by Kent Ballard
The Christmas season was never a time to go to the Post Office. It’s an annoyance at best and a dreadful, thankless chore at worst. But this season my visit became something much darker.
Friday was one of those days that hit us all once in a while. I was busy and pinched for time. I had to hit the hardware store, Post Office, and then rush back home to meet a friend who was coming to visit. They were widening a public sidewalk corner in the tiny little town near my home. With the forethought and planning of any small town the minor construction they were undergoing managed to not only tie up a major state highway but also a federal highway that often takes the spillover traffic from the nearby Interstate. I don’t think I could have done a better job of disrupting traffic if I’d been hired to do it by the governor. At least I’m sure they’ll build a sidewalk that will last for the ages, a sidewalk that will someday be measured as one of man’s enduring efforts like the Great Pyramids or Mount Rushmore. It’s certainly been taking them that long.
After plodding through the traffic backup I made the hardware store and was in and out in a flash. Then I had to negotiate the barricades and yellow flashing lights again, along with their amazing town construction workers, all expertly trained to sleep while leaning on shovels without falling over. I pulled into the parking lot of the Post Office and went in. I didn’t have a stamp for my letter. My wife had taken off with our stamps safely in her purse and all I had to do was tell the nice Post Office person I wanted to mail this envelope (a common letter), pay them, tip my hat, and come home.
The USPS has been going broke for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why they just don’t charge more and become solvent. I’ve read where postage in other countries is considerably higher, and often when visitors come to the States they remark about our low postage costs. An even better idea would be for the USPS to triple or quadruple the cost of third class mail. We’d then either get a lot less junk mail or they’d be rolling in money, probably both. Anyway, after waiting my turn in line I got to the sole woman behind the USPS counter who was waiting on the public. The counter was set up for two workers, but I’m sure you’ve encountered similar “conveniences” yourself, either at your Post Office or your bank, where they spend fifty million dollars to tell you how much they value your business while cutting workers and lengthening your time in line. Few people will change banks and where ya gonna go for another Post Office?
When it was my turn I stepped forward and put the letter on the counter in front of the woman. While digging in my pocket for change I said, “Hi. I just need to mail this. My wife has the stamps and I want to get this out today.”
The woman did not share my sense of urgency. Fair enough. She didn’t need to. All I wanted her to do was her job.
“You don’t have a return address on this. You need a return address.”
Did you ever feel like a bumblebee that just flew into a brick wall? The woman gestured to the counter along the wall, indicating I could go over there and temporarily be out of her hair for a moment while I wrote my return address on the envelope. She was only working at one speed (glacial) and processing customers as if they were all putting her to extreme difficulty. If I’d taken my letter and done as she said it’d be another ten or fifteen minutes before I worked my way back to her. I’m not normally rushed, but those minutes were more important to me than the normal creaking flow of her day. I did not have a pen on me, nor did she offer me one.
“Is that a law? Can’t you mail this without a return address?”
“Hmm. I could mail it. But you need a return address.”
“Well, if you can mail it without one, go ahead and do that, please.”
“You don’t understand. I could mail this, but you really need to put a return address on it.”
“Is it a federal law now that every letter has to have a return address?” And then I caught her expression. For no understandable reason this civil servant was now glaring at me with something akin to suspicion. What was this woman’s problem? Something changed in the air. I was not sure what. Was she just overwhelmed by her own bureaucratic importance of having the only USPS public window in twenty-five miles? Had she finally exhausted her ability to wield such astonishing power?
I didn’t know. It finally dawned on me that I didn’t care either.
“If there’s no federal law requiring a return address, I’m going to mail this as is without one. I don’t have the time to…”
BAM! She slapped a meaty fist on the counter, snatched up my letter, spun around with surprising speed for someone of her size, and marched back into an office behind her.
Behind me, a housewife waiting in line softly said, “Well, what’s wrong with her…?”
I kind of shrugged and said, “I don’t know. It’s just a letter.” Then I looked back in line and offered, “Sorry to cause a hold-up. I don’t know what her problem is. I just need to mail one letter.”
Presently the squat woman came out of the office followed by a man. She pointed an accusing finger at me and said triumphantly, “He’s the one!”
The one WHAT? I wondered. What had I done? Nothing. Nothing at all.
