Going Postal

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I had a run-in with my local post office recently that I’m hesitant to share because I don’t want you to think that I’m a U.S. Postal Service hater. On the contrary, I generally have no problem at all with sending or receiving mail, and while it’s trendy to complain about the ever-increasing price of stamps, 42 cents is still quite a bargain for getting my rent check to my landlady without having to encounter her directly. So I’m a USPS supporter.

But there are occasionally some snags in the system, which led to the run-in that I’m about to describe. It started with this rule they have where you can’t mail something weighing more than 13 ounces from your corner mailbox. You have to actually go inside a post office and hand it to a clerk. If you look at a mailbox, you’ll see a sticker warning you about this rule. It says:

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Attention: 13-Ounce Rule

Stamped Mail Over 13 Ounces Prohibited

Due to heightened security, all mail that bears postage stamps and weighs more than 13 ounces must be taken by the customer to a retail service counter at a Post Office.

Failure to do so will result in the return of your mailpiece.

Now, first of all, obviously: mailpiece? That’s what the post office calls an individual piece of mail? A mailpiece? That’s fantastic. What a great made-up word! And so effective — the last thing any of us wants is for his mailpiece to be returned.

I also want to point out that the sign has the words “by the customer” italicized and in bold type. That heavy mailpiece must be taken BY THE CUSTOMER into the post office! Don’t even think about having a robot or a trained monkey do it for you.

But to get to my real point, you can tell that it’s a bogus rule because it begins with the words “due to heightened security.” That phrase, which did not exist before 9/11, is only used to justify bogus rules. If the rule made sense on its own, they wouldn’t have to explain it to you. “You may not bring bombs on the aircraft.” See, that’s self-explanatory. You don’t have to add a phrase at the beginning explaining WHY bombs are not allowed on the aircraft; it just makes sense. It’s only when the rule is stupid and arbitrary that they bring in “due to heightened security” to make it sound legitimate. It’s supposed to make you think, “Oh, well, of course I can’t have a bottle of water within a hundred yards of an airplane. It’s due to heightened security!” You can practically hear the announcement’s tone of voice:

“Due to heightened security, all visitors to the DMV are subject to strip search.”

“Wait, why?”

“Due to heightened security.”

“But that doesn’t make any–”

“DUE … TO HEIGHTENED … SECURITY.”

When I first noticed the 13-ounce rule, I decided to treat it the same way I treat all rules that I don’t like or don’t see a need for: ignore it until forced to do otherwise. And that actually worked. The 13-ounce rule is laxly enforced in my neighborhood, and nothing I dropped in the mailbox ever came back to me — until a couple weeks ago, when, at long last, my luck ran out and I was surprised by the return of my mailpiece, shoved by my mailman into my mailslot. They don’t cancel the postage or anything; they just put a sticker on it informing you of the 13-ounce rule and exhorting you to take it into a post office personally. (No robots!)

As it happens, I needed to go to the post office anyway, to ship something that was physically too big to cram into a mailbox, so I took this scorned mailpiece with me. The problem was that all of this occurred last week, and you may have noticed that it was December last week, and December is when the post office is overrun by elderly people who only use the postal service once a year, to send Christmas packages to their grandchildren. These people invariably have no idea how the postal service works, and they irritate those of us who are post office veterans and know what we’re doing.

Lady, you can’t mail a box that’s tied up with string! It jams the machines! Everyone knows that!

Nor can you reuse the box your toaster came in and just write the recipient’s address in tiny letters in one corner! How is the mailman supposed to see that?!

So I avoid the post office this time of year if I can help it, but obviously I couldn’t in this case. And sure enough, when I got there, there was only one clerk working, and the line was really long, and ahead of me was an old man trying to mail a hammer wrapped in tinfoil, or an open bucket of lobsters, or whatever. And then they get very concerned about the price. They’re always surprised at how much it costs, and they ask a lot of questions. And that’s annoying, too, because, what, are you gonna haggle? You’re gonna try to talk the post office down a few bucks? It costs what it costs! Discussing it won’t make it any cheaper. Pay it and get out.

Finally I got to the counter, and the clerk was this friendly man in his 50s whom I’d dealt with many times before, and I handed him my rejected mailpiece and told him what had happened.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “if it’s more than 13 ounces you gotta have one of these on it or it’ll be sent back to you.” And as he’s saying this, he’s printing out an official bar-coded label to stick on it.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Because 12-ounce bombs are unheard of, but 14-ounce bombs are all the rage.” I was trying to be jovial about the rule, but he missed my point. He said, “Well, it used to be 16 ounces.”

“Right,” I said, “I’m just saying, it’s funny how they choose a number arbitrarily for the cut-off. It could have been 12 or 14 or 16, and they chose 13.” I gave a little chuckle here, but he remained silent as he went about handling my package. I mean, handling my mailpiece. I mean, handling the thing I was mailing. So I added, “It’s like at the airport, where you can’t have more than exactly 3.2 ounces of liquid, you know?”

Finally he said, “Well, it’s a different world now. And I, for one, am glad to have people like them, and like me, watching out for everyone.”

That’s right: By insisting that parcels weighing more than 13 ounces be shipped in person rather than through a public mailbox, the man at the post office believes he is fighting terrorism.

This was eye-opening for me. I always assumed that the rank-and-file enforcers of arbitrary rules knew the rules were silly but went along with them out of obligation — hence my attempt to banter on the subject. But not this guy. He’s a true believer. And as it turns out, the thing I was mailing actually was a bomb, so it’s a good thing I took it inside and blew up the entire post office, rather than just taking out a mailbox. That’s the last time they’ll disrespect my mailpiece!

The 13-ounce rule, you'll notice, only applies if the item "bears postage stamps." If you have a postage meter that spits out official labels, you can drop the thing in a mailbox no matter how much it weighs. I don't know why terrorists are any more likely to use postage stamps than postage meters, but there you go.

SnideCast intro & outro: "Such Great Heights," by The Postal Service.

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