossip or bump into a pal. I might recognize on a poster the scowling face of a man I’d seen hanging around the hardware store, making me eligible for a big reward.

It’s this sort of golden nostalgia that comes over me when I reflect on the less-than-shocking news that the United States Postal Service, facing billions of dollars in annual losses and creeping institutional obsolescence, has embarked on a budget-cutting program that could result in the closing of thousands of offices, many in small towns and rural areas. On a practical level, the move is understandable. In the last few years the total volume of mail (I refuse to call it snail mail, which I feel insults its seniority and primacy and bolsters the fiction that e-mail is mail at all and not a form of digital rain) has dropped by 20 percent, while many of the offices slated for shuttering serve only a handful of customers per day. And though the cost of operating these branches isn’t large in the systemwide scheme of things, the chilly laws of bureaucratic Darwinism dictate that when something has to give, that something is usually tiny and vulnerable.

The painful truth, of course, is that the post offices most likely to vanish also happen to function as the centers of the communities in which they’re situated. Social-networking sites aren’t just Internet phenomena. In Livingston, Mont., my current hometown, the post office does what Facebook only purports to as far as promoting human interaction. On the wide granite steps of the neo-Classical edifice that stands as one of our few local reminders that we 7,000 people of the Great Plains belong to a civilized modern nation, my neighbors and I trade news, contract for services and generally mix and mingle in a manner that permits us to feel like neighbors rather than strangers subject to the same weather. For people who live far out in the countryside or who are too old and frail to get around much, this can be a life-sustaining service, particularly in the winter months. The chance to chat improves folks’ mental health, and the failure of an old man to fetch his power bill for several days alerts others to go check on him.

The benefits to the public welfare afforded by a small-town post office are hard to quantify in dollar terms, but my guess is that they offer fairly good value, at least when compared with salaried social workers and prescription psychoactive drugs. We’ll probably never know; the formula created by the government to determine which offices to close doesn’t include such complex measurements. But what if it did? Consider the following: In Livingston a few weeks back, a trailer house burned down and a man was badly burned while trying to rescue the inhabitants. (One wasn’t home, and the other escaped safely.) A spaghetti dinner was quickly arranged to help the victims with housing and medical care, and I heard about the event while sending a package. Others, I’ll wager, got the news in the same way, and the dinner, held two days later, was a success, filling the basement of the downtown Elks club.

Now pretend the post office had closed and do the chaos math.

Thinking this over, I realize an e-mail listserv might have spread the news as, or more, efficiently; I’m straining here, I know it. Strong sentiment will do that to a person. So will the sense of disquiet stirred by losing yet more cultural common ground to the new Dust Bowl of finance. They lose money, small post offices, so they have to go.

The post office in the town where I was raised, a town of 500 people in Minnesota, had that shoe-polish smell peculiar to government buildings. A pen was attached to the counter with a weak chain that anyone could easily have pulled and snapped. No one did, though. The pen belonged to everyone. Stealing it would have been stealing from ourselves. As a crime, such a theft might not have ranked with those committed by the unlovable hard-eyed felons whose photos had been posted by the F.B.I., but even at 9 years old I understood that it was not something a good citizen should do.

That notion of citizenship, of civic belonging, was taught at school, but it was nothing but words. At the post office, I could feel it and I could see it, most vividly in the orderly, crisp movements of the postmaster as he filled the boxes, giving equal attention to every address. But all addresses aren’t equal, it now turns out, as the thousands of planned post-office closings may soon prove. Fiscal realism demands this step, and its consequences are unlikely to be grave or even noticeable once some time has passed. Assuming the network covers the spots in question, electronic means of linking up will fill in for the vanished analog modes. Word of spaghetti dinners will still get out (until they’re replaced by virtual spaghetti dinners), and restless 9-year-old boys won’t have to walk anywhere to fetch their copies of National Geographic, that charming old magazine about life on Earth.

a country that can't afford this

but can afford this

is in deep shit . . . .