Celebrating America's freedom, peanut butter and the postal service

A foreign student I knew in college said he loved America for three reasons: our freedoms, the quality of our peanut butter and the excellence of our postal service. He thought it was cool that we could gather and protest anything we wanted to, whenever we wanted to. He thought the famous brands of peanut butter on the supermarket shelves were all good. And he was absolutely amazed that he could mail a letter from Connecticut on a Monday and have it reach almost anywhere in the country by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest.

And this was a Canadian talking — not someone who'd escaped the Soviet bloc.

It's the Fourth of July, and let us pause to appreciate our freedoms, our bounty and our quality of life, particularly the latter, and particularly the mail.

Americans have always complained about the postal service, and I've had my issues with it from time to time. But, all things considered, when you step back and regard mail delivery over the years, throughout the American story, it rises to something like a daily miracle. Complaints about it are a measure of how spoiled we are.

Before cable television, and long before the Internet, those of us who grew up in small towns, big cities and the still-new suburbs appreciated the postal service as daily proof of the country and the world: Men and women in government-issued uniforms appeared six days a week with letters and documents, catalogues and magazines from far-off places. A brother's letter from California showed up in three days; a letter from a pen pal in England or a great-aunt in Portugal arrived within seven or eight days.

As the country grew, from about 180 million in 1960 to about 308 million in 2010, so did the challenge to the uniformed drivers, sorters and carriers. Along the way, the U.S. Postal Service went from a tax-supported federal agency to a semi-independent one, but on the street we hardly noticed a difference. The country grew, and the mail kept coming, even on Saturdays.

Of course, the rest is the history we're living now — Internet, email, on-line banking and bill-paying, the decline of the hand-written letter, life at warp speed. And so the USPS is in big trouble, losing billions annually and trying to restructure so that it can survive.

Americans get terribly conflicted about the postal service. We know the world has changed. To some of us, the sight of the uniformed carrier seems almost anachronistic.

And yet, we don't want to let go.

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, citizens and politicians have lined up to save a postal hub slated for a major staff reduction and a change in service under a regional consolidation plan. Postal officials, citing the agency's losses, want to move processing and distribution facilities (and about 50 jobs) from Easton to Baltimore. They want to send a similar number of jobs to other sites, and leave only about 24 workers in Easton to load and unload trucks.

This means Eastern Shore mail will be sent across the Bay Bridge to Baltimore and shipped back to the Eastern Shore, and that sounds just crazy to a lot of people.

There was a public meeting on the proposal a couple of weeks ago at the Easton High School auditorium, and hundreds of people turned out, according to the Star-Democrat newspaper. The meeting lasted three hours and almost every kind of frustration — about the postal service, the economy, the changing world, and life on the Shore — seemed to be expressed during that time. Everyone who spoke was opposed to the plan.

According to the Star-Democrat, several speakers wanted to know why the Easton hub would no longer sort mail if it is rated as more efficient than Baltimore's. And if the Eastern Shore is growing, why pull back on service?

"Are we not worthy of the prompt service simply because we live on the wrong side of the bay?" asked Cambridge Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley.

Rising in opposition, Allen Nelson, president of the Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, expressed something counter to most of the thinking we've seen in the age of downsizing: "No successful business will cut its way to success. Cutting costs and services will simply lead to disaster."

As I said, Americans are conflicted about this — we don't use the postal service as much as we used to, we know it has to make big changes to survive, and yet we don't want to let go.



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