Technology fails holiday mail Delays: It's not so much a case of bad handwriting or faulty ZIP codes as it is certain flukes that get by fail-safe technology.


If you're wondering why that Christmas card you mailed across town seemed as if it traveled on a dogsled via the North Pole, Baltimore post office employees say you might blame the color of the envelope you selected or the way you write your sevens and not their work performance.

As Baltimoreans start mailing the annual avalanche of holiday greetings and packages -- this season's national tally is expected to reach nearly 19 billion pieces -- pause to consider the potential logjams that might ensnare postal materials this month.

Locally the U.S. Postal Service handles about 5 million pieces of mail each day, using optical scanners, bar codes and nine-digit ZIP codes, but all it takes is one bit of indigestible print to cause the mail giant to burp.

It is not so much a case of bad handwriting or faulty ZIP codes as it is certain flukes that get by fail-safe technology and gazillions of memory bytes.

A little line stroked through a "7" confuses the eyes and confounds the memory of the high-speed address readers that drone in the windowless main post office in downtown Baltimore.

The machines are programmed to do things a certain way, so when "7" is written in the European style, with a slash through the vertical part of the numeral, the reading devices interpret the number as a capital "F."

The folks on Aven Way in Baltimore County have a different problem.

"It was horrendous. My Visa and Discover bills came two or three weeks late. It was never explained to me what happened," said William Woods, a bartender who lives on Aven Way.

This street in a Baltimore County townhouse community off Belair Road confused, then stymied the computer's brain. The automated reading machines interpreted Aven as a variant of avenue and didn't know what to make of it.

"We figured it out, and it's fixed now," said Mark A. Clark, a postal electronic technician who has monitored some of these computer-brain-breaking situations.

The machines also are confounded by addresses such as "Pratt and Light streets" or "Beltway and Reisterstown Road."

"A lot of law firms think it is more prestigious to have a street corner address rather than a numbered address. Our machines read numbers and don't know what to make of a corner," said Clark.

The last stop for damaged mail and mail with an address so fouled up or torn off that no machine will accept it, is a work station deep inside the main post office on Fayette Street.

In Postal Service talk, the person who runs this correspondence limbo is known as a nixie unit clerk. Baltimore is down to one such person -- Stephanie King, a 20-year postal worker who has a lot of patience. She stands at an overflowing bin of shredded newspapers, mangled magazines and dogeared letters. She has be a handwriting expert and geography expert.

"I try to figure them out as well as I can," she says with one hand on an ADC Street Map Book of Baltimore.

One day recently she tried to discern the destination of a piece of mail sent from New Hampshire to "600 Coch Rayer Rd., Balionore, Md. 21234."

"I guess they mean Loch Raven, but it's still a bad address," she said.

Another department that sees its share of mystery mail carries the innocuous name of Claims and Inquiries and is the post office's strange cargo depot. This is the room where live chicks, active beehives, colonies of baby locusts and wasp nests arrive until they are claimed by their recipients, usually local science teachers.

This time of year it is not unusual for a Florida tourist to print an address (usually in white paint) on the hairy exterior of a coconut and add sufficient postage. The post office accepts such unorthodox materials as long as they meet certain rules. Coconut "giftees" must retrieve their tropical presents at the main post office.

Coconuts aside, virtually all mail today carries a bar code that has been affixed to it by a Postal Service machine. These machines -- called optical scanners -- can read printed or typewritten addresses. They are at a loss, however, with hand-written addresses on greeting cards and letters.

Hand-addressed mail was once read by human beings. It still is, but not the way you might think. Sorting machines separate that birthday card from the mound of mail with typed or printed addresses.

The cards and letters written by hand are put through a conveyor belt for orderly reading. The people who read (or decipher, if the handwriting is not clear) are in Greensboro, N.C. A facsimile of each hand-addressed letter is sent from Baltimore over special phone lines to these human readers.

The reader touches computer keyboard keys that impose a bar code on the back of the envelope in a bright neon color.

White- and cream-colored envelopes fare the best in the automated post office even though customers often use red and green envelopes around the holidays.

Green and red envelopes create havoc for the fax machines that transmit their image to Greensboro -- these colors reflect back at the camera. Shipman said the Postal Service has worked out a compromise with greeting card companies not to use these colors so much. You won't be seeing the colored envelopes in boxes of cards, but individual cards will still be sold.

"We addressed 250 different cards in red, green, blue and pastel colors and mailed them back in October. We used them as tests to fine-tune the system for the holiday season," said Shipman. His technicians observed how these test cards passed through Baltimore's optical scanner, then adjusted the machine's lens.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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