Some days, Joe Steinfeld is awake by 3 a.m. in his cluttered house, handwriting letters that he will fax to officials in Washington. He has called members of Congress, picketed alone in the nation's capital, complained at town meetings and made a failed run for City Council.

His quest? To end a 97-year-old tradition and open up Carmel-by-the-Sea to what nearly all Americans expect: home mail delivery.

His persistent efforts make this proudly crotchety town recoil at the prospect of losing one of its most revered social occasions--the daily ritual of going to the post office for the mail.

Steinfeld, 71, a retired antiques dealer recovering from cancer, said this is an important civil rights fight for elderly and disabled people who have trouble getting to the post office.

If he has to, he said, he'll sue the city, which is 115 miles south of San Francisco.

"The basis of our system is choice, but not in Carmel," Steinfeld said. "Your neighbors are going to tell you you have no choice of postal service. Does that make any sense?"

It does in a town that clings fiercely to its quaint idiosyncrasies, a place where you have to get a permit to wear high-heeled shoes, where there are no sidewalks in residential areas, no traffic lights or street lamps, no fast-food joints--and no mailboxes or numbered addresses.

Houses have names like "Green Door Cottage," "Sunburst" and "The Gazebo," because that's the way it's always been.

Steinfeld said he was amazed when he and his wife moved here last year from down the coast and found that there was no home mail delivery. He began making regular calls to Postal Service officials in Washington and San Jose, plus every member of the House and Senate committees that oversee the Postal Service.

In August, the Postal Service said it could begin home delivery if mailboxes and a numbering system were in place, and Steinfeld placed mailboxes in front of his house and the homes of his supporters.

"It would be a complete luxury to have the mail delivered to my house," said Carolina Bayne, a widow in her sixties. "Thank God for Joe."

But many Carmelites believe that if mailboxes clutter their narrow streets, then traffic lights, sidewalks, maybe even a McDonald's, could come next.

They also aren't swayed by Steinfeld's argument that the absence of addresses delays emergency vehicles, a contention supported by the fire chief.

More than 4,000 communities nationwide don't have home mail delivery, mostly small or remote towns that are served through a cluster of boxes by a highway or through boxes in a post office. The Postal Service will go along with whatever Carmel-by-the-Sea decides, spokesman Gus Ruiz said.

Many residents are tired of the attention Steinfeld has brought.

"They just want him off their backs," Mayor Sue McCloud said. "He is not likable. You just can't deal with him on a reasonable basis."

The mayor said she has received 664 letters or postcards on the mail issue, and only 108 favored home delivery. More than half the town's 4,000 residents are older than 65.

"I'm so used to coming down here, it's no problem whatsoever," 82-year-old William Frost said recently at the post office. "In fact, I kind of enjoy the trip, and every once in a while I see somebody down here that I say hello to."

Though many Carmelites complain that Steinfeld doesn't appreciate the town's deliberate ways, he may be more like them than they would like to admit.

"You have a community with a lot of retirees and you'll always have somebody who doesn't like this and doesn't like that," said Clint Eastwood, who was mayor from 1986 through 1988. "They have more time on their hands, as opposed to a working-class community where everybody's busy."