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While We Wait for the Pirates: Let’s Talk About My Local Mailbox

Good morning! The big uni news today will be the unveiling of the Pirates’ City Connect design. But while we wait for that to happen (I’m not sure when in the day it will take place), I want to go off-uni and talk about something that’s been on my mind.

So: I’ve always loved mail. I had several pen pals when I was a kid, so I was always looking forward to the daily mail delivery, hoping that there’d be a letter for me. This epistolary anticipation continued into my adulthood, as I became a zine publisher (which entailed a lot of fan correspondence and mail orders) and then a freelance writer (which meant I received most of my income via checks that arrived in the mail — any day could be payday!).

Although email, Venmo, and direct deposit have now rendered most of that moot, I still have a near-Pavlovian positive response when I hear the dull metallic clank indicating that our letter carrier has shoved the daily delivery through our front door’s mail slot. This fascination with mail has occasionally extended into my work (I’ve written about letterbox design and Jimmy Lonetti’s throwback postal uniforms) and even my home decor (as longtime readers may recall, I have a vintage mail chute here at Uni Watch HQ).

All of which is to say: I have an admittedly romantic notion of the mail system. That in turn explains why I’m so upset about a recent development at my local post office. Like all post offices, it has a letterbox outside at the curb. Lately that letterbox has looked like this:

This may look like a kid’s prank, but it’s not. The box has been like this for a couple of weeks. If the postal staff didn’t want the tape there, they could remove it.

From a practical standpoint, this isn’t a big deal, at least during business hours, because anything that would fit in the letterbox’s slot will also fit in the wall slot inside the post office, just a few feet away. The issue, from my standpoint, isn’t that the box has been taken out of service (maybe there’s a good reason for it), but rather the half-assed way it’s been taken out of service. There’s no sign, no explanation — just an amateurish tape job. It feels like something you’d see in a developing nation.

I find this off-putting — upsetting, even — because mail is, in many ways, an act of faith. At the risk of over-romanticizing again, I think it’s kind of magical that we can scrawl something on an envelope, drop it in a box (or wall slot, as the case might be), and expect with reasonable confidence that it will arrive at the specified destination. And despite all the potshots people like to take at the Postal Service, they mostly do a remarkably good job. But that act of faith requires a lot of institutional trust, and things like taping over a letterbox outside the post office erode that trust. It makes me think that the people working at this branch are lazy and unprofessional, and that in turn makes me a bit more hesitant to entrust them with something I’m mailing.

And here’s the thing: If the Postal Service wants to take a box out of service, they have a protocol for that, like they do for everything else. It involves an official Postal Service box boot (sort of like the boot that gets put on a scofflaw’s car wheel), which is secured in place by an official Postal Service padlock:

I suppose that may look a bit imposing, but that’s the point, right? It looks like the work of an organization that knows what it’s doing. (In case you’re wondering, they have similar boots for boxes with those extender attachments [which, incidentally, are officially known as snorkels!]).

Let’s cut my local post office some slack and assume, for the sake of argument, that they didn’t have any of the big red boots available. They still could’ve done something like this:

Those signs are a bit rinky-dink, but at least they make an attempt to communicate with the customer, whereas the tape job has more of a “Talk to the hand ’cause the face ain’t listening” vibe. Would it kill my local branch to add a simple sign like that to the taped-up box? I just wish they’d make more of an effort.



Too Good for the Ticker

Not sure of the exact year, but check out the uniforms worn by the University of Baltimore men’s hoops team in what I assume was sometime in the 1960s. The jerseys aren’t typical basketball tank tops but are more like sleeveless T-shirts, complete with broad shoulder coverage and crewneck collars. Then you have the oversized script, the Northwestern-striped socks, and the center-court logo that looks like an eight ball — wow!

(Major thanks to longtime reader/pal Jack Krabbe for this one.)



Cans of the Day

When I grew up, we had a can of 3-in-One oil tucked away in a drawer. I think it looked like the one shown at top-left. But as you can see, this brand has had a lot of can designs over the years. The number of slight variations is dizzying!

Comments (38)

    Louis DeJoy is still postmaster for some reason, so this isn’t unexpected.

    Writer Charles Pierce once referred to DeJoy as “an abandoned James Lee Burke character.”

    The reason is the PO is trying to stop people from dropping checks in the boxes, cause theft and check fraud are up 100% so far this year over last. But they definitely could’ve done something a little more visually appealing. This reeks of someone taking care of it in a hurry because they were told to do it right away.

    DeJoy isn’t exactly spreading, um, joy or quality throughout USPS.

    I’ve seen taping over of windows at USPS facilities and other sorts of stuff that would almost make the treatment of that box look professional by comparison. Granted, I don’t live in an area as populous as where Paul does, but it further adds to USPS’ amateur hour look in too many instances.

    The only thing better than US Mail is the Smithsonian Postal Museum in Washington, DC. Ultimate recommendation!

