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For 29 Cents, What Do You Expect?


Boston. -- I have a friend who writes letters. Real letters, on real stationery, with a real pen. What is more unusual, she mails them. I hate to date her like this, but she goes to the mailbox on the corner of her street and casually feeds it envelopes full of her hopes and dreams.

I, on the other hand, have joined the legions of Americans who now regard using the mails as risk-taking activity. I think of the mailbox as a slot machine. I never gamble on it more than I can afford to lose. I feed it at 29 cents a shot, wave the envelopes goodbye, and then place my bet on how many days it will take to get to its ZIP code.

If it gets through to anyone in Chicago -- known since last winter as the black hole of mailbags -- I feel as if I've won the jackpot.

I also get mail -- a lot of it -- from around the country. I figure that roughly one letter in four must take a long circuitous route from, say, Oregon to Karachi to Minsk before it arrives on my desk. The all-time record belongs to a large manila envelope from sixth-graders in Minnesota who were learning to write letters. By the time it arrived, the children were writing applications to college. But they'd learned their lesson about the mail.

This explains why few Americans will be surprised to hear that mail delivery is getting slower again. The spring statistics from the Business Mailers Review show that only 82 percent of the letters that were supposed to arrive in one day actually did so. That's down 2 percent in one year. Only 71 percent of the letters within 600 miles of their destination arrived within two days -- traveling at 13 miles an hour. As for the so-called three-day letters, only 77 percent made their deadline.

This is a record that makes the baggage-handling at the Rome airport look like a model of efficiency. Maybe the popular expression "Snail Mail" is unkind, but how about "Any Day Now Mail" or "Sooner or Later Mail"?

In my childhood, when the post office was "a sinkhole of political patronage," stamps cost 3 cents, the downtown mail was delivered twice a day and none of us worried about disappearing letters. Now the Postal Service is going lean and mean, the stamp costs 29 cents going on 32 cents, the annual deficit is headed to $2 billion, and the mail carriers worry less about deranged dogs than about some stressed-out co-worker with an Uzi.

The pace of the world has sped up and the mail has slowed down. A whole population of "disgruntled postal customers" has fled to the competition. There's a middle-class, business-class flight from U.S. mail to e-mail and voice mail.

In offices, people still "send" things to each other but they do it by fax or, if they have time to kill, by Fed Ex. The Letters to the Editor column is more often the Faxes to the Editor column. The private mail service is becoming the modem.

Just a few years ago, a fax came with an aura of urgency. Now, anything that's mailed comes with the message that it can wait.

As for the promise that the check is in the mail? It's become the cynical gag line in an era that regards mail as a way to slow the flow. In fact, the check -- if it's a Social Security check or a pension check -- is probably not in the mail, but electronically deposited in the bank. Even the Publisher's Clearing House that bribes us to open the envelope, delivers its checks in person.

As for "junk mail," the phrase is becoming redundant. If it's mail, it's probably junk. Only 3 or 4 percent of the mailbag these days consists of letters written by people. More missives are written by computers that address us as if we were intimates than are written by friends. Our friends have learned to reach out and touch us by phone. What comes through the door probably lands in the recycle bin.

This is the dirty little secret of a deteriorating delivery system. The mail service we can't count on is one that we won't count on. If vast numbers of Americans drop out of mass mail the way we dropped out of mass transit, the costs go up higher, the service goes down further, and the gap grows between those who have and have not . . . alternatives.

Anybody know the ZIP code for Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon? Somebody ought to send him a letter. On second thought, fax it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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