The postal service announced last week that it lost $6 billion last year. It’s desperate. It wants to cease deliveries on Saturdays. And it wants to close little used post offices.
We have a number of old and charming post offices here in the Hamptons. Quogue is one. Sagaponack is another. It’s hard to imagine not having the little post office in Sagaponack. It shares a 150-year-old building with Sagg General Store. Beautiful Rae Lerner runs the place with authority and grace. She’ll announce when you come in (a little bell over the screen door goes ding-a-ling) that your package from Amazon either arrived or it didn’t. She may also inquire about your family. It would be a shame to see this office or any of the other little ones close.
I have some ideas for the postal service that could turn the red ink black. And I hope that somebody in authority there reads what I have in mind.
The big problem with the postal service is that it is very labor intensive. Every letter that is brought in has to be put into a truck with other letters and driven on the highways and backroads to somewhere else. This means there’s a lot of gasoline used, tires worn, oil changes done, repairs made. The postal service is proud that it does this. The adage is “through rain, snow, or sleet the mail must get through.” Given those problems, and all the other hazards—dogs that bite ankles, traffic jams that slow them down, hurt backs from lugging sacks of letters, husbands and wives yelling at each other when they arrive and so forth and so on—letter carriers are only a slight bit shy of American heroes. Norman Rockwell frequently painted them. Writers have written poems about them. And in more recent years, there is the care we give them, well earned, of early retirement, combat pay and lifetime medical care for their knees and backs.
But all this is now history. A good history to be sure. But history nevertheless. The postal service must look to the future. And the future, in spite of what they might think, is bright and shiny.
People are used to going to the Post Office. Everybody knows where their post office is. So as far as traffic flow is concerned, that’s a big plus. What if, when you came into the post office, there was a typewriter keyboard where you could compose your love letter, or thank you letter, or letter of complaint right on a computer screen right there in the lobby? What you write could be shadowed by a computer screen in the back room of the post office where a postal worker could paste it into a document and send it off via the Internet to where it was supposed to go?
For those who need help with typing, there could be a way to speak your letter into a microphone on the computer in the lobby where—amazingly—one of these new voice recognition programs would convert it into words and put it on the screen without a person having to put a finger to a key. It might also be possible, where the message is of an intimate nature, for a person to be invited in the back where a carefully screened post office official could take the dictation down in the privacy of a small cubicle.
In any one of these cases, the post office could, on request, have special postal employees check letters for spelling and grammar to make sure everything is right and proper.
All this is very fine, you might say, but there are just some times when an actual piece of paper or document has to be physically delivered from point A to point B. In fact, it is now possible for the postal service to be able to drop the word “physically.” All Post Offices could be outfitted with “scanners.” A person could go to the front desk, ask that a piece of paper be “scanned,” select the quality of paper it needs to be put on, and have an employee in the back “scan it in” as they say, after which that too can be sent by Internet to a post office elsewhere where it can be “printed out” and the recipient informed by a phone call exactly as if it had been physically delivered all that way.
You might think all of this would cost a pretty penny both in equipment and training of members of the postal service. But there is a huge way that all this could be paid for.
I’m told there are more than two million postal service vehicles in service today, all of which would be no longer needed. Put all of them on eBay. There’s a huge market for these vehicles. Who amongst us, among all the left-hand drive vehicles on the road today, wouldn’t want one with right-hand drive for when that would be needed? Huge sums of money will come into the postal service. The deficit would vanish from just that alone.
There are lots of other services that could be offered at post offices. Have you heard of “Story Corps?” This is a nonprofit service offered free of charge to the general public where people can interview their aging parents or anyone they choose on tape and send the tapes into the national archives library for easy access to anyone who wants to hear them.
The post offices could serve as branches of “Story Corps.” Old people sit out front of post offices on benches telling stories anyway. Invite them in and have them talk into that computer in the lobby. They’d be proud to do it.
And then there’s coffee. As Starbucks and other firms have proven, many people want to drink their coffee in a social setting before heading out for their day. Offer coffee at the counter. Starbucks gets $4.50 for a grande cappuccino with whole milk, one Equal and cinnamon. The post office could charge $5.50, announcing that the extra dollar would be used to help end the national deficit.
And then there is culture and entertainment. Libraries around America have had to deal with the same problems as post offices. And they have solved these problems by adding folk singers and lecturers and even films.
After 5 p.m., when post offices close, there’s no reason the Postal Service could not do the same every night. There could be lectures on almost any topic the federal government is interested in—Say No to Drugs, Defeating Terrorism, Memorizing the Declaration of Independence, the Dangers of Joining the American Nazi Party—right there in the lobby.
All the Postal Service has to do is sit down and have a big think session—I Have a Dream could be the theme of it—and stuff out of the box will magically appear, such as what I have proposed above, and this could solve all their problems.