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Thursday, April 09, 2009

The vanishing friendly letter

By Dick Hirsch

Consideration is being given to a cutback in mail delivery, to only five days a week instead of six, and as I reflect on that possibility I realize I don’t care. I’m serious; I really don’t care. I suppose I should care because I fancy myself as a communicator and the mail is a medium of communication, but I really don’t give a damn.

Why? Because it is boring. The other day was typical; I sorted through the day’s delivery on my arrival at home. Nothing of importance; a catalog, three mailing cards announcing upcoming events or merchandise promotions, and the monthly bill from VISA.

The arrival of the mail once was an occasion to be anticipated with considerable interest. If I happened to call home during the business day, a natural question would always be: “Any mail?” Even then, the answer was usually negative.

The US probably has one of the most efficient postal systems in the world, but the volume of mail is dwindling and the costs of operation are rising, with the US Postal Service reporting a loss of $2.8 billion last year. In the face of declining use, the USPS response is another postage increase. Sending a first class letter is rising from 42 cents to 44 cents, effective May 11.

Who writes letters today? Business letters are still fairly common, but the so-called “friendly letter,” which we learned about through elementary school and continued to perfect in high school, has all but vanished. Nobody writes us letters anymore. We get an occasional postcard from a traveling friend, but that is about the extent of the personal correspondence.

Of course, the primary villain in this scenario is e-mail. It is no contest. E-mail is fast and it is cheap, and, along with its infernal cousin, Instant Messenger, it has seized control of communiqués, both essential and mundane, and left the first class letter maimed and comatose along the information superhighway.

For several years, from the time they were old enough to read until they were in high school, I wrote a monthly letter to each of my two grandsons. I wanted them to experience what I recalled as the excitement of receiving a letter, opening the envelope, and reading. Instead of differentiating myself from other adults in their lives, I think I only succeeded in portraying myself as a fogey, a description which I deny. Both boys at various times suggested I use e-mail instead of the letters, extolling its efficiency, and neither could ever comprehend why I insisted on using the older, slower, expensive medium. I suppose that experience should be recorded and filed under “G” for Generation Gap.

It is not a generational matter. The friendly letter is a relic and the first class letter is clearly doomed. Occasional bills and checks still arrive, but the mail sacks are filled with trivia.

I was discussing this just the other morning with Bill, who delivers the mail to the office. Incidentally, I’ve always been on a first name basis with mailpersons, primarily because the USPS and its predecessor agency for years issued name tags that had only the first name. So, over many years, I’ve dealt with Vince, Oscar, Ed, Ken and Chris, among others. Bill’s view is probably representative of many of the nearly 700,000 USPS employees, which is a work force second only in size to Wal-Mart.

“We talk about it all the time and wonder about the future,” he said. “Most of us think there are going to be staff reductions but we are sure there will always be a post office, and it will be an important service for people, whether it is six days a week or less. We would be in serious trouble if it weren’t for the bulk advertising mail. That has saved us, but most people don’t seem to care much about it.” As an afterthought, he added: “I hope they keep it at six days a week.”

Bill then disclosed he will soon be watching postal developments from the sidelines because he is planning to retire in the spring. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and my knees and ankles are shot,” he said. “It’s time.”

I didn’t want to insult Bill by explaining how, for the majority of people, mail has become the last choice when it comes to choosing a method of sending a message from one place to another. We still need it, but not very much.



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