Just one look at the parking lot and I knew.

Chevys traveling faster than the speed of sound were zipping into spots as they slowly became available -- a sure sign that quiet, unassuming stamp buyers were turning homicidal.

It happened last Monday, when "Hurry and Get All The New Stamps You Can Lay Your Hands On Day" was being celebrated throughout the country, ushering in the increased costs of first-, second- and third-class and express mail. That was the day the price of a 25-cent stamp jumped to 29 cents.

But I had to mail a package. So I threw cautionto the wind and stepped inside the Ellicott City Post Office, only to be greeted by winding lines looping around counters from the door to the postal windows.

Since I was taking a one-hour lunch break and not my usual three-hour one, I promptly turned around and headed back to the parking lot. Not a good move.

Two drivers, of the chain-saw massacre variety, were lying in wait. As they saw fresh meat, a maniacal grin crossed their pursed lips. Gunning their engines, they proceeded to block each other from claiming my tiny parking spot. It was not a pretty sight.

Twenty minutes later and just glad to be alive, I decided to pursue the real story behind this postal panic. I immediately set up an appointment for the following day with a higher-up (that's post office talk) to discuss this distressing turn of events.

As I entered the building on Tuesday, I proceeded to cut across the snaking line to ask a postal clerk where I might find the higher-up in question. Not a good move.

Thirty snarling stamp buyers with blood in their eyes prepared to pounce on me. I just thank God I had the wherewithal to bring along my pit bull.

I was greeted by Bill Ridenour, officer in charge, who pulled me into his office and outof harm's way. He, too, had tales to tell.

"Yesterday, there was three times the normal amount of people we see at Christmastime. We thought we'd run out," he said. "We were out of sheets. We had to requisition more, and they sent some over right away."

Ridenour explained that post offices are traditionally overwhelmed immediately following a rate increase. "When we went from 22 cents to 25 cents three years ago, we couldn't keep 3-cent stamps in stock."

I couldn't bear to hear anymore.

The post office, which regularly employs 104 people, 10 at the window, tried to prepare for the deluge of customers.Every window was manned and womanned, as were the "dutch doors" set up expressly for selling stamps.

The vending machines were also changed Monday to sell books of the numberless 'F' stamps for $5.80 apiece. Ridenour explained that whenever there's an increase, prices arenot initially printed on the stamps because the postal department does not know too much in advance what the increase will finally be.

"It was still a long line," he said. "We had two (clerks) just selling stamps to get things moving like an express line at the supermarkets. We do the same thing at Christmas."

Ridenour said he was surprised that there was not a whole lot of buying in advance of the hike."I expected mailings to go up. We saw a little, but not what we anticipated prior to the increase."

Nor did he understand why companies did not flock to the post office before Monday. "The structure for third-class went up proportionately more than first-class. People whosend out first-class, like bills, really can't do ahead of time likecompanies can with third-class."

Ridenour believes the odd cost of the stamp riled customers more than the increase itself. Although the Postal Service asked for 30 cents, the Postal Rate Commission onlyapproved 29 cents.

"It would make life more simple, not only for us but for the public in general," he said.

The stamp act took a licking from disgruntled Ellicott City residents who agreed with Ridenour. "I thought it was a big hike," said Barbara Blake. "Actually, ifthey were going up, they should've gone to 30 cents to make it easier and postpone the next raise for a while."

Andre Baillergeau was equally unenamored. "I don't think much of it. They should've broughtit to 30. It doesn't make sense. Why not make it 30? What does the penny save?"

Then there were those who thought the hike should takea hike. "I think it stinks," said Douglas Hargett. "I haven't seen any need for any increase. The service hasn't improved, it hasn't changed any. I'd rather it have been a round total, but a penny should have been the maximum increase.

"I'd rather see it go to private industry than government control and have competition. They would compete with each other for lowest rates."

I still haven't mailed the package. My Uzi is out for repairs.

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