If you'd like to know how it feels to travel back in time, try talking to someone about the closure of her neighborhood post office.
I thought it was 2011. But ask anyone about the chance that his local post office might be closing, and you're wafted back to the 1950s. I think I can hear Howdy Doody over the airwaves.
"It's a gem," people say. "It's a real community hang-out."
"A smaller one, a kiosk in a grocery where we could buy stamps and send packages?" they scoff. "Oh, hardly. It's a lifeline. It's where we all come together. All the residents use it."
You begin to panic. You thought that you lived in 2011, when only 28 percent of the population lacked Internet access. In 2011, the volume of first class mail was down 25 percent since 2006 levels, people increasingly paid bills and sent vital communications online, and more mail was bulk advertising (“junk”) than first class (“the kind of mail that actually interests you”). The last time you got your mail, it consisted of eighteen laminated postcards advertising a Thai restaurant that turned out to have gone out of business when you called. Once you got a very passionate letter written in purple ink, but it turned out to be intended for someone else entirely and the stamp on it was from 1830.
The last time you went to a post office -- and you realize that this is anecdotal and you may be exaggerating slightly — you stood in a line for forty-two hours and died of neglect, and your grandmother claims the cookies arrived strangely dented.
To see the gleam in your interlocutor's eyes, you feel you can't possibly be talking about the same service. Surely this is some different era. You begin worrying that a milk truck is about to come veering around the corner with Marilyn Monroe riding it side-saddle. A pivotal community landmark?
The diner, too, was once a pivotal community landmark, and before it, the Meeting House, and before it, the Large Group Fire near the Mammoth Caves. But now there’s this thing called the Internet. At least you thought there was.
"Who's President right now?" you ask. "Please don't say Eisenhower."
Then your interlocutor tugs out an iPhone and you heave a sigh of relief.
"Anyway it’s a shame about the post office," he says. "We've been really getting up in arms about it on the community list-serv."
"Don’t you see the irony of that?" you ask.
The times they have a-changed.
You understand that once, the Post Office was like this. The neighborhood postman was a sort of mayor. But now we have Foursquare for mayors. You might wish it were different – I spend a good portion of each day wishing away Foursquare – but there we are. Now the postman is someone who drops off a brick of advertising materials and the occasional electricity bill, because your landlord couldn't figure out how to set up e-billing. Sure, one time, you read, a postal worker was able to save an old woman who came down with the vapors, and you hear that once the letter carrier on your route rescued a kitten from a tree. But you are not certain that it is worth keeping a standing army of hundreds of thousands of postal workers trekking forlorning around neighborhoods when increasingly no one is willing to pay for the service they provide.
After all, communication – at least the important, priority communication that people are willing to shell out for– is quickly moving online. And much as we'd like it to stop, that trend will continue, unless hipsters decide that instant communication is "so 2009" and go back to using telegraphs and sending postcards. But somehow I doubt it.
Meanwhile, the Post Office is stuck. It is a wildly expensive service which taxpayers do not directly subsidize — and it’s about to run out of money. It currently is obligated to provide universal service — mail six days a week, across the United States. On every day that mail is delivered, someone rides down the Grand Canyon on a mule to give mail to the person at the bottom. I am not making this up. My point is that this is not cheap.
Now that the USPS is almost out of funds, they want to close post offices that are hemorrhaging money and come up with other solutions (perhaps kiosks in groceries or other stores) for people who need to send packages and buy stamps.
“Nonsense,” your friend says. “Where will I send my Netflix?”
“I thought you’d switched to streaming only,” you say.
“Well,” you say. “Before you wax too poetic about the post office and your crystal radio and the bowling you’re going to do later in Mayberry, consider that right now, the nicest part of the community post office you claim you so frequently visit is that you do not have to pay for it with taxes. That could change this fall when the Postal Service hits its borrowing limit. How much are you willing to pay to keep looking back?”
Put it this way: when you heard your post office was closing, the odds are that you didn't send an angry letter.