Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Post Office Redux: Return to Sender

    One thing I've learned in my job is there is almost no connection between columns I'm excited about, columns I've worked hard on, and columns that interest readers. 
     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.
     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" 
     A few readers came to the defense of the post office. Thomas Evans wrote:
     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.
     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.
     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:
    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 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.
     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.


  1. I've got a better one-- anyone have a story about a newspaper that's not professional enough to have real photojournalists? You know, those billions and billions of misspellings and nonsensical sentences; missing column runs; pedestrian columns; misinformation; or just one about a photo hack who has nothing better to do than to pick on the Post office.

  2. Oh great, Chicago Al, longtime troll on various Chicago newspaper sites, has found Neil's blog. I can't wait for the interesting and insightful posts to start rolling. NOT.

  3. No harm here. This column has nothing to do with the newspaper, Al. It is a separate hobby blog run by yours truly, because a) it makes me feel less insignificant and b) it's fun. So if you want to use this as a platform to bitch about the paper, well, go crazy or, to be precise, crazier, and encourage your friends to join in. We're big boys here, and on the scale of the crap I receive every single day, "You fired your photographers" isn't even on the scale because a) it wasn't me and b) it's old news.

  4. Typical cheesy replies, because YOU DON'T KNOW WHO I am-- so, I won't bother with this blog; until you've learned how to do your homework- NOT!

    1. So ... you want me to research who you are, or think you are, in whatever crazy troll world you inhabit, in order to pay you the proper respect ... or ... you're threatening not to hang around my blog and be an asshole? Oh, God, that's a tough one....Because nothing hurts more than the scorn of anonymous trolls who hang around blogs carping about stuff they don't understand. That's really a knife to the heart.

    2. Thank you Neil Steinberg. I love you, your column, AND your blog. I also love you giving the business to ChicagoAl...you made my day

    3. Thanks Jodi. I probably should cultivate trolls more -- my pal Eric Zorn runs a veritable three-ring troll circus over at his blog. But it really isn't my idea of fun. They're zealots, and I don't respect zealotry.

  5. This column reminded me of another time at the Rogers Park Post Office [World's worst post office].
    I was in one of the rare short lines, behind someone who needed a variety of stamps.
    The clerks didn't have any of what she wanted.
    Because the only person with the combination to the safe where the main stamp supply was stored was on vacation & no one else could open it!
    Now, I assume someone downtown must have the combination, because if the person who was on vacation had died, then the only way to open the safe would be to have a locksmith drill it to open it.
    But then this is the USPS & remembering that, the one on vacation probably was the only one with the combination!
    And that's why the Chicago Post Office in general, is the worst in the country & Rogers Park the worst of the worst!

  6. If you think the post office is bad, you should try a Comcast service center.

    Or for a real treat, the window at Sears where you pick up merchandise you ordered online. They have a clock that counts down to the "5 minute guaranteed" pickup time, but they just turn off the clock when it gets close. This person's experience sounds downright postal-esque:



  7. The First Rule of Clout: Anyone who has to ask "Don't you know who I am?" has no real clout.

    I feel for the post office: the Feds say they have to be an independent buisiness, then Congress tells them they have to make pension payments 75 years in advance. If they were truly left to their own devices, they'd be better off. And the Evanston Post Office is pretty smooth.


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