A New Sticker on the Window

WASHINGTON — Washington.--The encouraging news from the U.S. Postal Service is that despite a $1.3 billion deficit this year, it's managed to scrape up $7 million to put a new organizational emblem on its nearly 40,000 post offices, 180,000 vehicles and millions of mail boxes.

The old emblem, which made its debut in 1970, displays an eagle astride the words U.S. Mail, enclosed in a ring composed of stars and the words "United States Postal Service." The new one consists of what appears to be the snout of an eagle facing the words "United States Postal Service."


The relative aesthetic merits of these creations eludes this postal customer. But Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon appears ecstatic, declaring that the new sign of the Postal Service signifies "a clean break with our bureaucratic past." Postal workers will soon start applying it around General Runyon's sprawling empire.

As a frequent visitor to my neighborhood post office in Washington, I applaud the prospect of an improvement to this woeful property, even if it's no more than a new sticker on the window.


The last improvement at this facility, about a decade ago, was the installation of what was intended to be an automatically operated front door, presumably for the benefit of frail, handicapped, and package-laden customers. The automated door was very heavy, so heavy, in fact, that when the operating mechanism failed -- which it often did in the first few years -- many customers could not budge it. At times, a crowd would form at the entrance, awaiting the arrival of someone sufficiently robust to open the door. In recent years, the breakdowns have been infrequent, but they still occur.

The interior of this post office differs only a little from a Smithsonian recreation of a colonial-era post office. The modern-day version contains a coin-operated stamp machine and a copying machine, both usually bearing handwritten "Out of Service" signs. A glass case at the counter displays three sizes of padded mailing bags. On each, a sign states "Out of Stock."

On a wall a metal plaque bears an inscription telling postal patrons that they're entitled to good service. Covered with tape, the signature beneath this welcome statement is of a postmaster long gone. Nearby is an eternally empty frame topped by the words "Today Is." Whatever it is, this post office doesn't say.

One reads about postal modernization programs designed to speed up service and reduce costs -- but not at my post office. A publicly accessible scale would save the time of customers and postal workers. But at my post office, if you want to know whether one stamp will suffice, or whether another is required, wait in line. Even if you're willing to blow 29 cents and get another stamp -- wait in line. The stamp machine is out of service.

The decor of this postal facility bespeaks a nonchalance toward the visual aspects of retailing. Determining the vintage of the paint job would require a specialist in carbon-14 dating techniques. Various posters and announcements around the premises are approaching that crossover point where they acquire historical value. Several of the wanted signs displaying mug shots of fugitives are three to five years old. Are they still on the lam? Or have they done their time and gone straight? Who knows?

The selection of the new postal logo, according to news reports, concluded a complex process that cost $100,000 and involved 300 designs and a dozen focus groups around the country. "Our new emblem," said Postmaster General Runyon, "is powerful and dynamic." Mr. Runyon said the change was made because, "We need to send a clear signal that we are dedicated to a new level of quality, customer focus and competitiveness."

It's a start. Put on the emblem. Then fix the stamp machine and the copying machine. Install a public scale. Maybe even paint the place. It doesn't take much. If money is a problem, forget the emblem. Spent on what matters for postal customers, $7 million could go a long way.

Daniel S. Greenberg, a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health, prefers letters by fax.