Author, David Brin, wrote a post apocalyptic novel centered on a down-on-his-luck loner who, during a time of great need, stumbles upon an old US Mail truck full of undelivered parcels and letters. To feed himself he hatches a scheme to pose as a representative of a restored US government, a mailman delivering a backlog of mail. His scheme worked out better than he’d wanted because he unknowingly creates hope to the far flung and desperate people of the towns he encounters and soon others follow his made up lead, creating mail routes, delivering messages between towns, connecting people, bringing news, and providing a means of communication that was destroyed in the apocalypse. The communication, in turn fosters a sense of unity, of belonging to larger whole that was and might still be the United States of America.
Kevin Costner directed and starred in the screen adaptation of the book that was released in 1997 to a lukewarm reception. I loved the movie. I had read the book many years before and while the movie diverges from the book, the gist of the story is there and I believe it is well worth your time to find and watch the movie if you don’t have time to find and read the book.
I was reminded of The Postman recently after having the delivery of several packages traveling through our postal system delayed. I was initially annoyed, but then I checked myself. I had spent almost 3 years in Namibia where the postal system is privately owned and must operates in an environment markedly different from our own.
At first blush the towns and cities in Namibia are similar to towns and cities you’d find in any country. There are streets with street names and numbers associated with houses and businesses. But there are also informal settlements where roadways are not always planned and houses, businesses and the residents within appear and disappear as needs arise. Even the more permanent settlements have a haphazard nature about them. Daily home delivery of mail would be a daunting challenge and is just not attempted.
One of my first part-time jobs when I was a kids in high school was working for the US Postal Service. In the winter I sorted letters, but in the summer I delivered mail, filling in for vacationing letter carriers. My routes were usually in poorer neighborhoods in Baltimore, but even there mail was delivered to the houses or mailboxes associated with an address. In Namibia you have to rent a box or use a box rented by someone else. Packages remained at the post office until you come to pick them up, and that only if there was a way of contacting you. So, if you didn’t have access to a post box and you didn’t have access to a phone or email, you didn’t get mail. Period. Many Black Namibians have never received a letter through their postal system, ever. By contrast, in the US, if we have an address, we get mail, whether we want it or not. I doubt there are many US citizens who have never gotten mail delivered to them at their home at some point in their adult life.
This recent holiday season saw a huge influx of mail here in the US as many homebound shoppers turned to online purchasing as opposed to going to stores, waiting in line and running the risk of getting Covid-19. Oddly, instead of long lines in stores I encounter even longer lines at the local post offices with people mailing packages to relatives all over the country and beyond. The combination of increased online shopping, increased parcel and letter traffic from Christmas mailings, and post office staff dealing with Covid-19 created a perfect storm that overwhelmed the system, causing delays in delivery. For me, packages that normally take 2 to 3 days to reach its destination took 5 days or more, which can seem a lot longer if you are waiting for something. But even in this the US Postal Service has ways to alleviate to stress if not the wait.
Packages and letters sent through their Priority Mail service get tracking numbers which you can use to find where your package is in the system. You can also set up phone alerts that flags you when your package reaches different points along its route to you. If you’re concerned about a gift arriving while you’re not there and being opened by someone in your household (or to thwart Porch Pirates: thieves who steal package left on your property) you can have the post office deliver the package to an alternate address or business where someone will be there accept the package for you.
For years now, in this age of email, text messaging and other forms of instant communication, the US Postal Service has seemed more like an anachronism than a viable modern service, a throwback to an era where letters were written by hand, stamps were licked by tongues and messages were deposited in the blue metal mailbox sitting on a nearby corner. Many may see the US Postal Service as an almost forgotten entity relegated to delivering junk mail and paper bills. Even when the service is called into action to play an important role in our democracy it appears not up to the task. This recent election put the US Postal Service in the news as politicians unjustly and often without merit claimed the postal service introduced problems with mail-in ballots to purposefully interfere with the results of the elections. There were problems, unfortunately, but they were unintended and resolved quickly.
In the 1990s and as recent as 2018 there was talk of privatizing the Postal Service, however such suggestions have never garnered much appeal. The public, though it uses the service less with each passing year, expects the US Post Office to be part of what it means to live the US. The existence of the US Post Office was written into the US Constitution and as such, is as much a part of the social-political landscape of America as Congress and the presidency.
But the service is actually quite healthy. According to the US Postal Service, each day it handles 472 million letters, packages, and other correspondents, delivering them to more than 160 million addresses in the USA and its territories. By volume, the numbers are even more impressive: The US Postal Service handles nearly half of all mail by volume on the entire planet! It does it all without costing the US taxpayer a dime, its revenue is entirely funded by product sales and services.
So, as this very interesting year full of surprises and uncertainty comes to a close, one thing a citizen of the U.S. of A. can depend on: Even if your package or card is delayed because of snowstorms or the system is overwhelmed by a tsunami of seasonal packages, take a deep breath as I did and remember that the motto of the US postal carrier remains true; “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”