I have a fondness for the United States Postal Service – it runs in my family. Both my grandfather and my great-grandfather were rural mail carriers in Wisconsin, and one of my aunts and some of her kids still work at the USPS. My grandfather, born in 1887, had retired a few years before I was born but I heard stories of how he started out delivering the mail in a horse and buggy, the day he graduated to a Model T, and how he felt it was his solemn duty to honor the idea “In rain or in snow or in sleet or in hail / the U.S. Mail will never fail.” Imagine the fun of driving a horse and buggy through Wisconsin winters…man. My family was proud of their service in the post office; it was seen as honorable, steady, valuable work. No one got rich as a mailman, but no one went hungry either. This was particularly noted by my dad as he went through his teen years during the Great Depression and never forgot all those men who could not find work while his dad went out before dawn six mornings each week, every year, to sort and deliver all kinds of letters and packages over miles and miles of farmland. They had a nice white-frame two-story home, good food on the table, and the respect of the people in their small town, which was a fair amount of riches, if you think about it.

Prior to the days of Le Internete and email and the expansion of UPS and FedEx and such, your regular mail service was pretty much it. Mail was important and EXCITING, and was sometimes the only way to receive your information or goods. When I was a kid getting a letter or a birthday present wrapped in brown paper and twine was so thrilling, delivered by a mail carrier who knew how special that was, and who would wish me a happy birthday as well. Later on, I would get rock records from collector stores in Sweden or Germany, a cassette tape of a live concert I could never have attended, or some photos from a friend who moved far away. An empty mailbox was always a little disappointing; a full one likely to hold something that would make my day.

But when you mention the post office now, or anytime in the last 30 years or so, you are more likely to get back tales of long lines, spotty service, stolen mail, rising rates, and surly clerks. When I lived in Chicago in the ‘80s, I would dread having to go to the post office where I lived in Lincoln Park – WORST CLERKS EVER. Oh my god, this place surely generated the whole “going postal” expression. You would wait and wait and wait and wait, while they all waddled around at their leisure, scowling, rude, incompetent, sometimes just SITTING THERE DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING AT ALL GLARING AT PEOPLE while the service line went out the door. Apparently, it has not improved since then, as I peruse some recent online ratings of that particular branch:

“The worst I've ever seen...and I've seen a lot. This post office just seems to have given up. They don't care. Or maybe they're just so overwhelmed that they've become numb.”

“Mail arrives late if at all, mailman doesn't bother to sort mail for separate apartments-just jams everything in one box and leaves. I had important tax documents sent certified mail and they never arrived but they had no problem listing them online as 'delivered'. My signature was REQUIRED and they just didn't even bother delivering it! Oh, and they don't answer the phone. This place is the worst example of government waste I can think of. These people have no sense of work ethic or pride in what they do-simply collect paychecks like welfare handouts.”

“I only talked to an employee on the phone because my "priority shipped" book for school didn't come in for two weeks! She was so rude I finally got mad enough to hang up!”

“Sent my request on 10/27/08 to have mail forwarded from this post office to my new home. It's Thanksgiving eve and I have yet to receive my mail. Thanks Lincoln Park Post Office!”

“Same thing for me, thank God my realtor sends me huge envelopes of my mail every other week!!! Thanks 60614 Post Office!! You give public service people such good names! I can't wait for you to steal my Bears tickets again.”

There were lots more, too, all saying the same stuff. It’s the kind of thing that makes peoople push for the mail service to move completely out of the government’s hands to private companies. The USPS has been bleeding money for many years now, and it's currently waiting for approval to move from six-day delivery to five-day. (It used to be seven-day delivery, which ended in 1912 when religious leaders complained about folks being more interested in what was happening at their local P.O. rather than their Sunday services, by the way.) It seems inevitable that at some point the gubment will drop the USPS. Since the postal monopoly is a Constitutional issue, Congress would have to approve the bail. I can see some very immediate problems. There is no profit to bring mail service to difficult-to-reach places, so your Appalachian hermit, bizarre islander, and rural Wisconsinite would probably lose service completely, or pay outrageous fees to keep getting birthday cards from Aunt Louise. Your mailbox, now only accessible to the USPS and criminals, would be stuffed daily with paper spam and firecrackers. “Al’s Friendly Postal Service” could maybe give you some great shipping rates, and then one day abscond with all the packages and you’d never be able to track down “Al” or your package that was never delivered to Aunt Louise, and then she would be mad and never send you a birthday card which you couldn’t afford to accept delivery of anyway.

There is a trust that we place in the United States Postal Service, as quaintly old-fashioned as that might seem. We expect them to provide good service to all citizens, regardless of income or location, and we have faith that the privacy of our correspondence will be respected, and our stuff will not be stolen. We do expect that sometimes our magazines will be pre-read on a mail carrier’s break. Perhaps the answer to the USPS's financial troubles is to keep looking into using already well-established private services like FedEx more extensively as subcontractors, streamlining service, and closing the Lincoln Park Post Office FOREVER, or re-establishing it as The Museum of Governmental Horrors.

I think my great-grandfather and my grandfather would approve of Archie, my current mail carrier. He always delivers the mail on time, sometimes bringing it to the door if it won’t fit in the mailbox or he thinks it might get wet from the rain, always bringing a big smile as well. He always asks how I am and calls me by my first name. When I pass him in his mail truck, often when I am headed out to pick up the kids in the afternoon, he never fails to wave. Archie reminds me of the days long past when your mail carrier was someone who became a bit of a family friend, having seen you every day for years delivering both good news and bad, a part of your world, and someone who always respected the responsibility of that.

I hope the United States Postal Service can find its way to self-sustaining health; after all, anything the super-awesome Ben Franklin helped set up can’t be all bad, huh?