Monday's column, for instance, on waiting at the post office, was purely a matter of timing — I needed to write something, and had just experienced the long wait at the post office. It was what I think of as "a duck in a bucket" -- an easy target, sitting at my feet, softly quacking, waiting to be blasted. You can't miss.
I was almost embarrassed to write it. Had you asked me to gauge reader reaction ahead of time, I'd have guessed, perhaps a bit of chiding, for plucking such low hanging fruit.
Wrong. Dozens of emails. Gratitude. Amazement. Delight. At least 50. Everyone had a story or a thought to share, such as this, from Dennis Quinn:
I walked into the Tinley Park post office a few months ago and there was no queue and a clerk behind the counter. She was the only clerk on duty. She was doing what seemed to be some sort of administrative work. She looked up, saw me and immediately put the next window sign in front of herself. There wasn't any one else there! It was truly a WTF moment. After a few minutes, she removed the sign and said "Next please." Pure hell.Several mentioned poor command of the English language, or rudeness, including clerks who were rude with their mouths full of food. Much indifference. Several readers relayed stories of post offices running out of stamps. Jack Costello wrote:
It reminded me of my experience 10 days before Christmas. I went to the Elmhurst Post Office and waited about 20 minutes to get international stamps. When my turn came, the gal told me they were out of international stamps. I phoned Villa Park USPS and they also were out of international stamps. It seems no one knew there would be a rush before Christmas. I phoned Melrose Park USPS on Lake Street and YES, they had the stamps.A few readers came to the defense of the post office. Thomas Evans wrote:
I quickly got over to Melrose Park and got the stamps. I couldn't help but notice there were 3 employees working the counter and I was the only customer.
In Elmhurst, there are rarely more than 2 employees working the windows and the lines are usually back to the entrance. I often see employees chatting in the back while customers wait 20 minutes or more.
There is obviously no coordination of manpower needs or product inventory between nearby branch offices. As I told the Elmhurst gal, "No wonder you people are going broke"
Funny column today, but I tend to bridle at P.O. bashing. For the record, the clerks at my local Office are friendly and curteous, and I seldom have to wait more than five minutes. I suspect the experience may differ in the city.I was pleased by Tom's Trolllope reference. A nice bit of literariness. Though it was this witty addition, from Charles Berg, that made me think I should post a few:
My soft spot for the USPS goes back to college days, when I worked as a part time mailman during Christmas vacations. I've never worked harder, and once got fired for exceeding delivery time standards. Also, I think of one of my literary heroes, Anthony Trollope, who managed to write 56 still readable novels working four hours early every morning before reporting to his day job as a high official at Her Majesty's Post Office. He also set up the postal service in Ireland.
There is a fiction that the USPS is an independent government entity set up to be run like a business, but meddling by its Congressional overseers really makes that impossible. I expect service at the Merchandise Mart will improve after your column. The power of the press.
As you may be aware, various nations now issue stamps with no inscribed denomination — but are marked as paying the fee for a certain postal service [e.g., a first-class letter] at any future date, regardless of the cost on that later date. Canada calls such issues "Permanent" stamps, which bear a white letter "P" shown against a red stylized maple leaf. While waiting in a long line at my local post office recently, it struck me that the "Forever" notation used by the USPS may be a reflection of the time it takes to get service at a USPS station these days.I should point out that I did phone the Chicago branch of the postal service before running this. I like to give my columns a news angle, and not just wax comedic, and had a question I thought might mitigate the problems I saw at the Merchandise Mart: I suspected that the post office, with its chronic funding woes, is understaffed. It wouldn't do to mock an organization struggling to survive, doing its best under constraints -- I know what that's like. So I phoned Mark Reynolds, the Chicago USPS spokesman, whom I've dealt with in the past and is unusually candid and personable, for a government PR functionary. Reynolds said that no, staffing is fine, which sort of makes it worse. He too wrote me on Tuesday, with clarity and sense, and we'll give him the last word, nearly:
We had such a lovely chat Friday afternoon, I’m rather surprised you didn’t include any of my information in today’s piece.I told him I'd be happy to do any kind of follow-up. I also snapped the above photo Wednesday, walking past the Merchandise Mart station. So much for Tom Evans' theory about the power of the press.
I do wish you’d asked me about “security theater.” That’s not an idle exercise, we are required to ask that question of every piece presented for mailing, for the protection of the general mail stream and the vehicles - including commercial airplanes - that transport it, as well as our customers, employees and facilities.
Our clerks ask the other questions because customers don’t always know which mailing option and/or additional service is right for what they’re sending. And it never hurts to ask if there’s anything they might need.
While I understand the frustration with waiting so long to be served, Post Office lobbies are far from Kafka-esque, as indicated by the mobile retail scanners I mentioned in our interview. Even if the wait is longer than we aim for, they’re anything but hellish. And by using the tools at usps.com, customers can pay for postage and arrange a free package pickup 24 hours a day – no waiting required!
I’d like to take you up on that offer to do a follow-up piece to this. I might even be able to meet you…back at Merchandise Mart.