    When I was still ‘in the office,’ I had the pleasure of working upstairs from the Postal Museum. Whenever I needed to clear my head, I’d go straight downstairs and wander around for 20mins or so.

    The Postal Museum seems to always have a baseball-themed day in the spring. I have been to a couple of them over the years.

    If you’re in London, the Royal Mail has its own postal museum. There’s not as much exhibit space as the Smithsonian’s museum has… BUT they have a ride through what used to be freight tunnels in which the mail moved through the city, which is well worth the price of admission. link

    My Dad had an American Flyer model railroad when I was a kid. The steam engine puffed out bits of smoke, fueled by burning 3-in-One oil. To this day, I fondly imagine the scent.

    Agreed! Learn a new word at UniWatch! (this is not the first time I’ve learned a new word at Ole’ UW)

    On that same subject, thanks for “snorkel”. I am so loving that word. Who knew those funky mailboxes were called that? (Paul, that’s who.)

    So, yes, the current Postmaster General of the United States is a schmuck who has been clearly acting to sabotage the Postal Service from within and to deliberately erode public trust in one of the great institutions of our republic. That’s not great. But every area has its own postmaster who’s responsible for operations within their district. It’s not easy to find your local postmaster on the USPS website – also, just try to find postal rates on the USPS website! – but you can call 800-275-8777 to get that information and to lodge a complaint. If your local postal leadership doesn’t receive public feedback, they won’t have incentive to do better than the worst that their top leadership in Washington wants them to do.

    I did not intend to make any kind of point toward you, Paul! When we moved to Wisconsin we experienced confusing and confounding failures of home delivery in our new neighborhood, and it was just very hard to find a way to reach anyone with local/regional responsibility. When we finally did find an actual human assistant to our local postmaster, the situation was resolved almost instantly. It was all a pile of misunderstandnigs, some of them our own, but it took someone in local leadership spending a few minutes seeing the process from above to get our situation sorted. Having been through that, and knowing how hard it can be to reach anyone between the office of the Postmaster General in Washington and the postal worker at one’s local retail window, I thought I’d share the number.

    It would be nice if they had a quick link on the home page to the price charts, but it’s actually not too hard to find – if you go to the price calculator, the menu bar on the top of that page has a Pricing section that has links to both HTML and PDF versions of the charts.

    I do understand wanting to use the chart, but I can also understand that sometimes it’s easier to plug the mailpiece data into the calculator, because with all the possible variables, it can be daunting to try to find your exact rate on a chart that, in PDF form, is almost 70 pages long. There’s also several rates that factor distance (by “zones”) into the rates, and the zones are determined by the origin ZIP, so there’s no single national “zone map” to go by.

    I will say that I have had to call the USPS a few times over my 22+ years of working in business mailrooms, and it can actually help.

    On a side note, more regarding people mailing things out rather than the USPS itself:

    The maximum weight for a first-class letter is 3.5 ounces, with the max dimensions being 11 1/2″ x 6 1/8″ by 1/4″. The most sheets of 20 lb. letter paper you could get with a #10 envelope to stay under 3.5 oz. is 20, with a little wiggle room for a few staples or paper clips. But, folding 20 pages over threefold to try to cram into a #10 gives you 62 sheets’ worth of thickness, which at its absolute flattest is *just* 1/4″, but in practice, with the cumulative folds of the paper, you’re going to exceed that thickness and get charged the flat envelope rate. And yet, I see stuff like that regularly.

    So, in short, if you’re mailing someone more than, say, 10 pages, just use a larger envelope than a #10.

    Came here to dump on Louis DeJoy. I’m happy to see that the job has been done for me!

    Timely lede…Just this week I saw that my local PO had re-installed both the outside ‘walk-up’ box and the drive-by box with extended snorkel, after completely removing them about four years ago.

    Both my recently retired brother-in-law and my late father-in-law were career postal service employees. My b-i-l told me that under DeJoy’s watch all their newer sorting equipment was taken ‘offline’. They were told to simply unplug those particular machines.

    …the half-assed way it’s been…

    This is becoming more and more prevalent in a society where employees are very aware of what is “not my job” while concurrently being resentful of having to do their job. To a first approximation, the level of customer service is inversely proportional to the size of the overall company or institution.

    I don’t know about that. I’ve had superb customer service interactions recently with Geico (they are *always* good), Capitol One (ditto), Barclays, and Experian — all huge companies. I even had a good recent interaction with Verizon once I asked to speak with a supervisor.

    On the other hand, I’ve had some truly dreadful recent experiences with smaller companies, which were clearly strapped for resources when it came to customer service.

    A couple post offices by me have actually been putting garbage bags over the mailboxes out front, sometimes only on the weekends, which, to me, defeats the purpose of having the boxes there.

    Here is a picture of the 1976 team. They are also posed around their center court logo. I guess it must have been their common practice.


