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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)

Add it to a long list of affronts, he said. First, it was disenfranchisement. Then, the lack of recognition on the quarter, which all 50 states will have by next year. Also the fact that not a single D.C. person stands in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. And that's not all:

"The post office is here, in Washington, D.C. How dare they do this to us," Plotkin said.

It's "salt on the injury," said Aviva Kempner, a board member of DC Vote, an advocacy group pressing for the city to have full voting rights in Congress. "I think it's a metaphor for the fact that they consider us an invisible colony."

Ahem, said Deborah A. Yackley, a U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman.

"Do you think people care?" Yackley asked. "I mean, really. It's been this way for . . . years" -- six, in fact -- "and we haven't gotten a lot of feedback from people."

After the anthrax attacks, the Brentwood post office reopened as the Curseen-Morris center, in honor of Thomas L. Morris Jr. and Joseph P. Curseen Jr., the postal workers who died after processing contaminated mail at the facility.

But all outgoing mail is shuttled to a plant in Gaithersburg and, to a lesser extent, to the Capitol Heights processing center in Prince George's County.

On a recent day, Yackley walks among whirring processing machines in the Gaithersburg facility, a warehouse the size of 4 1/2 football fields, lit by orange fluorescent lights and whooshing with the sounds of envelope-spewing machines -- one of which is purple and called, in homage to a certain dinosaur, the Barney system.

Eight machines print postmarks as letters sluice through winding tracks at the rate of 600 envelopes a minute. More than 800 employees work with 650,000 pieces of stamped mail every day -- a volume that during holiday season reaches 1.2 million a day.

Three of the eight machines release the Washington, D.C., postmark, and the other five use the suburban Maryland stamp. That corresponds to the proportion of mail that comes from the District and Montgomery County.

Operations specialist Philip Stanley, walking with Yackley, is asked why, in The Post's unscientific experiment, only 10 percent of the D.C. mail got a D.C. postmark, but nearly every other piece was branded as coming from suburban Maryland.

"Did you get it back on time?" he asks.


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