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Post Office Hell

December 22, 2004

Tags Big Government

Lenin once dismissed the question of how socialism would work by pointing to the workings of the post office. Socialism, he said , means only to "To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service."

Well, I tried my best to avoid this pocket of socialism, but it was just unavoidable.

I trained for it as though I would be in a life or death situation. Now it was time for a terrible event, a thing that I do as infrequently as possible; a thing that any sane person approaches the way one would heart surgery.

I had to return a package so I went down to the Forest Hills, New York post office on Queens Blvd. I went early in the day—I was there just before 9 a.m. on December 8, 2004—in the mistaken belief that maybe I could complete my simple transaction—sending a small box to Ohio—in a few minutes.

I was wrong.

When I came in the post office, there were exactly 32 people ahead of me in a line that never seemed to end. And it was early in the day, who knows how many people would be there by midday or at the peak hours?

There are some seven windows in the office. Two were open. Several employees ambled around the back in the office. Apparently, they were not available to pitch in.

Gee, I hope none of the patrons planned on getting to work soon. I hope no one was planning to go somewhere quick. All of us now had a new job—waiting in line at the post office and taking orders from surly civil servants.

After better than thirty minutes in this egregious place—there were still ten people in front of me—it seemed as though we were all in the speed lane on the highway to Never Never Land. It was all too much for one poor soul. He jumped out of line and started banging on the door of the branch supervisor. After several minutes, he finally found this postal priest, “Would you come out and look at this?”

Now there were three windows open.

Still, the line moved very slowly. Forest Hills residents, who have been sentenced to the cruel and unusual punishment of going to their post office (or any post office), are advised to bring beach chairs, a hot meal and a radio.

Forty minutes into this ordeal and there were still plenty of people behind me. All of them, I’m sure, wondered if it would ever be possible to escape from this sentence. Yet, I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to achieve the “Impossible Dream.” Did I really want to get to a window, with all the perils of dealing with a government that could ruin my life; that could lose my package?

As I stood there, counting the minutes (hours?) until my escape, it became obvious that many of these civil servants think we are their servants; that no one anywhere in the post office bureaucracy—or any other government bureaucracy—could be held accountable for anything, no matter how bad.

So please hold the complaints about Amtrak, about your child’s illiteracy even though he has a diploma from a public school, about the lack of armor for American troops going into dangerous situations around the world or about taxes, regulations, and commissions that crush initiative and discourage people from saving. And please don’t complain—as I did recently—about a check taking some six days to reach my mailbox in Central Queens from nearby New Jersey. The Garden State is about ninety minutes away by car, provided the government owned and operated bridge or roadways don’t ruin your day.

Yes, but please don’t bring up these things whenever you come in contact with our government. Just shut up, stand in line quietly and close your eyes to things happening around you. There were many things happening around me.

“There’s nothing I can do,” one agitated postal employee told a young woman who repeatedly had to get in line and come back and back. “This is ridiculous,” the frustrated woman said. Seems the postal office was having trouble finding a package she was owed. Now this poor woman was sentenced to perdition—she was lost in the deepest recesses of post office hell. No one could help her. Like heathens consumed by the fires of hell, this woman was consumed by a plethora of post office regulations, mismanagement and postal employees who were serving up heaping helpings of harrumphs.

In the course of her voyage into hopelessness, she turned philosopher, promulgating a rule that should be prominently displayed in every one of the dungeons of our postal service star chambers across the land: “This is the kind of place that takes nice people and turns them into mean people,” the woman sighed, a sentiment that sounded like a Dostoyevskyan character commenting on the last days of the Czarist empire.

And I’m not sure if this lady’s “nice people into mean people” comment was intended to describe the overtaxed patrons of this silly system—stamp prices soon to go up once again in a further proof that the worst always get on top principle rules our government—or the employees. My guess is both. No matter, she had plenty of company in hell.

An elderly lady had come to the post office to pick up her package. Seems the post office said it had tried to deliver it to her house. There was only one problem.

“I was at home all day and no delivery was ever made,” said the woman shaking her head in disgust. The post office was conducting a full-scale search for the pesky package with about the same degree of success as those guys still looking for weapons of mass destruction.

A delightful distinguished elderly Spanish woman stood in front of me in line. She couldn’t believe what was happening. She just wanted some stamps, a task that was turning into an hour-long event. She quietly asked,“Why is this taking so long? I’m never coming here again.”

Ojalá, senora! Olajá! (Here is an Arabic phrase that made its way into the Spanish language, a phrase signifying “may God grant” something. Olajá! If only we could privatize the post office and the…”). In any language, here is a phrase that sums up the anguish of millions of people who must deal with our postal service (sic).

If only this lady’s quite reasonable objections, and the objections of millions of others who dare to question this moron monopoly, made any difference in the world. Unfortunately, buena senora, they just don’t. Believe me, they don’t. Letters to members of Congress—clowns like Rep. Anthony Weiner and career television performer Senator Chuck (“Where’s the camera?”) Schumer—about the mails are useless. You get back idiotic form letters from these mountebanks telling you they “care” and “are investigating.” Why should anyone expect reform from these hinds? Many of these pols are in the pockets of the postal service union.

So the good senora never comes back.

So the postal service loses another good customer.

So what?

Nothing bad is going to happen to the postal service. That’s because the hired help in Washington allows this bumbling bureaucracy to repeatedly raise rates and deliver dreadful service that makes normally sane people mashshuggah with disgust.

Oh, I finally got my package sent out. “Cheapest rate possible, please. I don’t want to give one centavo extra to the postal service,” I told the employee, a pleasant enough person who probably understands better than I do what a mess that post office and the entire system are.

It only took me an hour or so. There were more hijinks galore at the post office. But my only thought was to leave as soon as possible and try to forget this remarkable experience, which is really not so remarkable if one deals frequently with the various levels of government in all their glorious goofiness and incomparable incompetence. 

But idiocy is only entertaining for so long. Now I was hungry. So I walked two blocks to Continental Avenue to my favorite bagel store. There were so many people in the store, people were almost spilling out into the sidewalk. Yet, with a ton of people assigned to wait on customers—eight clerks were politely servicing people—I had my onion bagel with vegetable tofu spread and a juice before one could say Jack Robinson. I was on my way in between five and ten minutes. As I walked up Austin Street on the way back from postal hell, I remembered I needed some hot cereal. I went into a big fruit and vegetable store on Austin Street.

Oh, my God! Look at the line in this very popular store. Not to worry. I got at the back of the line. I was in the front of the line and was being politely waited on—by one of the owners of the store—in less than five minutes. I ran into my Spanish friend from Dante’s Inferno.

We were about to exchange postal war stories. Too late. We were waited on and out of the store in five minutes. If the government took over the bagel and fruit and vegetable stores many of us would die of hunger waiting to buy our food. Correction, the food would never get there in time. It would be stuck back in New Jersey with my check. Or maybe it would get here, but then they’d have to search for it at the post office.

Lenin was right: the postal service pretty well sums up what happens to any institution managed by the state.

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Gregory Bresiger is an editor in New York. gbresiger@hotmail.com. See his  archive. Comment on the blog.


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