In the summer of 1987, with goodness in his heart, Leonard Woolf of Baltimore sent a small donation to Workshop Industries Inc., a charitable industry serving homebound handicapped people.
Workshop Industries is located in Jeannette, Pa., which is about a five-hour drive from Baltimore.
Next time Leonard Woolf wants to send money to Jeannette, he should hop in his car and drive, because five hours is shorter than four years.
Did somebody say four years? Actually, let's be fair. It took the U.S. Postal Service only three years, eight months, three weeks and one day to deliver Woolf's check.
Or, roughly the time it took the post office to deliver 159 other donations from all around the nation to Workshop Industries, after they'd been dropped unsuspectingly into the mail back in that distant summer of 1987.
And that's just part of the story.
The other day, Woolf gets a surprise letter from Muriel Wachter, who is executive director of Workshop Industries. The letter is part apology, part hoot. In this case, the laugh would be on the U.S. Postal Service, except that it's handicapped people who got shortchanged.
See, things get more expensive in four years.
The cost of living goes up.
The cost of caring for handicapped people goes up.
And, in case you hadn't noticed, so did the cost of sending a letter.
In her letter to Woolf, Wachter explains:
"The Post Office notified Workshop Industries that they had about 160 pieces of mail for us -- and that there was 7 cents postage due on each piece. When Workshop Industries representatives went to the Post Office to determine the reason for all this mail requiring 7 cents postage due, it was determined that each letter had a 22-cent stamp on it, the postage for 1987.
"Since the mail was not delivered until 1991 and postage had risen to 29 cents, the Post Office wanted to collect 7 cents more."
Naturally, this was not entirely pleasing to Workshop Industries people, who did not think they should be penalized for the post office's blunder. They protested.
"Those who mailed the letter in 1987 had, indeed, put the correct postage on the letter," Muriel Wachter explained yesterday in a telephone interview. "But you know how these things are. They have people working for them, letters come in, and they just stamp them postage-due."
Wachter appealed for sanity. She says there was "a little hassle," but that post office officials finally agreed the fault was theirs, and they would pay the difference.
Naturally, this leaves one question yet unanswered, to wit: Where, for four years, were 160 donations that were mailed to Workshop Industries of Jeannette, Pa.
"This is a small town," Wachter says, "but I guess it could happen anywhere. I mean, we get other people's mail all the time. One time, we even got the postmaster's mail."
The postmaster in Jeannette is Tony Avampato. This makes him the voice of authority over all mail coming in to the town. Yesterday, here was his authoritative explanation of what happened to the Workshop Industries donations:
"I don't have any idea."
Avampato says mail that reaches Jeannette is first processed in Greensburg, Pa. He says he contacted Dan Morelli, who is the postmaster in Greensburg and thus the voice of authority there.
Yesterday, here was Avampato's definitive explanation:
Avampato says mail arrives at his post office from all over the country. It arrives in sacks. It is possible, he says, that one of the sacks -- with all of the checks for Workshop Industries -- was mistakenly tossed into a bunch of other sacks which had been emptied of their contents.
And then, for four years, he conjectures, the filled sack sat in a room somewhere with all these empty sacks until one day this spring when somebody found it and formally declared:
And this brings us back to the people like Leonard Woolf of Baltimore, who sent money four years ago and never knew why no canceled check or, for that matter, letter of thanks had ever arrived.
In the letter from Muriel Wachter, she explains, "Of course, your check is dated July 18, 1987, and is not negotiable because it is considered stale dated. Therefore, we are returning it to you.
"We want to express to you our appreciation for the check you intended for us in 1987 and for your interest in our program. We are enclosing a self-addressed envelope for your convenience if you desire to replace the check that was received four years later."
Woolf's original check is enclosed with the letter.
For Wachter and Workshop Industries, that's one letter down, 159 to go.