    Here is a closeup of the “The Bees” jersey.

    The 1971 University of Baltimore flashback mentions a $10 ticket to see Elvis Presley and $3.50 to get into Disneyworld. That’s equivalent to $77 and $27 today according to inflation calculators. There’s no way your seeing an Elvis level act today for that price. The same holds true for sporting events. When did the cost of entertainment start to get ridiculously expensive. Asking for a friend who doesn’t get out much ; )

    “Not sure of the exact year, but check out the uniforms worn by the University of Baltimore men’s hoops team in what I assume was sometime in the 1960s.”

    Based on length of hair, hair styles, type of shorts and tube socks, I am going with the 1970s on this one.

    I have had to suspend collections from a similar style box on my route. Bees have gotten inside and built a nest.

    “But that act of faith requires a lot of institutional trust, and things like taping over a letterbox outside the post office erode that trust.”

    This line speaks volumes to me, as my brother in law lives in Bujumbura, Burundi and if we want to send anything of ANY value to him, we send it with an individual that is going to visit not via the post service. When post arrives in Burundi and if it originates from the states or seems like it could be valuable, it will most likely not make it to the recipient on the envelope/package.

    Here in the States: To be able to trust that whatever I mail will end up at the final destination in a mere few days, intact and completely as I packaged it, is truly remarkable!

    Thank you USPS for making the system work so well all these years!

    I used some of that very same tape on a package i attempted to mail recently. This tape was shipped with some boxes we ordered from the post office. I was asked if i wanted it to go priority vs standard for a $100 markup. I decilned and was told that i would have to remove all of this priority tape since that package was not being shipped priority. I protested and suggested that i just cover the priority tape with a colored tape and the clerk said that “they would know that tape was under there” Now they are using this precious $100 tape for this? Seriously, the mail service has become a joke.. Customer service stinks, facilities crap and overall attitude is complacency. time for a re-boot or replacemnt

    The thing is, that’s not packing tape – it’s a roll of labels meant to signify that you’re using that service. It’s a common thing among carriers to have special service labels on rolls like that, e.g. Saturday Delivery Service for FedEx or UPS.

    I know he’s not popular with the public, but Louis DeJoy has nothing to do with this.

    Paul, do you live in New York? If the answer is “yes” then that explains it to me. In my years of having to deal with stations in New York regarding customer service matters I’ve always been left unsatisfied, and I am a Postmaster out in California. When they finally decide to answer the phone they seem so disinterested and disengaged with the matter at hand.

    As you stated, there is a protocol to follow when a collection box is taken out of service for whatever reason (vandalism, lack of volume during a density count, etc.) and the folks at this station showed no regard for it.

    This. Well before DeJoy took over, I learned about the institutional rot in the USPS. I had several pieces of mail stolen from the deposit box at my local post office I had deposited on a Sunday, including mail with a bunch of checks I had written that the thieves had washed. I learned of the theft when a local police department contacted me to let me know they’d caught the thieves and my washed checks had been part of their haul.

    I was still laboring under the delusion that theft from a post office was considered a big deal when I went down to the local post office to let them know it had happened. Their response was that they couldn’t care less. Theft out of the branch’s deposit box happens all the time, I was told. The clerk even told me that thieves regularly break into individual post office boxes in their lobby on weekends. This is a post office in a fairly upscale neighborhood, and not one on a busy road. Obviously, if the postal service invested a modicum of effort with this branch, they could easily prevent or deter theft. But they don’t. And theft is so prevalent, they don’t even take reports at the branch, The clerk told me to report the theft through the USPS website.

    I did, and 18 months later I received a form letter from the postal inspector acknowledging receipt of my report and indicating an investigation would be open. The only thing I send through the mail these days are thank you notes and birthday cards.

    Usually the Area Maintenance Technicians handle issues with mailboxes. Maybe the post office hasn’t put in a service request, or an AMT hasn’t responded yet, or they just don’t give a fuck.

    Stand alone Postal boxes, much like pharmacies, in our cities are going away due to unprosecuted theft.

    A man and his wife were in the delivery room as their first child was born, and the Dr. said, “Here comes the first one, get ready for the second one…”
    The father said, “I didn’t know we were having twins!”
    The Dr. said, “No, you’re having triplets. The third one is coming soon.”
    The father then said to his wife, “You must’ve gotten pregnant that night we ran out of lube, and used 3 in 1 Oil, instead.”
    The wife replied, “Thank god we didn’t use WD-40!”

    “There’s no sign, no explanation — just an amateurish tape job. It feels like something you’d see in a developing nation.”

    Seriously?! Because all things in a development nation are half-assed and improvised… That is such a bad comment. If I didn’t follow your website for years, I would say that this is just another typical comment from an American that doesn’t know s**t about anything outside its borders. But you don’t (or didn ‘t) seem to be that way…Believe me, not everything in a developing country is bad.

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