Across Maryland, people tried to get their 3 cents' worth yesterday as the reality of postal rate increases set in on the first business day of 1995.
So many tried, in fact, that there were long lines at post offices. Some even ran out of requisite stamps altogether. And through it all, there was no shortage of complaints.
"I'm standing in line for an hour for 10 3-cent stamps," said Mike Penix, 29, waiting in line at the Glen Burnie post office. Mr. Penix -- who loads trucks for a postal competitor, United Parcel Service -- added, "It's amazing how the government can bring your life to a standstill for 30 cents."
At 12:01 Sunday, the price for a first-class stamp rose to 32 cents and post cards went to 20 cents.
The increases over the old rates of 29 cents for letters and 19 cents for postcards had been approved by the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors three weeks ago, and stamps representing the new rates have been on sale since mid- December. But who wanted to buy early without knowing how many old stamps they could use up before the deadline?
Deborah Yackley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said employees were startled by the demand for stamps.
"We thought we were amply supplied in the Baltimore area, but people are thinking, 'If I don't get mine today, then I won't get any,' so they're rushing around buying sheets of 100," Ms. Yackley said. "It's unreal. We're trying to keep up with the demand that's out there, but it's rough."
In all, some 10 million 3-cent stamps were distributed to the Baltimore postal district, which covers all of the state except for five Washington-area counties. By last night, about 10 post offices in the Baltimore region ran out of the precious threes, she said.
All day, getting stamps was a trial.
A quarter-mile line of cars stretched along Ritchie Highway from the packed Glen Burnie post office parking lot. Some patrons headed for the Pasadena post office about nine miles away -- where Barbara Brown, waiting in a long line, mused: "Did Christmas come back?"
The wait there was 45 minutes.
In Glen Burnie, in Pasadena, in Westminster -- a lot of places -- post offices ran out of 3-cent stamps. Some substituted combinations of ones and twos to enable their customers to make up the difference with their leftover stamps.
At the Calvert Street post office in downtown Baltimore in early afternoon, a clerk was working his way through the crowd every 20 minutes declaring: "I'm sorry to announce ladies and gentlemen, but we are out of 1-cent, 2-cent and 3-cent stamps."
The veteran postal clerk, John Muller, 52, punctuated his news by holding up his fingers -- one, then two, then three.
"Disgruntled is an understatement of how I feel," said Randy Lutz, a 49-year-old Baltimore lawyer waiting in line to mail a check to a daughter at college. His arms were crossed, his forehead knotted -- an envelope bearing a 29-cent stamp in his right hand.
Westminster's post office also ran out of 3-cent stamps, and clerks were selling the one-two combination until their postmaster, Richard Jozwiak, arrived shortly past 4 p.m. with 70,000 more. He said he drove to the Stamp Distribution Office in Dulles, Va., to get them personally yesterday -- realizing that it would have taken two days to get them by mail.
"I wanted to be prepared," he said. "It would be embarrassing to run out of stamps."
Many customers waited nearly an hour in lines that snaked through the foyer to five windows staffed by harried clerks.
"Forget it. The bills can wait and I can't," said one man after catching a glimpse of the line.
"I counted at least 50 people who walked out the door as soon as they saw the lines," said Anne Richardson, who held a stack of mail that needed additional postage. "If we can't purchase the stamps we need,we should be able to use what we have."
But Richard Dixon, the local post office's customer service supervisor, said he would exhaust all resources before considering her suggestion -- and another 40,000 stamps were on the way.
The postal version of the holy grail may cost 32 cents and 3 cents, but the stamps bear no numbers. They carry the letter 'G' -- seventh letter of the alphabet, representing the seventh in a series of unpriced stamps issued for the seven rate increases since 1977.
About three billion 32-cent 'G' stamps have been minted -- "Glory" stamps, some call them, for their image of the U.S. flag and the words "Old Glory" under it. A smaller, 3-cent 'G' stamp was issued, showing a dove with an olive branch in its beak and labeled "G-rate make-up stamp."
The 'G' stamps are good only for domestic mail, because foreign countries require that the amount of postage be printed on stamps. (International postal rates have not yet been increased.)
Not everyone had to stand in line for the new stamps. At the Bel Air post office near Harford Mall, two dozen cars were lined up at drive-through window.
But the wait for those standing in the lobby was not very long.
In the nearby town of Abingdon, post office supervisor Colleen Knott said customers didn't seem to mind the short wait. "They are not complaining. Some of them are even having fun," she said.
There were sources for stamps other than the post office too. At a commercial Postman Plus store in Bel Air, employee Pat Brehm said 1,000 3-cent stamps had been sold by noon and some customers were turned away.
"People are buying up larger supplies than we thought they would," he said.
At Roland Park's post office on Deepdene Road, Bettie Heisey, a 39-year-old real estate agent from Timonium, saw the half-hour line as "very poor planning."
"Maybe it's my fault," she said, "but you couldn't get 3-cent stamps over the weekend, and I'm not going
to put two 29-cent stamps on my gas bill."
John Foran, 70, of Baltimore was among those customers who decided to drive around searching for that "magical post office with a shorter line."
"I've been to three other post offices throughout the city and Baltimore County, and I came down to the bigger, main post office in hopes of finding a shorter line," he said, waiting in line at Baltimore's main post office on East Fayette Street. "But here I stand after waiting 20 minutes at a bigger building in a longer line."
Becky Sander, a 37-year-old coordinator with the city's Headstart program, blamed herself for having to wait in line at the Hampden post office on West 34th Street.
"I take responsibility for not getting my stamps earlier," she said.