Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Going Postal

The Post Office lost $5.5 billion in 2014, and I know part of the reason why. I go to the mailery down the street on a Saturday morning, when nobody is at the counter, and all that works (or doesn't) is an automated postage machine.

Years ago, the cash-bleeding geniuses who placed these devices in post offices simultaneously removed the vending machines for stamps, envelopes, postcards and other supplies. Those old machines worked like the familiar ones for candy and soft drinks: put in your money, make a selection, see it drop into the slot. The new ones electrify bureaucracy, displaying layers upon layers of menus to make a simple purchase –- like buying stamps.

A few seasons ago, during the Christmas rush, a postal worker tried to tame the long line snaking from the counter by encouraging us to try out the post office’s response to the ATM.

“Too many questions,” I replied to the postal worker. “Bring back the old machine.”

The beleaguered postmistress returned a glance like I had just told her I would rather use the Pony Express before sighing and acknowledging that, yes, the system was a little bit finicky.

On this day, I need stamps. Actually, just one. But that’s an impossibility for Post-Office Depression, as I call this machine. Stamps are doable, but the minimum order is three. Did I mention that those convenient single-stamp dispensers of the olden days are gone, too?

I shoot for three, the machine takes my money, prints out a receipt, and drops absolutely nothing into the bin where I’m supposed to receive three stamps.

Because it’s Saturday, nobody’s at the counter. I take the next step: trying to raise somebody’s attention on the mail room. I ring the bell at the parcel claim window, the top half of a door which is conveniently closed and locked to keep the minions in the back from having to deal with the customers up front. Nobody answers on the first ring. I ring the bell again. This time, I don’t even hear the bell. Either it’s designed to only ring once per customer, or a minion decided to turn it off, not wanting to be bothered with actually having to deal with somebody.

I am not going to go away quietly – not after getting ripped off. I rap on the door. I rap on it again. I wait and wait. Somebody is going to have to deal with this issue. Finally somebody opens the door and asks if I need something. Here now I see at least four half-horrified postal minions who can’t understand how somebody managed to break their monotony of the Saturday morning delivery.

I calmly explain the situation to the head minion, showing the receipt that actually did print. “The thing is,” I add, “I’m concerned other people are going to have to use this machine and they will also get ripped off.”

“Hang on,” he says. “Uh, let me see if I have the key.”

He disappears into the back, finds the key, and opens up the machine to see if those printed stamps got stuck in the gears of Post-Office Depression. Nothing falls from the mechanism, leaving him baffled.

“Huh,” he says. “Let me see if I can get you some stamps.”

Once again, Head Minion disappears and looks for the stamps. I wait a few minutes before he once again presents himself in the window.

“Uh, there’s a problem,” he mutters. “They’ve locked all the stamps up and I can’t get to them.”

I’m dumbstruck. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“Yeah. If you come back on Monday, I can get you the stamps.”

“That’s not going to do me any good,” I explain, holding up the letter I’m trying to mail across the country. “This needs to go out today.”

I feel nothing but pity for this guy. He honestly wants to help, but he’s tied up in the spaghetti of postal rules and regulations designed for anything but customer service. Still, he tries.

“Well, I think I can put it in a penalty envelope, and I’ll still get you the stamps.”

“What’s a penalty envelope?”

“It’s something where they have to pay the postage.”

I’m not sure if it will work, but I’m willing to try it. “Could they make your life any more difficult?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “Yeah, they could.”

Jumping forward one hour later, I redeemed a $5 gift certificate at Best Buy for a Blu-Ray disc costing $4.99. The cash register threw a fit, blurting: “Gift Certificate in excess of purchase.” A penny for its thoughts, and that’s even though the total price of the purchase with tax comes out to $5.60. The fine print says the certificate can’t be applied to even a smidgen of tax, unlike the other gift cards this big-boxer doles out, meaning the entire transaction will fail, even though I’m more than willing to pay the difference.

“Do you maybe want a stick of gum to go with that?” says the lady behind the counter. “Maybe a potato chip?”

“Why can’t we just make it work?” I say. A penny for my thoughts.

She calls over a manager, and in contrast to the Post Office, he performs a contortion act with the system rivaling Cirque de Soleil, punching in override codes and cryptic explanations like, “PENNYUP.” He deftly removes a bottle of spring water from the refrigerator and places it with my order.

I pull out my billfold and offer to settle the tax difference, but the clerk declines.

“You’re all good,” she smiles. “All is well.” As it should be for a corporation that makes money instead of losing it.

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