The Check Isn’t in the Mail

For those charting the decline of public institutions–one of the more depressing motifs of the last quarter of the 20th Century–comes a chilling report from Seattle. Out here, just a subpoena toss from the home office, the Post Office has hoisted the white flag over its red-white-and-blue curbside mail boxes. Believe it or not, the Post Office is warning locals not to trust the city’s 1,600 post boxes with anything they actually want delivered. Ever.

This is not the start of a rant about the pace of snail mail. Rather the problem for mail-box mavens, as disclosed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is a security breach. Nimble-fingered thieves have gone postal–stealing the master key that unlocks all Seattle’s letter boxes. (The point of the caper, it seems, is to get their larcenous hands on a bunch of uncashed, but signed, personal checks made out to, say, Fedex. The hot-paper artists then bleach off the recipient’s name and rewrite it to themselves or a favored boom-box zealer).

You don’t need to be Erskine Bowles to figure out the obvious solution–change the locks. For reasons that defy logic and somehow are never explained by the P-I, that task is seen as akin to building the Grand Coulee Dam. Seattle postal inspector Jim Bordenet (Chatterbox’s nominee for Bureaucrat of the Year) told the newspaper that retrofitting those 1,600 locks is “a multi-year project” and he had no idea when such an awesome engineering task might be completed. But Bordenet, no slouch in the creativity department, came up with an interim remedy. “The vast majority of our citizens have to change their behavior to take account of the threat,” Bordenet said in an ominous tone. (This dialogue is real. Chatterbox is not writing a Post Office version of Doctor Strangelove).

While Seattle girds itself for a threat even more dire than junk mail, readers are probably expecting the obligatory “if only the Post Office were run like a business” lament. But, in truth, the current all-but-pritivatized Postal Service seems to have the same warm-and-fuzzy approach to customer relations as your electric company or cable system. Now if a political boss (think Jim Farley or Larry O’Brien) were still running the old-style Post Office, Seattle voters would not be told two weeks before an election to change their postal behavior–or else. Instead, the Post Office might actually find a competent locksmith before stamp prices hit 70 cents.

Walter Shapiro