Everyone hates the Post Office, and with good reason.  Here's my latest tale of frustration with the US Postal Dis-Service.

On February 11th I sold a little Hamilton rifle to a man in Maine.  Ordinarily I use FEDEX to ship, but he said his FFL agent wanted it sent by USPS as he has "had trouble" with FEDEX and UPS. OK, the customer is always right, so I broke it down, packed it well, and took it to the post office in Christiansburg. I was in town to get something at the FEDEX office, and the Blacksburg main PO is staffed by people whom I would normally cross the street to avoid; the people at Christiansburg are easier to deal with, even if the lady there calls me "Hon," and "Dearie." 

Of course I wanted tracking, and this is now "standard" on all USPS shipping. Regrettably the "tracking" system they use is—to be charitable— laughable at best.  The web site tells you, in essence, "Your package was picked up" and then "Your package was delivered." That's pretty much it. 

By contrast FEDEX practically tells you the license plate number of the truck, which lane of the Interstate it's in, and what the speed and direction are, more or less.  FEDEX and USPS both use barcode tracking. The difference seems to be that FEDEX actually uses it, while USPS sometimes doesn't bother.

It's perfectly legal to mail a rifle (although ignorant clerks, if they know what's in the box, will sometimes tell you it isn't, so I'm always ready with a copy of the Domestic Mail Manual to show them they're wrong). Handguns can't be mailed by private parties but rifles and shotguns are OK.

It was sent by "regular post," what used to be called "Parcel Post," because I'd have had to spend $25 to use Priority Mail, and I was already losing money on the deal.  So for $9.92 it was consigned to the tender care of Uncle Sam on February 11th, 2015.

It took nearly a week for the box to get to the PO in New Sharon, Maine, a community of 1297 souls, according to the Census Bureau.  It arrived on the 17th at 9:03 AM, and according to the "tracking" system FORTY TWO MINUTES LATER, at 9:45 AM, it was marked to "Return To Sender, No Such Address."  Then it was dropped into the Black Hole of the USPS Return Mail system.

When I was notified by the USPS system that the package was being returned I instituted a series of phone calls to find out what in the hell was going on.  I eventually spoke to a lady at the New Sharon ME (pop. 1297, as I said) PO who told me there was "no such street" and "We didn't recognize the name or the road, so we sent it back."  She claimed the carrier—whose delivery route presumably involves all addresses in the town of New Sharon (pop. 1297)—didn't recognize the address or the street.  The allegedly "non-existent" street is Mercer Road, which also happens to be a) US Route 2, and b) the main thoroughfare through the bustling metropolis of New Sharon. As the map inset from Google Earth shows, however, Mercer Road is in fact within walking distance of the New Sharon Post Office!

One would think that a postal delivery person would know this, but hey, we're talking about an agency whose motto seems to be, "We don't have to work and they can't fire us." So much for rain, snow, sleet, hail and gloom of night. If you can hit the street from the PO window with a rock, it "doesn't exist."

Then began the waiting for arrival of the package back in Blacksburg.  It simply vanished into the Void at that point.  The USPS has—in the name of "efficiency"—adopted the practice of consolidating facilities and routing mail through "Regional Distribution Centers." These are huge conglomerate locations that collect mail from a large area and move it to the next RDC, whence it is dispatched to its final destination.  The RDC for New Sharon (pop. 1297) is in Springfield MA.

As an example of how efficient this is, my RDC is in Greensboro, NC, some 140 miles away.  If I mail a letter to my next-door neighbor, it goes to Greensboro, and then back up, taking about 3 days for the round trip of 280 miles if things go right.  That's to go 25 yards to the next mailbox. How much diesel fuel does a tractor-trailer burn to go 280 miles, so that a letter can go 25 yards?

The returned mail system is even worse than the "regular" mail system. Once I knew it was being returned I kept checking the "tracking" system every day for news.  No dice, nothing was happening.  Presumably the return would have been via a reverse route, but if the box went back through the Springfield MA RDC, was never logged in as regulations required it to be. So once it hit the "return to sender" basket, it was incommunicado until such time as it poked its snout in front of a bar code reader somewhere. 

Since I'd mailed it through the Christiansburg PO I called them and spoke to the Postmaster there. He was very sympathetic, agreeing that the USPS "tracking" was f**ked up, and that the system by which returned mail was handled was even worse, and that no, probably Springfield didn't follow established procedures and log it in, etc., etc., but there was nothing he or I could do.  "It will show up sooner or later," he said, "but it can take a month sometimes."