This was interesting. Had I broken some obscure federal law? Could I expect an FBI SWAT team to launch grenades through the door and club me into submission? Whadda hell was going on here? The man looked at me as if I was a Nazi paratrooper just dropped in to conquer his portion of America. This made no sense at all. And whatever their dog and pony show was really about, they were hindering every postal customer there. Including me. I didn’t know what raised their hackles, but it was now evident that whether I liked it or not I was in the middle of some kind of Twilight Zone game. Did you ever surprise yourself and decide you’d had enough?
“You need a return address on this.”
Wrong thing to say, Homer. “You need to train your help. I just asked her if that was a law. She said it wasn’t.”
He laid the letter back down on the counter. Trying a different tact, he said more pleasantly, “No, it doesn’t have to have one. But if it doesn’t have a return address it could get lost in the mail and we wouldn’t know who to return it to.”
“I’ve got faith in you.” This was becoming a pissing contest.
“It’s for your own protection,” he deadpanned.
“I’ll take my chances.” I was on the verge of becoming…postal.
“It could get lost.”
“I’ll write another.”
I found myself engaged in an silly exchange over…what? Why were these two government time clock punchers behaving this way? Why were they very strongly trying to get me to comply when there was no law to comply with? Were they vaguely threatening me? It sure seemed like it. But why?
Nope. I wasn’t playing their game, whatever it was. I had a dollar bill crumpled in my hand. I tossed it onto the counter and stared back at the Postmaster.
He said, “It’s really for your protection…”
I didn’t say a word. Just stared at him.
He bent down and literally whispered something to the office penguin. Whispered, mind you, as if saying some loathsome, despicable thing. She looked back at him. He nodded. She stepped ahead and picked up my dollar and–as if nothing unusual had transpired–she rang me up and handed me my change.
I muttered thanks and turned for the door. Once past it I looked back and they were still staring at me. What in the world? It seemed as if they were doing their barnyard best to memorize my looks, height, weight, my every feature.
When I came home I was still mystified, still wondering what had taken place in such an otherwise obscure place like the local post office. My guest arrived and I told him, “Dave, the weirdest thing happened just a while ago…”
I told him about the little mystery I’d encountered while in town. He chuckled and said, “Yeah, leave it to you…”
That only turned my fires up. “Leave WHAT to me? I ASKED them if it was legal, or if a return address was required by law! Hell, by their own admission I wasn’t breaking any law! Why all the guff over something as unimportant as that?”
Dave made a mocking frown at me. “You disappoint me, Kent. I thought you kept up with all the news about our heroic war on terrorism.”
He sighed. “You ever hear of the Patriot Act? Do you remember when that wacko sent powdered ricin in the mail to a few congressmen? You won’t get a cell phone because you don’t want spy agencies pinging you every five minutes,” he laughed, “but you didn’t know about some of the other ways they track you?”
Terrorists? Ricin? Congress? I stood there blinking.
The U.S. Post Office is nearing the capability to photograph every piece of mail it handles. They say they only photograph some of them now. But they have conveyor belts they can place mail on and it shoots them through a camera very rapidly. They have software that can read and store names and addresses. That way, if the FBI, the Department of Homeland Insecurity, or even a local cop gets interested in someone they can call the USPS and ask them, “Where is this person’s mail going and who mails them?” And you will never know anything about it. The NSA didn’t ask your permission to read your emails and search engine queries. They didn’t ask how you felt about them listening to your phone conversations. The USPS didn’t ask you about this, either.
They can track everything you send and everything you get in the mail. They can tap the same information from FedEx and UPS too. Law enforcement requests for USPS information are skyrocketing (see below). It costs them nothing. You pay for it. And that’s why the people in one post office wanted me to put a return address on my letter so very damned badly and why it looked suspicious when I refused. At least to them. I suppose they saved every minute I was there on videotape and flagged that, too. I should have combed my hair.
This business has gone on long enough. I’m tired of every government mouthpiece constantly screaming TERRORISM! TERRORISM! at me when I’m in far greater danger from bee stings or tripping over my own big feet. I’m tired of secret judges on secret courts handing out surveillance warrants like Life Savers on Halloween. I’m tired of my own government using the weak straw man of TERRORISM! to shred my Bill of Rights more every day.
I’m not the first to write about this. You’ll find the links below quite interesting. I’d hoped that maybe, somehow, I’d blown this out of proportion in my mind, that a bored clerk in a post office merely wanted to do something to break her monotony, or perhaps even that I was rushed and came to an incorrectly harsh judgment. I hoped that right up until I read these.