In a post-postal world, Christmas still delivers

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 3,700 postal facilities were granted a moratorium. However, not all 3,700 were granted a moratorium. This version has been corrected.

December 21, 2011

The scent inside this squat federal building is not fir or cinnamon, but it does have its own particular holiday aroma: cardboard Priority Mail envelopes and packing tape.

Christmas at the post office. Possibly the one time of year when everybody still makes a pilgrimage here. Over a lunch hour at this Bethesda location, the people in line at the post office stand as if they have forgotten how to be in line at the post office, as if 364 days of e-cards have left them incapable of operating ballpoint pens or responding to the orders of the middle-aged ladies who preside over their stations with an attitude best described as Stop-Your-Foolishness. Next. Next. Next?

Next is this exhausted woman, shuffling through an imposing stack of holiday cards. “Does Elizabeth still have the same last name?” the woman asks her cellphone, a pen poised above an envelope. “No, the same last name. [After] she got married?”

Earlier this year, the Postal Service announced that it hoped to close up to 3,700 facilities across the country by 2015, part of an effort to cut $20 billion. Suddenly, people were outraged, campaigning to save the buildings they rarely visit for a service they are using less and less. They started e-mail campaigns. Some of them noted the irony of saving the post office with e-mail campaigns. Then, last week, many of the 3,700 facilities were granted a moratorium, saved from shutdown at least until the spring. A Christmas miracle.

But no one wants to be here, though everyone has to come here, to be reminded of the people they don’t speak enough to and probably bought the wrong things for and should have included the gift receipt with.

In Bethesda, the workers dole out the Christmas (and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Eid) stamps, assisting in the celebration of a holiday whose secular folklore is based on what is ultimately a grand postal miracle: Seven billion people, one sleigh, one night, one red-suited mailman.

Next!

* * *

“Just think. If we had a building in every single town that was the local IRS office,” would it become a community center? Nancy Pope asks. No! It would fill you with dread. “It wouldn’t give you the feeling that we’re all tied together the way that post offices do.”

Pope is the curator of the National Postal Museum, in a granite temple next to Union Station that used to be the city’s central post office. She has been with the museum since 1984, and she choreographs the installations.

Last week, a new permanent exhibit opened. It’s called “Systems at Work,” and it explains how mail has moved from one point to another over the course of 200 years. Today, Pope is admiring her favorite artifact: a wooden distribution case owned by John T. Jackson, the postmaster of Alanthus, Va., from 1891 to 1940. Alanthus was a small town, which meant that its post office was categorized as Fourth Class, tucked into a corner of Jackson’s general store.

“To me, the case represents the concept and the feelings of a gathering spot,” Pope says.

This museum is the best place to go if you want to feel patriotic about the post office — a sentiment that has recently become fashionable. “The Daily Show” did an ode to the P.O. last week, getting a bunch of famous people who probably never have to mail their own packages to sing about the wonders of American mail. SaveThePostOffice.com passionately tracks location closings. One young graduate student named Evan Kalish has become the philatelic poster child (stamp child?) for post office awareness, via a project he curates on his Web site, Going Postal. Kalish has traversed 43 states and 2,700 post offices with a digital camera, shooting everything he sees on the way: pickups, antelope, clapboard, flagpoles, Ameri-kitsch Americana.

Post office nostalgia is quickly replacing air travel nostalgia or farmer nostalgia, iconic concepts of when America Had It Right. It stands for all the skills we fear we are losing: penmanship, communication, manners, patience, folksiness, duty. George Washington said the post office was “among the surest means of preventing the degeneracy of a free people.”

Our mail, our liberation. Our fairly impressive (still!) system by which one of 300 million Americans can send an object to another of 300 million Americans for less than a dollar, in less than a week.

* * *

“We’ve got a command center here,” says Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman, who is based near L’Enfant Plaza. On the telephone, Stroman is extolling the preparedness of the post office in December. In anticipation of the holidays, “We’ve got monitors in a room that monitors . . . stuff around the country.” They’ve got flatscreens to track the volume of the mail. It’s really an impressive and hi-tech operation, Stroman says — the coordination of the 16.5 billion pieces of mail that are moved by 574,000 employees between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. He invites a reporter to come by and see it all.

See the way the Postal Service headquarters looks like the bridge on the Starship Enterprise? No, thank you. Where’s the romance in that?

Still, let’s arrange a backstage pass to another postal experience — the Curseen-Morris Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Northeast Washington. It’s 450,000 square feet of conveyor belts and forklifts, in which 825 people sort the mail of Washington. At 10 p.m., nine days before Christmas, the facility is operating at maximum capacity. Some 36,000 pieces of mail are moved through each hour, accompanied by a dry, electronic hum.

It’s efficient — a workable blend of high-tech and archaic — and it’s impressive, and it feels like a place of diligence. What it doesn’t feel like is festive, or even particularly warm. It’s a business, not the fuzzy idealized image that postal crusaders want to protect.

“People are very much attached to the Postal Service,” Stroman says on the phone. This is why, he explains, one of the post office’s obstacles in adapting to the 21st century is the nostalgia people have for its history. “It’s one of the things we wrestle with on almost a daily basis.”

This month, the Postal Service’s attorneys submitted a somewhat exasperated report to the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent regulatory agency. The founding legislation of the post office “does not require that long-standing products, service features, and operational practices be maintained primarily for the purpose of preserving a tangible link to an iconic past,” the report said. “Or to perpetuate a nostalgic image of the agency or its employees.”

Stroman wants to expand the Postal Service’s digital offerings and move away from the idea of post offices as brick-and-mortar buildings, but the post office is forever imprisoned by its own wistful reputation.

Let it go. Move on. Buy your stamps at Wal-Mart, send your Christmas letter via e-mail, stop hanging on to the America that doesn’t exist. We have to look forward, we must save the trees. We must recognize that “Post Office at Christmas” would be a good name for a made-for-Hallmark holiday movie, but not a reality show.

* * *

And yet our collective imagination still clings to the Zip code. Who wouldn’t feel sentimental about an institution that still enlists pack mules to deliver mail to the Havasupai Indians living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?

It’s the holidays, and nostalgia is one of the main ingredients of the holidays: the packing tape, the handwritten cards and the repeated viewings of “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which the existence of Santa Claus is proved by the vast number of letters to Santa that are delivered to the likely insane man claiming to be Kris Kringle at the New York County Court House.

At a pivotal moment in the movie, sacks of mail for the jolly old man are shaken out onto the judge’s bench, postmarked piles of official evidence.

Staff writer Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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