The letter is mailed from Gold Hill, Oregon.
The eleven hundred residents of this lingering gold-rush town, mostly mechanics and carpenters and retail clerks in other places, wake with the sun and end their day with a walk to the aluminum mailbox bolted to a post at the edge of their yard. In between, Carrie Grabenhorst heads out of town on highway 99, follows the Rogue River, and turns right on Sardine Creek Road. She turns left at a large madrone tree and heads up a quarter mile of dirt road, takes the right fork, goes past the sagging red barn to a white clapboard house with green trim, where she takes a dog biscuit from her pocket and offers it to the large golden retriever. It's a Monday, about 2:00 p.m. The dog stops barking. This is the usual peace, negotiated after thousands of visits over eighteen years.
Often Grabenhorst's elderly customers are waiting at the door, or even by the mailbox, for her right-hand-drive Jeep to edge onto the shoulder. Many of them are alone all day. Their postal carrier is that one reliable human contact, six days a week. Some are older veterans. Quite a few have limited mobility, and it isn't uncommon for her to lend a hand with an errand; she's been known to pick up milk in town and bring it along with the mail. Grabenhorst drives seventy miles a day and makes 660 deliveries. On a typical day, that might include fifty packages of medicine.
Her route is one of 227,000 throughout America. On the South Side of Chicago, carriers walk cracked sidewalks, past empty lots and overfilled projects. In the suburbs of Phoenix, mail trucks deliver to banks of mailboxes outside gated communities. In Brooklyn, they pushed their carts up sidewalks and ducked into bodegas on September 11, as they always do. Residents say they were comforted to see their postal workers still making the rounds, the government still functioning. In rural Alaska, mail comes by snowmobile and seaplane. In chaps and a cowboy hat, Charlie Chamberlain leads a train of postal mules down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where a tribe of Havasupai Indians lives. Wearing blue trunks and a ball cap, Mark Lipscomb delivers letters by speedboat up and down the Magnolia River in Alabama.
Want to send a letter to Talkeetna, Alaska, from New York? It will cost you fifty dollars by UPS. Grabenhorst or Lipscomb can do it for less than two quarters: the same as the cost of getting a letter from Gold Hill to Shady Cove, Oregon, twenty miles up the road. It's how the postal service works: The many short-distance deliveries down the block or across the city pay for the longer ones across the country. From the moment Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775, the purpose of the post office has always been to bind the nation together. It was a way of unifying thirteen disparate colonies so that the abolitionist in Philadelphia had access to the same information and newspapers as the slaveholder in Augusta, Georgia.
Today the postal service has a network that stretches across America: 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices, and 213,000 vehicles, the largest civilian fleet in the world. Trucks carrying mail log 1.2 billion miles a year. The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet's mail. It can physically connect any American to any other American in 3.7 million square miles of territory in a few days, often overnight: a vast lattice of veins and arteries and capillaries designed to circulate the American lifeblood of commerce and information and human contact.
Grabenhorst sports a few blond streaks in her brown bangs, which curl over her forehead, perfectly framing her azure eyes and chiseled cheekbones. Rural carriers don't wear official uniforms, so today she's in shorts and an Oregon State T-shirt. Letters arrive at the post office in Gold Hill already sequenced in the order Grabenhorst will deliver them, but the "flats" — magazines, catalogs, large envelopes — and packages do not, so in the back of the post office she and her two colleagues stand at their own three-sided bank of metal slots, hundreds of them, one for each address, and merge the separate streams — a process called "throwing the mail."
As the junior carrier, Grabenhorst has the peanut route. Paula Joneikis is the senior carrier, thirty-three years on the job; she took over her route from another lifer named Bev Washburn. That's how these jobs work — when you get a route, you hold on to it, maybe even try to pass it on to someone in your family. Failing that, you take a younger colleague under your wing and share your particular wisdom: the life history of your customers, how this one is related to that one, when so-and-so got to town, when so-and-so split up. Joneikis has a lot of "silver foxes" on her route — she tries to remember who's recently had an operation, and she'll come to the door with the mail. "We're a lifeline to these people," she says.
"All of these people are family," Grabenhorst adds. She color-codes all 660 addresses for her morning sort: a little pink flag affixed to a slot means the customer is on vacation; a yellow flag means the whole family has moved; an orange flag is for customers who don't want packages left when they aren't home; a green flag means an individual has left the family: moved out, gone to college, divorced, died.
When she gets to their driveway, she'll put the bundle into their box, her box. By law, only the postal service can put mail into a mailbox. It's a monopoly that ensures every citizen, in every square mile of the country, has the ability to receive mail and that the government can reach every citizen. No branch of government serves us so consistently, so intimately — a federal employee literally touching every house in America every day but Sunday.
In mid-November, the postmaster general, Patrick Donahoe, reported that the post office had lost $15.9 billion for the year and was operating on just a few days' cash flow, having reached its legal debt limit. He all but begged Congress to take action. Mail was down 5 percent from the year before, and wages and benefits and other worker-related costs were an unsustainable 80 percent of the postal service's $81 billion operating expenses.
But nobody wants to hear that more than 70 percent of those losses were for extraordinary budget obligations mandated by Congress, or that the postal service posted its thirteenth-straight quarter of productivity gains. In a nation obsessed with cutting budgets and government fat, there is no better target than the federal postal worker who will have her route delivering paper mail for life, and then try to pass it on to her daughter.
Eighty-five percent of America's critical infrastructure is controlled by the private sector. We let private companies fight our wars; we have 110,000 defense contractors in Afghanistan compared with 68,000 American troops. We let private companies lock up 16 percent of our federal inmates and instruct 10 percent of our students. They provide our phone service and Internet access and air travel and hospital care. Surely, many believe, private companies can deliver our mail better and faster and cheaper than the federal government.
If you work with actual pieces of mail — if you are a carrier, a handler, a clerk, but not an administrator — it is said that you "touch the mail." The postal service has more than half a million full-time workers and a hundred thousand contract employees, the vast majority of which are mail touchers. Each morning, Grabenhorst enters into a ledger she keeps at her workstation exactly how much mail she's thrown and will be delivering that day. In Washington, D.C., they count in billions of pieces, but carriers talk about mail volume in feet — the width of a mail stack laid on its edge, face to flap.
On this unremarkable Monday, she'd written 14.75 feet. She flipped the pages of the ledger back to the previous year, to the same date: 17.5 feet.
That we're sending less mail is not debatable. Nor is it debatable that the post office as we've known it for the past forty years, one built for speed and brute force in sorting and distributing an ever-surging flood of paper documents, is outdated in our digital world.
This isn't a story about whether we could live without the post office.
It's about whether we'd want to.
Seven years later the guy in the Oval Office is trying to destroy the postal service just to hurt the man who owns the Washington Post.