Mrs. Levey's oldest son is a serial criminal.

If he looks under his desk, he sees Flat Tub One -- filled with notepads.

Behind him sits Flat Tub Two -- crammed with notes he used to fashion previous columns.

Beside a shelf, he sees Flat Tub Three -- full of fan mail (hard to believe, I know, but trust me).

Each of these foot-deep buckets belongs to the U.S. Postal Service. Each is made of off-white sheets of plastic, with hand holes cut in either end. You have probably seen hundreds of them. You may even be using a half-dozen or so, like me.

You probably think that it's a benign way to make use of a very handy item and that the Postal Service will never miss them.

Oh, so wrong. The Postal Service has looked the other way for years, as its buckets (which cost $3.25 apiece) have been confiscated, commandeered and co-opted. But now . . .

The USPS wants its buckets back.

It will not prosecute, even though it could.

It simply wants to lessen the ocean of red ink that Bucket Disappearance has caused.

Levey has agreed to help. He figures three things:

One, a judge might go easy on him.

Two, he might be forced to clean up his office, after a momentary delay of nearly 22 years.

Three, he might help the Postal Service delay the next rate increase by five minutes or so.

The loss figures from Bucket Disappearance are pretty stunning. The USPS owned (and was using) 20 million flat tubs just two years ago. Last August, the stockpile was down to just 20,000. At $3.25 each, that's a shortfall of $60 million.

It's also a major crimp in the Postal Service's ability to deliver the mail, according to Mark Saunders, a USPS spokesman based in Washington.

The USPS uses flat tubs to hold your mail while you're on vacation and to catch flat mail (such as newspapers, magazines and catalogues) that can be sorted by machine.

Without flat tubs, the process bogs down badly. If your mail has been late recently, you might want to a) look in the mirror, b) look in your garage for liberated flat tubs and c) search your conscience.

Let's try it in terms of dollars. To sort a tubful of mail by hand costs the USPS $55 per 1,000 pieces of mail. To sort the same amount of mail by machine, using tubs, costs $5 per 1,000 pieces. No contest. To replace plastic tubs, the USPS uses cardboard trays, which cost only 65 cents each but last far less long.

The USPS has asked the media for help in its effort to retrieve flat tubs, and this little criminal was happy to sign up. He was even happier when he learned how much good the effort has done.

According to Mark, 263,000 buckets have been returned since September -- no questions asked. If this column has made you get religion, all you have to do is walk your stash of flat tubs into any post office. You won't have to identify yourself or face any kind of music.

"We didn't want to be Big Brother on this," Mark said. The USPS is grateful for the return of even one tub, Mark said. Besides, "we're declaring an amnesty" so criminals like Bob Levey do not fear consequences.

Don't be a wise guy and ask why the USPS can't give you a nickel for every tub returned, the way groceries will for empty soda bottles. The whole point is that the USPS doesn't have money (or tubs) to burn.

Mark said the whole process is like returning surplus coat hangers to the dry cleaner. He says he has started doing this himself since Operation Tub Return began in September.

The USPS reserves the right to prosecute tub hoarders if they use tubs for illegal purposes.

For example, a man in Indiana was arrested last December. He was using flat tubs to grow marijuana. Penalties for flat tub misuse: a fine of as much as $1,000, or three years in prison, or both. However, no one has been prosecuted for hoarding bins, Mark said.

Isn't the USPS missing a bet by not offering tubs for sale? Mark acknowledged that the USPS is looking into this, but planning is only in the early stages.

Mark said media response to the plea for help has been excellent. "All media calls are from a reporter that feels guilty," he revealed.

Well, that'll do it for today's column, folks. Let me just write a headline. . . . Okay, there we go. Then let me send this on to my editor. . . . Okay, boss lady, you've got it. Then, finally, let me turn around and toss all my notes into the bucket . . .

Uh, Robert, you old scofflaw, we're not doing that anymore.

Neither should you.

Many thanks to Robin Christian Campo for another sidesplitter about how to get rid of a telemarketer who works for the Wall Street Journal.

In case you missed it, the Journal has a very conservative editorial page. Maybe the Journal has tolerated one Democrat for a few hours since the dawn of time, but for the life of me, I can't think of who he might have been.

So one night a few years ago, when Robin received a breathless offer to subscribe via the telephone, she decided to have some fun.

She told the telemarketer that she'd consider subscribing if the caller could tell her which candidate the Journal supported in the last presidential election.

The person had no idea. So Robin urged him to find out and call back. Eager to get a sale, the person called back the same night.

"Bob Dole!" the telemarketer chirped.

Whereupon Robin revealed that she was a volunteer in Bill Clinton's reelection campaign.

The line went dead very quickly.