Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Post Office Traumatic Stress Disorder

Around Christmas, the mall has always been the most grotesque symbol of a holiday gone awry.

Endless lines of standstill traffic snake through parking lots. Parents employ guerilla tactics to seize the last Tickle Me Elmo. The plague known as Black Friday infects otherwise normal people.

But now, I believe there is a worse fate at this time of year.

For all its warts, the mall is, in a sense, a destination. If done properly, negatives can be mitigated and the trip can even be fun.

In college, my roommate and I would make an annual trip to King of Prussia, Pa. to do Christmas shopping for our respective families. It was a good chance to get away, even for a day, and I believe we did this mostly after finals on a weekday.

No such pleasantries can be written about a trip to the post office, a necessary intermediary on the gifting road. There, the worst aspects of the Christmas rat race are on display.

Let's take a look at the typical post office holiday experience:

Much like the mall, the first step in the post-office visit is the unsuccessful attempt to find parking. Unlike the mall, where hope hides down every aisle, the local post office usually has a finite number of spaces. With once cursory glance it is easy to tell they are all occupied.

So the only real option is to join a conga line of cars filled with clench-teethed drivers playing musical chairs in the parking lot.

And once a spot is finally secured, the prize is a spot standing in a long line next to the driver you just cursed out in the parking lot.

The next annoyance: Extortion.

I repeatedly overheard the same sell-job from the cashier to each customer ahead of me. "Would you like to upgrade to priority postage?"

In case you haven't been the the post office for a while, here's an example of how their chicanery works: The clerk tells you it will cost $7 for standard shipping for a package, but that for "only" $8.10, you can send it priority mail.

If this was a private enterprise, I'd be OK with the up-sell. You pay a higher rate for a higher level of service. But the post office is a governmental agency that shouldn't be in the business of so blatantly ripping off the public.

And by up-selling, the post office is tacitly saying that it has the capability of delivering packages at a faster rate, but it is purposely inefficient when it comes to standard-rate mail. A government agency stating that it is doing a poor job on purpose.

I have long suspected that DMV workers secretly revel in doing a bad job, but at least they don't ingrain it in their departmental policies.

Up-selling drives me bonkers.

A quick tangent on two other post-office matters that also anger me:
  • The years-ago endorsement deal with suspected doper Lance Armstrong. Why does the post office need to spend millions of dollars on a celebrity spokesperson, especially a humorless ass of one? What's next, Doug Swingley racing the Iditarod, sponsored by Social Security? Our government doesn't need to advertise government services.
  • During a snowstorm in Colorado a few years ago, the state post office said that delivery would be halted for four days. Through rain, sleet or snow, my ass!
I digress.

This up-selling con game becomes worse at the holidays, because the cashiers attempt to lay on the mother of all guilt trips if you decline. They tempt: "Don't you want this to be there by Christmas morning?" They threaten: "I can't guarantee this will be there by Christmas morning if you don't go priority."

For all of the faults of the post office, it is the miserable disposition of my fellow linemates that makes the post office journey a truly dreary experience.

They're in a hurry. They're talking on their cell phones. They're exasperated that they can't carry 12 boxes at one time or incredulous that they can't cut me in line, because they "just have to buy stamps."

No one is more miserable than the dark-haired, middle-aged woman about three people behind me in line yesterday who bumped into an old acquaintance and droned on with a shameless, ear-splitting ode to her daughters, Natalie and Veronica.

Everyone within earshot of this shrew grew tired of Natalie and Veronica stories, especially the acquaintance, who clearly had hoped to never run into this woman again. And who can blame her? Not me.

Not after hearing "Natalie and Veronica had a hard time adjusting to their soccer team after we returned from Australia. ... Natalie and Veronica are going to love their new boarding school in Switzerland." Scoffing at a question from the acquaintance, "Renting our house here would be too much trouble. Natalie and Veronica could never bare to have someone else living in their rooms. (Followed by indignant laughter)."

Then there was a story about the tyranny of Natalie being relegated to the JV swimming team.

Remember the old woman who hung herself after listening to Ted Striker in Airplane? If this woman told one more Natalie and Veronica story, it was going to be fucking Jonestown in the post office.

"Natalie and Veronica ..."

"Oh shit, pass the Kool-Aid!"

I made it to the front of the line in about 45 minutes today, at which time I bought four boxes in which to mail gifts. Four cardboard boxes. They were 15x10x8. They cost me $13.96. They probably cost the post office $0.02 to produce in China.

If the post office was a private enterprise, I'd say they had found a wonderful business model and attempted to buy stock before it went public. But again, the post office is a government department, and I don't think the government should act as such a shameless profiteer.

Nonetheless, I took this ass-raping in stride. My time here was served, and I gleefully headed for the exit.

I don't want to sound insufferable here. The truth is that I LIKE Christmas.

But the holiday has a nasty way of beating people down, especially at the post office. There shouldn't have to be a frantic build-up that starts immediately after Halloween and continues for two months.

Therefore, I propose the following solutions to simplify Christmas:
  1. Attempting to buy gifts throughout the year. I think we all find ourselves in situations where we stumble across some piece of merchandise and say, "Oh, Person X would like that." Now, I will purchase that and hold for the holidays, rather than wait to mid-December and frantically search for a gift.
  2. In partnership with No. 1, I resolve to mail these gifts before December to avoid POTSD.
And then there is this scenario:
  1. Rather than buying everyone gifts, I have been toying with the suggestion of simply donating the gift money to the charity of the intended recipient's choice. I can think of a few worthy charities that deserve my money and attention.*
Maybe this would help to negate some of my cynicism. Maybe it would reinstate the giving portion of the holiday while extracting the crass commercialism. Maybe it would simplify Christmas craziness.

It's just a thought. And maybe it's all a ploy to help me avoid long lines at the post office.

* This, of course, does not mean I dislike receiving gifts. Quite the contrary, I have quite the list of suggestions on my Amazon wish list for anyone interested. And I would definitely miss the unwrappings should my second suggestion about ever come to fruition.

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At 8:11 PM, Blogger Smokey Robinson (aka Matt) said...

All I'm saying, is imagine that same scenario, only the post office is in Grand Central Station. Also, it smells like cheese for two blocks in every direction. I am not kidding.

I miss K-of-P, by the way. I haven't been in years now. It isn't the same without you, to say nothing of the broccoli cheese soup at Houlihan's.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

I have a few comments on the P.O.
-It's been nice going there with a baby. The other day I went and a kind gentleman insisted that I go in front of him. Thanks Nathan! I also witnessed some other kind acts from other patrons.
-However, I was a wee bit irritated with a cashier at the P.O. as he was as condescending to every customer as he could be, including yours truly. People would ask him what I thought were legitimate questions and then he would proceed to make them feel as dumb as he could. I'm sorry for not taking Honors Post Office Procedures.
-I've also grown a bit sick of all the craziness at Christmas and have thought about the donating money to charity thing. But, also like you, I would miss opening something for me on Christmas morn. So, alas, consumerism wins.

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

I'm waiting for the day when we will be able to send large packages over the internet.

Or birthday cake, for that matter.

At 7:46 PM, Blogger Joependleton said...

Dude, great post. Thanks to online banking, the only reason I have to go into a post office is to purchase stamps for the Pendleton children Christmas card, and thanks to the US. Gov't trying to phase out their own employees, I buy them at the automated teller, skipping lines and the dopes working there.

As for gifts. For now on, just mail gift cards. It accomplishes two things.

1. You can just drop it in an envelope, therefore skipping the box/shipping racquet.

2. The person who gets the card can actually buy something they want.

Great post, though.


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