The people in the Blacksburg Main PO were less than useful or helpful: one of them assured me that it would come back POSTAGE DUE, and that I'd be hit up for another $9.92 because the PO in New Sharon (pop. 1297) couldn't be bothered to ask anyone if they knew where Mercer Road was, or the name of the business I'd sent it to.  I snarkily remarked on "my tax dollars at work," and she immediately snapped indignantly that "no tax money" goes to the USPS. Presumably she was ignoring the $1-2 BILLION a year that Congress provides to make up their shortfalls. Furthermore, the fact that no one in New Sharon ME (pop. 1297) knew where Mercer Road was wasn't their fault. If I didn't like it I could use some other Postal Service.

Eventually the box did come back. It was returned to Blacksburg on the 28th, nearly 3 weeks after I sent it, and after a round trip of about 1600 miles. That's assuming it went through Springfield RDC and not, say, Chicago or New Orleans, which was perfectly possible.  It may have done, but I have no way of knowing because nobody bothered to read the bar code.

It was finally returned to me on a Saturday morning which meant of course that I couldn't send it out because the window closed at 12:00 sharp, take it or leave it. I have actually had one of the Blacksburg PO people shut the window in my face when I came up to it 5 minutes after "closing time" because I was standing in line!

It got mailed again (the buyer was insistent it come via mail) on March 2nd at 10:00 AM. A day later it arrived at the Greensboro RDC (a three hour drive). It left Greensboro for Springfield MA RDC two days after it left Blacksburg, where it spent another 36 hours. Expected date of delivery is March 7th, a Saturday, in New Sharon ME (pop. 1297). Now, if the people at that PO are anything like I think they are, they'll shut the window by noon and the box will sit there until Monday the 9th before the recipient can get it.

Today is March 5th. The package has been wandering up and down the eastern seaboard for nearly a month. I might add that although the idiot who told me I'd have to pay return postage was wrong—or, perhaps, my outrage at that news was enough to convince them to drop the matter—I was stuck for another $9.92 to send it the second time. Now, for nearly $20 I could have sent the damned thing by FEDEX and had it there in three days.

The USPS is not only riddled with incompetence, it's staffed by people who don't give a damn whether mailings get through or not.  And they're all union employees who consider themselves hard done by when a citizen asks that they do a halfway competent job, and essentially ignore complaints by saying, "Congress gives us no support."  I've sent this tale of woe to my own Congressman but I doubt anything can or will be done to help. I also wrote a letter to the Postmaster at New Sharon ME (pop. 1297) in which I enclosed a printout of a map from Google Earth showing a) Mercer Road; and b) the specific address on Mercer Road to which the parcel had been mailed.  This was just for their information, but I suppose they'll feel insulted that someone doubts their word.  Good.

Ever since the USPS was set up as a quasi-semi-hemi-independent agency and taken out from under the oversight of the Cabinet (the Postmaster General used to be a Cabinet official, but he is no longer) the service has been deteriorating.  I am old enough to remember twice-daily delivery of First Class mail to our home in New York City, and the protests over raising the letter rate to FOUR CENTS.  I don't even know what a letter costs now, because the USPS has adopted the clever scheme of no longer marking stamps with an actual monetary value: instead they're marked "Forever," and they can raise the price whenever they like.  They do that regularly, of course. 

It's not the least bit surprising that people are increasingly using e-mail and courier services and that the volume of First Class mail has dropped 25% in the past two years.  This is going to continue because when you ignore customers, refuse to modernize, and fail to control waste, what else can be expected?  Any halfway competent business manager, faced with a 25% yearly decline in a primary source of revenue, would start eliminating positions and cutting costs where possible. But not the USPS, a bloated, incredibly inefficient relic of the 19th Century, hagridden by union employees who refuse to allow any changes in personnel. Right now, in fact, the USPS is paying more to retired employees than they are to active ones, thanks to incredibly generous contracts negotiated by union bosses.

The courier services have half the employees, and do a better job, and they make money, they don't lose the cost of an aircraft carrier every year. They cost a bit more for some services (not all) but they're faster, at least as secure, and vastly more efficient. Perhaps it's time to privatize the mail service.

Addendum: The package was delivered today, March 6th. Twenty-five days, 3200+ miles in two round trips, and $19.84 later. Just for grins I got a quote from FEDEX. $12.74 for the same trip by ground delivery, maximum 4 days in transit.