Quick. What's your address? Where do you live? Are you sure?
Such a simple question. So complicated an answer.
In the newspaper business, addresses matter. We like to be precise -- and accurate.
So when Winfield M. Kelly Jr., the former county executive and president of Dimensions Healthcare Systems, was awarded alumnus of the year honors by Prince George's Community College, it made sense to print where he lives.
Mitchellville, perhaps? Well, not exactly. What some like to call Mitchellville is far from the Mitchellville that exists historically and on current county maps in the vicinity of U.S. 301.
Kelly's post office is the Mitchellville branch of the Bowie post office, which makes his postal address Bowie, a municipality with specific boundaries that do not encompass his home. Technically, Kelly lives in Woodmore.
That is a pricey subdivision, but it is also a real place, which appears at the intersection of Woodmore and Enterprise roads on the latest Maryland state highway map, as well on G.M. Hopkins's 1878 "Atlas of Fifteen Miles Around Washington," which shows the "Woodmoor P.O." surrounded by several properties designated as belonging to the family Wood.
The Washington Post went with Woodmore, but then the brief item noted that Kelly heads the Hyattsville-based Dimensions. Hyattsville? Not. Dimensions is outside the Capital Beltway, in Landover, miles from the real Hyattsville. But it is serviced by the Landover branch of the Hyattsville post office. Hence, Hyattsville. Or now, Largo.
"The post office just changed it to Largo," Kelly said. "In fact, they started screwing my mail up. They sent a note around. We had to change all our stationery. I always thought I was in Landover. Now, I'm in Largo. If I stay there long enough, maybe I'll be in Hyattsville all over again." The post office says that Dimensions, of Largo, is now served by Upper Marlboro, which also would pass muster as a legitimate postal address.
Place, it seems, is a growing problem, as communities seek to uphold or latch onto an identify that satisfies them, real estate agents, history and the U.S. Postal Service. The confusion comes, in fact, from postal efficiencies that succeed in delivering the mail by essentially misplacing it.
Just ask Ann Ferguson, mayor of Riverdale Park, which used to be Riverdale. The town voted to change its name for the sake of image and because of the post office. U.S. Postal Service authorities were lumping not only the Zip code but also the town's name with other communities, and whenever a crime occurred somewhere in the vast postal code area known as Riverdale, those who lived in the town of Riverdale got the rap.
Despite the name change, the post office does not officially recognize Riverdale Park. That, postal authorities say, would require an official action sought by the town, which, Ferguson says, doesn't want to go there.
"We have a file full of government agencies we notified," she said, but the post office isn't one of them. "To go through any hoop with the Postal Service, we wouldn't even consider. We believe it was the post office that created our problem. The post office does a good job [delivering the mail], but they're quite insensitive about our feeling of identity and historical reference. When you start to get diffused and spread around, you stop having a place in anyone's mind."
On the other hand, some places would rather be someplace else. Folks in Gaithersburg would rather be in North Potomac. Some in Columbia want to be in Clarksville, post-wise. Some residents of what used to be called Forestville, inside the Beltway, are happy to be known now as Upper Marlboro, outside the Beltway, even though their location is miles away from the tiny (284 acres, 796 people) county seat. The Upper Marlboro address, according to the Postal Service, now takes in two Zip codes covering about a third of the county -- from an area adjacent to Andrews Air Force Base and along the Beltway south to below Croom, and north to Central Avenue.
If you believe that, County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D) lives in Upper Marlboro. The Post repeatedly says so. He actually lives in a subdivision south of Croom and some seven miles from Upper Marlboro. Then, there's a slice of southern Prince George's that now has a Waldorf postal address. That could lead some to think that Charles County has aggressively expanded its borders northward.
This is confusing to newspaper reporters and editors as well as to readers who rely on the post office to tell them where things are. It also tends to redefine where things are in ways that are simply incorrect. The errors are compounded by the phone company and Internet services, which take their cue from the post office.
The problem is not limited to incoming mail. Unless you get your outgoing mail hand-canceled at the post office and simply drop it in a mail box, it will be postmarked Southern Maryland, or Suburban Maryland if you mail the letter in Montgomery County. How's that for specificity?
The post office, frankly, doesn't care. Postal authorities are quite candid about their mission, which is definitely not to satisfy anyone's sense of place.
"Our job is delivering the mail," said DeWitt Crawford, program manager for address management for the Postal Service. "We just can't accept everybody using whatever names they want. That would cause problems internally and externally to the Postal Service and to customers getting mail delivered."
So there are "acceptable" and "unacceptable" place names, under postal rules. There's a "geographic names" committee to decide which is which. Which leads to . . . Raljon. The late Jack Kent Cooke persuaded postal authorities to give his stadium a separate place name, after his sons Ralph and John. Residents took strong exception, however, so new Redskins owner Dan Snyder announced to the world -- thought not, apparently, to the post office -- that he was dropping Raljon and reverting to Landover. Well, actually, the stadium is served by the Landover branch of the Hyattsville post office. How about the Hyattsville Redskins?
The Hyattsville address includes seven Zip codes (up from five in 1997), of which the municipality of Hyattsville occupies only parts of two. Surrounded by 20785 (Hyattsville) and 20774 (Upper Marlboro) is a small oddly-configured piece of 20706 (Lanham), which comprises most of the city of Glenarden!
The potential for postal confusion is mind-boggling. But maybe not.
According to some U.S. posties, you can call your town anything you like; as long as you use the right Zip code, the mail will go through. The place name on the return address doesn't really matter. But whoa! Not so fast.
" `Doesn't matter' is a dangerous word," said address czar Crawford, "because we don't know how it's perceived by the carrier. . . . It does matter whether it says Hyattsville or Landover if the Zip code is covered up." You see, there are these computer programs that commercial mailers must use, Crawford explains, that might crash if you go your own way.
So if you want to be assured of receiving all those unsolicited catalogues and other forms of junk mail, forget where you really live. Stick with the post office.