Of all the travesties associated with the present administration and its Republican-controlled Senate, the threat to the United States Postal Service is perhaps the most egregious. Ostensibly, it’s a matter of money; deeper thinking reveals that there is a fear that it might somehow be used to allow all Americans to participate in the election process without having to physically appear at a polling place. This, Republicans think, will put them at a disadvantage, as, apparently, Republican voters either will not or cannot figure out how to mail in a ballot. That may say more about Republicans than it does about the USPS, though.
Apart from the fact that the USPS is very close to being the oldest federal institution in the nation—if not the oldest and certainly most venerated—and one on which the entire population has relied with unfailing faith (although not without complaint), it has remained a steadfast pillar of dependability in an otherwise mercurial world.
Millions and millions of Americans rely on the postal service to bring them vital information, money, and communications, both public and private, on a daily basis. In every lifetime, there is a recollection of “waiting for the mail,” at some point and for some emotionally laden reason. The arrival of the mail, even today, even cluttered as it is with advertising, political appeals, bills and bogus offers, is still an event. A holiday brings a sense of absence, a feeling that something in the day is missing; but the promise of a resumption of regularity and dependability on the morrow always is there. Everyone counts on the mail. Whether we welcome it with dread or anticipation of joy, we all watch for its daily arrival in one way or another.
I recall with nostalgia when we received two home deliveries a day, morning and evening, and when to learn that someone’s father was an actual postman prompted all of us to regard that paternal individual with a certain amount of deference and respect offered to no other civil servant. I remember thumbing through children’s books that celebrated the heroic work of postal clerks sorting mail in depots and on trains, trudging through high snow and even taking boats to ensure prompt delivery. The sight of a mailbox on the street or a mail chute in a building was a comforting reminder that there was something stable, something constant, and something secure in the world. The sight of a postman marching from house to house or arriving in an office or apartment building provided a sense of normalcy, peace, confidence. The mail and all its accouterments was comforting and reassuring, even in almost unconscious acknowledgment and casual acceptance of its existence.
I can remember when people used postage as legal tender to make purchases, and when the admonition “No Stamps” was often printed next to mail-in order coupons, when the practice faded. The post office was always the demarcation of official existence of a town or any hamlet, however small, the occasion for thinking up a permanent name for a settlement or crossroads; it often became the gathering place for people who sought news of the world or merely of the community. Locals would visit daily in times of war to review the postings of casualty lists, arrivals and departures of troops, victories or defeats; bulletin boards broadcast warnings about wanted malefactors, military recruiting posters, reminders of the need to register one’s self as a legitimate citizen of the world on a regular basis, by ensuring that one’s address was correct, one’s identity was discoverable. Social Security cards were issued there. So were immigration papers, so were IRS forms. Post offices were almost like secular houses of worship, visited regularly, sometimes daily, places where answers could be found, heart-felt requests sent, responses received.
All post offices smelled the same, no matter where one was or how large the facility might be. There was the scent of paper, glue, tape, and cardboard throughout the building. The reliable sound of a hand-stamp applied by a brisk postal clerk to provide a legally binding date and time on an envelope flap was comforting and sometimes a little intimidating. People tend to whisper in post offices, to stand in long lines without complaint waiting to send or receive some missive, parcel, or drop off an official document, arrange for a passport, buy some stamps for later use.
The present funding shortfall of the USPS is the result, of course, of electronic mail and other forms of instant communication taking precedent in our lives. Like the daily newspaper, the daily mail is rapidly being regarded as visceral, useless, a waste of time and effort. But unlike electronic mailings, the post office is still vital to millions who either don’t have the means or the capability of logging in and signing on. The cost of a stamp, which admittedly has risen to almost unimaginable amounts in my lifetime, is nevertheless the greatest bargain one can hope for. I mean, just imagine: You can write a letter, seal it in an envelope, address it, then put on less than a half-dollar’s worth of postage and drop it into a chute in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, North Platt, Sioux City, St. Louis, Louisville, Atlanta, New Orleans, or anywhere else in the country, full in the confidence that in a couple of days, at the most, it will be hand-delivered to your addressee in New York or Philadelphia, Boston, or Miami absolutely secure, private, and unviolated. If you pay extra, you can get it there overnight. Where else can you get that kind of utterly reliable service so inexpensively? True, everyone has tales of inexplicable delays, misdirected deliveries, delayed and even lost materials that for one reason or another have not been handled with the USPS’s ballyhooed efficiency, but those complaints are too rare to offset the otherwise excellent performance of this almost unfathomably complex institution.
I cannot imagine the USA without the USPS. I don’t think I want to. The costs are high to keep it operational and functional, yes. And those are apt to go up over time. Employee discontent occasionally becomes a sensational item in the news, yes. But what industry doesn’t have that problem? The cost of nearly everything else has also gone up. Employee malcontent is a constant in our world. But nothing has gone up so little and continued to deliver so much, so often, with such regularity and constancy. And the cheerful greeting of a postman on his rounds is something that almost everyone can count on, and it’s far more common than anyone “going postal.”
I am horrified to realize that the postal service might disappear on the whim of an idiotic president who cannot himself read or write well enough to comprehend a written letter, let alone to write one. He can barely sign his name, and he thinks a sharpie is a handy instrument for quality penmanship. It’s a shame is what it is. But who is to stop it? The Republican-controlled Senate? Fat chance.
Barring some kind of public outcry, I fear the Post Office will go the way of many reliable vestiges of the past. The corner mailbox will be relegated to museums to stand by a time-honored telephone booth and telegraph key. Youngsters will be mystified by terms such as “postal coach” or “post rider,” “airmail,” or “special delivery,” or “parcel post.” They will look over in wonder at the slogans so many of us learned, such as “Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night….” Even the term “courier” will be banished from vocabularies. No one will remember what a “mail hook” was for or what “P.O. Box” meant, or “RFD.” Elvis’s lament about reading “No such zone” on a returned letter will mean nothing. “Hey, Mr. Postman…Bring me a letter, the sooner the better,” will just not make sense to the next generation, nor will the painful equivocations in a letter from “Detroit City.”
God help us if the electricity fails, though, and our power devices cannot report on the arrival of much needed direct-deposits and automatic withdrawals to cover an owed debt. With a total conversion to electronic mail, there will be no more engraved invitations and formal announcements, no excitement generated by the arrival of an envelope with news of acceptance or success, no personally- written, heartfelt missives of thanks, regrets, sympathies, or news of personal matters too delicate to be consigned to bits and bytes. There will be no expectation of privacy in our epistolary revelations. Love letters carefully wrapped with ribbon and stored in an attic trunk for some future generation to stumble over and wonder about will no longer exist. Greeting cards will become things of the past, never to be opened and chuckled over years later. Letters from soldiers overseas back home to an anxious family will no longer be saved for the next generation to read and ponder with sympathy and nostalgia. Heartfelt apologies will arrive in truncated form, by tweets and texts, not on tear-stained stationery. Communications of joy, sorrow, gladness, worry, concern, pride and thrill and accomplishment will be long consigned to the ether of the internet, with no corporeal record that any of us ever was here, that any of us was human, that any of us ever actually felt anything.
This is a tragedy in the making. It breaks my heart. But I am not so naive as to think that the idiotic conservatives will not follow through and offer a coup de grace to the institution that their patron saint, Ronald Reagan, already hobbled during his disastrous tenure. This is how America is made great again, I suppose, by killing off the few institutions that we can all rely on and making sure that not a dime is spent in the interest of humanity, only in the constant support of insatiable greed and the constant fear that somehow the USPS’s continuation will threaten them.