In US slang, ‘going postal’ means becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, in a workplace environment. It derives from a series of unrelated incidents in the 80s and 90s where postal workers did just that, in post offices. Without meaning to trivialise these tragedies, I have to say that going to the post office here in America makes me feel right on the edge of going postal myself. Let me tell you why.
Firstly and mainly, in my local post office there is always a queue but never any queue discipline. Now, I know that us Brits are queuers by nature and queue discipline is in our DNA in a way that it isn’t for the rest of the world, so if you’re not British, just humour me for this bit, there are some other reasons why the post office can send one over the precipice into insanity that I’m sure you’ll identify with as you read on.
So, back to the queue issue for the moment and picture the scene. You wait a while. Shuffle forward. People join the queue behind you. A member of staff approaches smilingly, not you though, instead the person behind you. Let’s be clear here, that would be the person who came in after you who has not been queuing for as long as you have been. This person gets personal service from the smiling queue server. They’re taken out of the queue and, you notice ten minutes later, have finished whatever their postal business was before you’ve moved a full foot. You wait some more. You watch Mr Smile approach someone else in the queue. Who is of course behind you. You continue your waiting. You get to the front. A man who has been wrapping something somewhere else in the room, but not in the queue, comes now and stands in front of you, ready to take the next free counter. You let him go, grudgingly. Maybe, you think (at least the first time it happens), this person has already queued once. Another minute or seven’s wait. And then who should turn up next to stand at the front? That second jammy bugger who got the personal bloody service from Mr Effing Smiler. Well, you know that she hasn’t been in the queue already. In my book, that’s plain pushing in – with permission! – and it’s simply not cricket.
[As a little aside, I have, once only, been the recipient of The Smile’s benevolence. I was queuing to buy one stamp for one card, idiot glutton for punishment that I am, when he asked if he could help me, disappeared off, and came back with the stamp and a “No charge, ma’am” flourish! How peculiar, but I did come away feeling pleased, like the golden light of the lucky had shone down on me. Maybe it’s a strategy – if you do it enough, eventually everyone who’s ever queued at the post office will get Old Smiler’s blessing in the end?]
Secondly, there is some kind of weird reverse resource/efficiency time warp going on in the post office whereby the more staff there are, the longer your business takes you. So, in view of this USPS-specific distortion at play, and the fact that there are always loads of staff (some at the counters, some being busy behind the scenes with boxes and tape and weighing and things, some hanging around the self-service and PO Box section of the building you have to walk through first doing who-knows-what but not serving, and of course, our old chum Smiles wandering up and down randomly bestowing his charity), it follows that the inevitability of a long queue ahead is a given, no matter what time of day you go. There’s no order or sanity to the whole experience.
Thirdly, there may well be lots of staff at hand, but whether any of them are competent enough to ensure your stuff will get to where you want it to is completely in the lap of the gods. In our one year and four months here, we have had several no shows (letters/cards etc that have simply never got there), one item returned before it left the country for not enough postage paid, and one big box of stuff that went all the way to the UK and then came all the way back to Houston. Do let me explain to you about the latter. It was gifts for my small niece and nephews who celebrate their birthdays in the same month. They are siblings so we’re talking same address, one big box. I had queued, of course, and then been sent to the side of the room to complete the address and customs forms. Then, it goes without saying, queued again. Eventually I made the counter, the forms were checked, the weighing and labelling and taping up was done, I was asked the value, I paid the fee which covered postage and customs and insurance. Just as it was ready to go, I read on a poster on the wall some “dos and don’ts” for the customs paperwork. Don’t, it advised, use general terms like ‘sporting goods'; be specific. I had used that very term. Furthermore, don’t, it cautioned, put just one total value; itemise. I had put just one total value. My particular “associate” that day was incontestably incapable and I should’ve known there and then that this package was doomed. Own stupid fault I know, but instead of taking my business elsewhere, I duly refilled out the customs form correctly and off it went, for “guaranteed delivery”, apparently, “in five business days”. Fifteen or so business days later, and still not having heard from my sister-in-law, C, about the safe arrival of the much-awaited presents, I contact her. No, she confirms, they haven’t arrived yet. But she has just received a card from a mailing depot miles away from where she lives, round the M25 and then some, saying there’s a package requiring a £28 excess charge waiting to be picked up. It’s obviously mine and I’ve not paid enough postage or tax this end. So I transfer £28 to C’s bank so she’s not out of pocket on what are now very late presents for her kids and she’s pretty sure that she or my brother should be able to get to the depot the weekend after next. Imagine then my surprise (that’s a calm word for how I actually felt) when, ding dong, perhaps a week later, there’s a USPS delivery at my door and, how did you guess dear reader, hello box of pressies! And with absolutely no explanation why. It’s still here in my house, the box, I can see it from where I’m sitting typing right now. (Sorry F, B and R, hoping still to get them to you one day!)
I’ve not even touched on the Bermuda triangle-like hole that stuff sent the other way falls into. Or at least, stuff that is sent to our house. Like my original marriage certificate. And one of F’s 18th birthday presents. Try tracking them, I hear you say? Well, track them I have, but can get no further than US customs in New York. I’ve tried phoning, I’ve tried emailing, I’ve even tried via my favourite ol’ post office down the road, who proved concerned but useless. It seems that once anything addressed to us makes it over the Atlantic and hits land, it has a high risk of vanishing.
Those little white USPS vans with their blue and red stripes, our mailbox at the front of our house – love ‘em both. But I love them because they’re iconic symbols of America like the yellow school bus that have become a familiar part of our lives. The reality of the postal service itself, though, I’m finding really much harder to love, except in a masochistic sort of way. Like I said, I’m on the edge of going postal.