I sometimes used to ride the mail route with my daddy when I was a little girl. Mother would pack us a lunch, and I would meet him when he came down Highway 50 to my grandmother's country store. I got to sit in the back seat on top of the sorted mail, which was bound by leather straps. I would hand him the next package he needed as we traveled the route through eastern Wake County.
At lunchtime we'd stop at the Old Drugstore, a county landmark and gathering spot, where the owner's dog could drink Coca-Cola out of a bottle, sitting up on his haunches. We'd buy our own drinks and stop by the river bridge to eat our sandwiches. Then we'd finish delivering the mail.
That's a favorite childhood memory from decades ago. But Daddy got promoted and wound up in the post office proper as a clerk, then as acting postmaster. Throughout his various jobs, I saw firsthand his dedication to his duties and to the people of our community. He would delay our own family activities if it meant getting a much-wanted or necessary package delivered to someone after hours. Proud of his mail-sorting accuracy and speed, he would stop to help anyone for as long as they needed when they entered the post office door. It was personal, not “by the book” service.
The Nov. 21 hearing on the proposed closure of Asheville’s mail-processing plant was by the book. Full of postal acronyms and talk of efficiency, the formal introductions and slide presentation took up the first half-hour, leaving only one hour for public comment from a large, feisty audience. Each person who took the microphone was allowed to ask one question; direct answers were in short supply. And the 8 o'clock cutoff time was an arbitrary choice; the building was open until 9 p.m. I know, because I stayed till then. (More about that later.)
The Postal Service representatives spoke dispassionately about consolidating the Asheville plant and a larger facility in Greenville, S.C. They couched it in terms of "revised entry times" and "reduced footprint" and "fully utilized work forces." And — my favorite quote of the evening — the repeated management goal to "optimize the machines." In simplest terms, the U.S. Postal Service is looking at what they call a "radical network realignment" that would slash the number of mail-processing plants nationwide from the current 500 or so to less than 200 by 2013.
The only way the Postal Service can consolidate these facilities and "optimize the machines" (keep them working around the clock sorting mail) is to lower its delivery standards. So instead of overnight service, first-class mail in Western North Carolina will take two to three days to arrive (and potentially longer, as several people testified).
Ostensibly, all this is planned so the Postal Service can tighten its belt in response to declining demand for first-class mail service, which is the agency’s bread and butter. But as more than one astute public commenter observed, it’s a questionable business model when you sacrifice service standards for the one thing that so directly affects your bottom line. And it was unsettling that the management representatives at this public meeting couldn't speak to the potential loss of revenue due to reducing the quality of service. That didn't seem to be a factor they'd even considered.
One retired mail carrier who spoke during the evening — a 37-year veteran — summed it up pretty well. "The bottom line here is money: You've got one product to sell, and it's service. My question is, how come you're not concentrating on service? I've seen it getting worse, and I'm appalled. It's crazy. … Please put the ‘service’ back in the Postal Service."
But the moderator immediately channeled that request back into the parlance of the day, saying, "We do want to be [financially] sound. We're in dire straits for cash liquidity."
And pointedly, a number of independent businesspeople asked about the effects of closing the Asheville plant on bulk mail, political mail and the delivery of orders, goods and payments. One attorney, concerned about his legal mail, asked point-blank, "Can you guarantee next-day delivery in the city of Asheville?"
The answer? "The overnight [service] would become a two-day service."
Meanwhile, at the social level, this machine-efficient service will also cost us an Asheville postmark. The Paris of the South won't get her name splashed on postcards or first-class mail unless the sender wants to go into a post office and request a hand stamp. In terms of mail origin, all of Western North Carolina's towns will become "Greenville, S.C."
A few minutes after 8 p.m., the moderator closed the session, despite many protests from the audience. The microphones were turned off, and the public began to filter out the door.
There, they were met by a telling juxtaposition.
Occupy Asheville had assembled in a corner of the lobby and was holding forth with a spirited round of discussion. Anyone could speak, and what they had to say was then repeated by the entire group, in bite-size phrases — a process known as "mike check" that’s designed to intentionally hear and amplify the public voice. Not quite the style of hearing that had just played out inside the auditorium.
Attracted by that cooperative spirit, a number of people leaving the auditorium stayed on until the whole group left the building promptly at 9 p.m., to "honor A-B Tech," as they put it. And by that time, the heretofore strangers gathered on the edges of the crowd had started participating in the singsong repetition of comments.
I also saw at least one local lawyer, two elected officials, some postal union members, a self-confessed Republican and a dozen or more all-purpose citizens among this small crowd. I'm guessing not one of them came to Ferguson Auditorium that night expecting to participate in an Occupy Asheville rally, but they’d found interesting common ground.
I wonder what my daddy would have thought of Occupy Asheville? In his day, he did befriend the hippies that moved into an abandoned homestead in our community. And with his penchant for getting along with anyone, he might at least have paused and heard them say, in unison, "I think the Postal Service deserves a round of applause."
— Nelda Holder can be reached at email@example.com.
The U.S. Postal Service is accepting public comment by mail only; comments must be postmarked by Dec. 6. Send comments to: Manager, Consumer & Industry Contact, Mid-Carolinas District, 2901 Scott Futrell Drive, Charlotte, NC 28228-9976.