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Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night 5 min read

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night

Surely America won't allow the Postal Service to become a coronavirus casualty. Right?

By Cary Littlejohn
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night Post image
Photo by Pope Moysuh on Unsplash

It’s hard to overstate just how much the coronavirus has taken from America already. The upheaval has been massive, and it the after-effects haven’t even gotten started in earnest, as we’re in no position to see the “after” just yet. The pandemic and resulting shutdown of public life has come for the strongest players in our economy, and it has laid them low. That shows the power of this pandemic’s unprecedented nature. But what about those that aren’t strong? Despite a surging economy overall, there were many industries that were particularly vulnerable to such a categorical reshuffling of our way of life; movie theaters, print media organizations like magazines and local newspapers, and service industry employees come to mind.

Recently, there have been countless stories about another organization, so ubiquitous in our lives that it hums along in the background rarely crossing our minds until it fails us, and that is the U.S. Postal Service. The outlook is dire: Without government intervention, the USPS will be insolvent by September. On the surface, it may seem nonsensical that a federal governmental agency is in jeopardy of just running out of funding. That’s OK; it came as a shock to me, too. Mainly because it opened my eyes to just how little I know about the Post Office and how it works.

Once you dig into the agency, its makeup, and how it’s been run over the past 50 years, you quickly begin to see that a crisis for the Post Service was just a matter of time. It’s not a business, though it’s performance and health are measured as if it were. Since the 1970s, the USPS has been organized “to be a self-funded, independently operating public sector entity.” We're sending less and less mail: In the nearly 20 years between 2001 and 2019, total pieces of mail sent fell from its all-time height of 104 billion to only 55 billion. It’s an analogue system (no matter how far its technology advances) in an increasingly digital world.

It’s a precarious position to occupy, that space where your main stock and trade – the humble letter – is viewed as an antiquated formality. Sure, with all of our online shopping, we’re getting more packages than ever, it seems, and the Postal Service delivers a healthy chunk of it. But I can think of a time when I was incredibly grateful for the power of a simple letter. My brother was in basic training for the U.S. Navy, and we had no way to communicate with him. Except by mail. And so I wrote to him every day, printing out the letter, affixing a stamp and walking it across the street to the actual slotted drop box in the Post Office lobby; luckily for, in the tiny town of Lexington, Mississippi, the Post Office was just across the street from my office. I savored that short break from my work, the breath of fresh air, the step back into the distant past. It was a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, although if you had asked my brother as he went through it, I’m sure he’d say it felt interminable. I dutifully wrote every day of his basic training, and there’s no denying the process was cumbersome compared to that of mindlessly sending an email. But that tiny sacrifice of convenience made me feel closer to my brother, something I desperately longed for in those days, hoping he would notice my miniature sacrifice living in the shade of his big sacrifice. It was a small thing but a necessary one, and I, for one, am thankful for the USPS. One storied U.S. institution allowed me to connect with another, and it would be a shame if that went away due to the coronavirus.

The USPS has started down this reality for quite some time now. Back in 2013, there existed the very real possibility, after multiple defaults on multi-billion dollar healthcare payments, that it would run out of money. Jesse Lichtenstein, writing for Esquire, detailed the Postal Service through the lens of its people, its leaders, management decisions, union fights, and politics.

Such a look back into persistent problems that were certain only to grow worse seems appropriate during the time of coronavirus, a time beset by a pandemic that those in the know have been warning against for years. But if you’re like me and are eager to take a break from straight coronavirus news but still read up on something tangentially related, this Esquire piece is revelatory for all the unasked questions it will answer, things you’ll realize you never wondered about. It did for me, and I found my lack of curiosity more than a little embarrassing. I didn’t know that mail gets delivered out in Alaska by snowmobile and seaplane. I didn’t know that postal mules are used to deliver mail to the Havasupai Indian Reservation on the floor of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t know there was a special division in Atlanta with “the special authority to redirect truly undeliverable mail, letters whose return address is as impossible to decipher as their destination.” I didn’t appreciate the true size of its reach: 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices, and 213,000 vehicles.

On top of that, it’s full of typically stellar writing. Like this:

If you want to understand what the postal service once meant, take a driving tour of the thousands of post offices that dot the country, walk through their rickety doors, and look at the murals. On the east wall of the post office in Seneca, Kansas, above the postmaster’s door, is a twelve-by-five-foot oil painting of two farmers harvesting wheat while a storm churns threateningly on the horizon. They stare down at the fields, focused, defiant. In the same spot in the colonial post office in Mount Hope, West Virginia, Michael Lenson, a Russian immigrant who studied art in London and Paris, created a wall-to-wall mural of miners, picks in hand, drills whirring, arms bulging.

These murals, eleven hundred of them painted in post offices across America between 1934 and 1943, were part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal art projects, which he hoped would help reinvigorate faith in the institutions of government. According to New Deal documents from the time, post offices were chosen specifically for the project because they were “the one concrete link between every community of individuals and the federal government.” In their permanence, in their architectural beauty, in their central place on every Main Street, they were uplifting symbols of hope and strength. This is the same reason the Capitol was built to look like an unbreakable and shining temple to democracy. We build the architecture we hope our government will mimic.

There’s something quaint in those lines, and there remains something quaint in the art of handwriting and mailing correspondence. It feels good to look at something like the Postal Service, through all these many years of continuous service, and be proud of what we were able to make and keep alive. Let’s hope future generations can say the same.

Do We Really Want to Live Without the Post Office? | Esquire

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