It was December, 1998 when it all started.
I needed to send out some papers using the Post Office’s Express Mail Service. The last time I had used Express Mail, the cost for sending an envelope was $9.75. I realized, as I reached in my pocket, that I only had a few dollars with me, though I did have three quarters, so on my way to the Post Office I withdrew $100 at my bank’s ATM. Five new crisp $20 bills (the kind that make Andrew Jackson look as though he were part of a Monopoly set) were quickly dispensed.
I headed to the Dearborn Street Station Post Office in Chicago to complete my mission.
The Dearborn Street Station is immense. On a previous visit – because I am a curious sort of person – I had walked around all the windows – which were conveniently numbered. There were 54 windows – though as I walked I did a head count and only spotted five clerks behind them. I thought that was strange. Why would you have 54 windows available to do business and only five clerks to take care of the customers waiting for service?
My plan that day was to go to the vending machines which dispensed stamps. I realized that the Christmas rush had already started so I could just zip in (no pun intended), buy my Express Mail stamp and then deposit my envelope in the receptacle designated, “Express Mail Only” which I had seen previously.
I walked into the Post Office and headed to the vending machines. On each of them was typed the announcement, “These machines do not accept the new $20 bills.”
I pondered, “One branch of the government prints the stuff and another one refuses to accept it. What a system.”
My only option was to take my place in the queue that had formed. During my time feeling irascible in front of the machines, two people had gotten in front of me in the line which was cordoned off with heavy red fibrous material. I was now about to join a line with 15 people ahead of me.
I had no choice. The envelope had time-sensitive material and it had to be mailed that day. Glumly, I took my place.
Progress was painfully slow. Every now and then the distant voice of a clerk saying, “Next” could be heard. I kept counting the number of customers in front of me – hoping that at least a few had other things to do and would leave the line – thus advancing my position. As it turned out, each of these people had the patience of Job and were stalwart in maintaining their place.
We were down to seven ahead of me, then six, then a tiny Oriental woman whom I had overlooked surfaced and we were back to seven. I was in that line for over an hour and had a severe need for a caffeine infusion – but there was no Starbucks in the Post Office.
Finally, I was at the head of the line and a woman was leaving the window directly to my right. With a deep sigh I walked up to the window – but this lady returned.
“Do you sell Christmas stamps?”, she asked the clerk.
“Yes, ma’am”, he replied.
“How much are they?”
“Do you have different ones?”
“Yes we do.”
“Could I see them?”
The clerk showed this lady the different stamps which were available.
She said to him, “How much would four cost?” The clerk went to his register, punched in 4 x $.32 and said, “That would be $1.28.”
She said, “Does it matter if I buy the religious ones or the ones with the wreath?”
“No, ma’am. They’re all the same price.”
“And six – how much would that cost?”
The clerk went back to his register to compute the prospective purchase.
“That would be $1.92.”
I was at the breaking point and was going to offer to buy her the stamps myself. I am a very patient person – but there does come a moment.
Well, finally this lady decided that six was just exactly the right number of Christmas stamps that she needed. She completed her purchase and left.
I was finally going to be able to conduct and conclude my business.
I hadn’t used Express Mail for some time and didn’t realize that there had been a price increase. So I handed the clerk one of those new (non-acceptable) twenty dollar bills and three quarters. The clerk entered my $20.75 remittance into his cash register and then looked at me. He said, “It’s $10.85 to send this envelope.” And he handed me back the money I had tendered. I put my three quarters back in my pocket and left the twenty on the counter.
“OK”, I said. “That’s fine.”
He did all the registration stuff that was necessary to make sure that the serial number of my Express Mail was in the system, took my envelope and placed it in an Express Mail bin and then proceeded to make change for the $20.75 he had returned to me handing me $9.90 in change.
I was dumbstruck. But I thought, most victims get at least three times the amount of their loss in what we refer to as “punitive damages”. And this experience went far beyond the realm of punishment. So I took the money and left.
But I did feel guilty about it.
As I made my way to the bus to go home I saw a homeless man who was underdressed for what was already turning into a severe Chicago winter. I gave him my change from the Post Office and one of the twenty dollar bills with which I had intended to pay for my transaction and I wished him a Merry Christmas.
And it’s kind of been all down hill for the Post Office since then.
I think our first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin would have approved.