The other day, I walked into our estimable, if modest, island post office, rang the quaint little bell on the counter in order to summon a post-person, and waited. The usual post-mistress, if that is the right term, was on vacation, and my first thought was: “Wait! They get vacations? What about ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night’…etc?”
I rang the bell again and, eventually, a nice lady came around from behind the private post boxes she was stuffing with, as near as I could tell, nothing more than circulars from various grocery stores and mail order catalogues.
“Can I help you?” she asked. In my head I immediately heard my late grammar Nazi mother saying, ‘I don’t know, CAN you?’ But I knew the woman really meant MAY I, and did not correct her. People, I have learned, do not take kindly to grammar correction. I never did, either. I wish my dead mother would shut up; she’s always in my head, correcting.
“I’d like a booklet of first class stamps, please,” I said.
“I’m sorry, but we have no stamps.”
The post office has no stamps.
You’ll excuse me, I hope, but I’m thinking that, other than slapping stamps on things and shipping them off somewhere, there’s not much a post office has to do, you know, other than deliver mail which, of course, already has stamps on it since it comes from someplace far more advanced, technologically, than our beloved island.
I am seldom speechless, but this stopped me cold: a post office…with no stamps. I mean, you know, think about this: they keep raising the price of first class stamps, what, weekly? Is the problem that they can’t print them fast enough? Is the ferry authority blocking stamp shipments to our little island? Has the U. S. National Security Agency, in their wisdom, decided mail from this somewhat left-of-center island is seditious and dangerous? No postal service, they order, for those suspect people at the island food bank who give away actual food to needy families! Those otherwise nice people at the thrift shop almost giving away clothing to people in need? No mail for them! Island homeopaths bypassing the medical/industrial complex and threatening its ruin? Anti-American! No stamps! Island gardeners and other food artisans (not to mention wineries) aimed at putting the supermarket out of business? Danger to the American way at every turn! Let’s curtail their mail!
But I digress. Let’s begin by saying that the employees at our little island post office work long and hard to meet our postal needs, which is no easy task when they have, you know, no stamps. Think of how often they can only shrug their shoulders and apologize. It must be humiliating.
But there’s something else about this whole postal game which has troubled me, as a former city dweller: it has to do with rural delivery versus post office boxes. The United States Postal Service will deliver mail to your roadside postbox (unless local teenagers have not already knocked it over for sport) for free—this assumes, of course, that the mail has stamps on it, which it won’t if it’s from a neighbor here on the island because, you know, there are no stamps here. But get this: the USPS uses its own vehicles, its own paid drivers, and its own gasoline, to bring your mail almost to your door. Gratis. You pay nothing.
Now, let’s say you have a post box inside the little post office on the island. You go to that post office in your own car, on your own time, burning your own gasoline, to pick up your already paid-for mail, right? The post office doesn’t have to do anything about delivery: No car, no driver, no cost to them at all. And yet, you have to pay an annual fee for them to do pretty much nothing with your mail except stuff it in a slot, which takes seconds.
How does this make sense? What sort of business model do they have? And is it any wonder they don’t even have stamps to sell?
Will North is a novelist. His latest book, “Too Clever By Half,” the second in his Davies & West mystery series, set in Cornwall, England, will be available soon via most online booksellers.