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D.C.'s Identity Lost in the Mail

Cang Nguyen dumps mail into a processor at a Gaithersburg facility, where most mail that originates in Washington is sent for sorting.
Cang Nguyen dumps mail into a processor at a Gaithersburg facility, where most mail that originates in Washington is sent for sorting. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)

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By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Take 235 letters. Drop them in mailboxes throughout the District.

Send them from iconic places, such as Congress, the Supreme Court, Union Station and The Washington Post.

Then look at the postmarks.

Do they arrive waving a WASHINGTON, D.C., banner? Do they proclaim their origin as the capital of the United States of America?

Try: SUBURBAN MD. Or, in a few cases, SOUTHERN MD.

The Washington, D.C., postmark is fading into oblivion, a casualty of the anthrax attacks of 2001. After two postal workers died at a Northeast facility, the Postal Service began farming mail to the suburbs.

Now the only way to guarantee a D.C. postmark is to take it in person to a post office and ask a clerk to cancel it by hand. Otherwise, it's a spin of the roulette wheel.

In an experiment conducted by The Post, 235 envelopes were mailed from every quadrant in the District -- from 22 Zip codes, from post offices and blue boxes, from the mail slots of corporations and apartment buildings.

Twenty-four letters were delivered with a Washington D.C. postmark. A measly 10 percent.

Some shrug at the loss of the postmark, but most in Washington take any slights, real and perceived, acutely. Even those who hadn't noticed the postmark was all but gone expressed fury when informed of the symbolic omission.

"We don't have a postmark?" asked WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin. "Oh my God! How did I miss this?" He bellowed with a full-decibel rage that almost made him sound sarcastic. But he was serious. Asked whether a Washington, D.C., postmark even matters -- he admitted that he had not noticed its absence -- and he howled:

" Everything matters! We don't have a coin! We're not on the back of a quarter yet! Anytime they can delete, omit or erase or belittle us, they take the opportunity to do it!"

CONTINUED     1              >

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