Seventeen days until Christmas, and we're all about to ... put up outdoor lights in sub-zero weather? Decorate yet another unwieldy, misshapen tree? Welcome the in-laws for a week's visit?
Magnificent traditions all, yet the December holiday season summons us all to ... the post office! That's when we stand patiently in line to mail presents to parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, and friends deserving and undeserving.
It's a ritual in which I first participated as a child in the 1940s, tagging along with my mother as she waited to be assisted in our imposing downtown post office. Sixty years later, I'm still in line, still hoping that the woman in front of me doesn't have a dozen packages to mail in her oversized shopping bag, and still expecting the Postal Service employees to be just as they were in 1949: friendly, efficient, sympathetic and helpful.
That's the U.S. Postal Service: useful, traditional, endearing — but perhaps doomed.
It's a familiar story. We don't send letters, and we pay our bills online. The first-class mail that once sustained the USPS is disappearing, led by "personal" mail, which has dropped by 31 percent since 2000.
According to a story in last Sunday's New York Times, every one of us receives 57.2 pounds of mail annually, of which 30.3 pounds is so-called "standard mail" or mass advertising. The remainder consists of packages, periodicals and first-class mail. For me, that means appeals from worthy nonprofits, sales pitches from hearing-aid vendors, dunning letters from creditors, and grim little notes from the Internal Revenue Service.
Nevertheless, I enjoy my daily trips to the mailbox. Childishly enough, I still believe that there may be something magical in the mail — and there often is. I love my magazines: New York, The Old House Journal, my college alumni magazine, Harper's, the Atlantic, even the AARP's glossy bimonthly.
Magic be damned. To close a $14 billion annual deficit, USPS wants to shut the doors of 252 mail-sorting centers, including the one in Colorado Springs. That will mean laying off tens of thousands of employees (several hundred here), closing or consolidating thousands of small post offices, and ending Saturday mail delivery as well as overnight delivery of first-class mail.
In its infinite wisdom, the federal government has required the Postal Service to operate like a private business for decades. Subsidies are for giant banks, oil and gas companies, atrociously managed automobile manufacturers, and sluggish defense contractors.
The USPS is a vital lifeline for small communities, for rural America, and for millions of older Americans. Some argue that it ought to be reintegrated into the government, not tossed into the dustbin of history with passenger railroads and full-service gas stations. And though we may think that the USPS is irrelevant to our times, shutting down the general mail facility here and moving its operations to Denver will have real costs.
"It's very concerning," Mayor Steve Bach said Tuesday. "We just got the letter today [formally announcing the proposed closure]. We've already contacted [U.S. Sens.] Mark Udall and Michael Bennet."
Rob Preston, who heads the local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, is understandably distraught.
"If it's going to save the company money and help save it, I'm all for it," Preston says. "But that's not the case. They claim that the labor savings will be more than $7 million [in Colorado Springs], but they're just moving the jobs to Denver. That's transferring costs, not saving."
Preston also noted that the Postal Service has been a "cash cow" for elected officials and agencies for years. An example: the so-called "franking" privilege that allows members of Congress to send irritating mailers to constituents at no charge.
So what's the solution? There isn't one. It seems inevitable that the USPS will diminish, dwindle and eventually disappear. We'll lose an old friend, one that has been around since July 26, 1776, when Benjamin Franklin became the first postmaster general.
Somehow, I'd rather keep the Postal Service and lose one of those other departments ... you know, one of those that Rick Perry can't remember.
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