The United States Post Office (USPO) changed its name during the recent Great Recession to the United States Postal Service (USPS), for reasons which were never made clear to the public. But I can tell you that, instead of improving its Service with the name change, it has most seriously declined. To the point of absurdity. Make that Absurdity, as in where nothing in the world makes sense except to the uninvolved observer. And sometimes, not even to that person.
Yesterday, I had to mail two books to the UK, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know how much of the UK address is necessary for any object to reach its destination there. Furthermore, the USPS, still exactly like the USPO despite the change of name, has never updated its Customs Forms — though they’re intended only for International Mail — to include any other country besides the US and Canada. Still, I had to make a go of it: I had promised to mail some friends the books as gifts.
Books and addresses in hand, I gathered the materials I was told I would need, then went to a counter in the center of the room to fill everything out. There was rather a long line, and I didn’t want any other customers to have to wait behind me while I was trying to fill out the long Customs form. After I filled out both, I took my place in line again and went to the counter.
“Oh, no, you filled out the wrong Customs form,” said the Postal clerk who had given it to me himself. “You filled out the Long Form.”
“There’s more than one Customs Form?”
“You should have filled out the short one,” he said, sliding four of them across the counter to me.
“I have to fill out two for each package?”
“You gave me four. I only have two packages.”
“In case you make a mistake,” he said.
I took a deep breath. I let it out slowly and silently. Once again, I stepped to the side to fill in the forms. The Short Customs Form seemed identical to the Long Customs Form. One was simply on a larger piece of paper. Both had duplicates. Both requested the City, State/Province, and Country of Delivery, along with the Postal Code. Dutifully, I filled out the second set of required forms, now printing smaller and squeezing in the Postal Code into an area that couldn’t even hold 5 spaces, let alone 6, 7, or the 9 that’s required in the US’ Zip + 4, which was required for my address. I put the original forms into my bag, wanting the addresses to remain private, put the books in the boxes, and returned to the counter.
“You can’t use those boxes.”
“You gave them to me.”
“Those aren’t for International Mail.”
I pointed to the red printing on the box as I read it aloud: For International Mail Attach Customs Form in Place of Address Sticker.
“Nope. You have to use this,” said the clerk, handing me two cardboard envelopes.
“I’m mailing books.”
“Those are envelopes.”
“They’re for International Mail. You can step over to that empty counter. Here, these are the Address Forms for International Mail.”
“What about the Customs Forms?”
“Did you fill out the Short or the Long Forms?”
“Both, actually. Which do you need?”
“Where are the packages going?”
“Short. But you have to fill out these Address Forms to put onto the cardboard envelopes.”
By the time I unpacked the books from the boxes, put them into the envelopes, filled out yet another — even smaller — Address Form for each, I was sure I’d put the books into the wrong envelopes. I checked several times, but am still quite convinced that the books will end up in the incorrect places, and their recipients — who are expecting the books — will wonder why on earth I sent them some other books with cards to someone else. Meanwhile, almost 20 minutes after I first reached the USPO counter, I returned.
“International?” said the clerk, as if I had not been there three times already. “To what country?”
“Where’s that? New Zealand?”
“No. The UK.”
“T-h-e-U-K,” he said aloud as he typed. “Sorry. No The UK.”
“Did you try entering just UK?”
“U-K. Nope. No UK either.”
Though I had written Great Britain on the Customs Form next to UK — as well as on the Address Label — and he was looking at one or both of them as he typed, I said it aloud. He typed it in, then stared at me most solemnly.
“G-r-e-a-t-B-r-i-t-i-a-n. Nope. Nothing.”
“You spelled it wrong.”
“Are you sure?”
“You could read it off the Customs Form,” I said. “Or off the Address Label.”
He glanced down once more, typing one letter before looking down at the next, again saying each one as he typed it in.
“Nope. No Great Britain. Where are these books going?”
“To the UK.”
“We don’t have a UK.”
“To Great Britain.”
“Don’t have one of those either.”
I stared at him in silence while I thanked Buddha for giving me the opportunity to practice patience with the USPO-USPS clerk who apparently did not have to be either literate or very intelligent to earn his rather substantial salary.
“England,” I finally said. “Do you need me to spell it?”
He thought a moment before he began his laborious, one-finger, dictation-typing.
England and Ireland $24.97 popped up on the small screen facing me on the counter. Ouch, I thought when I saw the price. Still, the books were gifts. And the clerk had finally managed to find the correct country of destination. I attempted to smile.
“You found it.”
“Which one?” he said.
“Which one… what?”
“Which country is it going to: England or Ireland?”
“They’re the same price.”
“But I have to type in which country it’s going to.”
“England,” I said.
He typed in England once again. He told me the price, which was still showing England and Ireland $24.97 in front of me. He grabbed the next package.
“Going to the same place?”
“Not to the same city,” I said, “but to the same country.”
“And that is?”
I would like to tell you that he did not type it in again, that he just hit a Repeat button or something similar, that he did not make me listen to him spell out E-n-g-l-a-n-d as he typed in each letter, but I’m afraid that he repeated the performance. While I began to suspect that Godot might arrive before I managed to get the books sent out, the USPO clerk looked at the city I’d written on the second address label.
“Oh, London. That’s London, England?”
Somehow, I didn’t get the feeling that this particular postal clerk had ever heard of London, OH or London, KY or of any other London that might be located in the US. Actually, I was surprised he’d heard of London at all. Somehow, though, after 40 minutes with him, I wasn’t surprised that he’d asked me, once again, if it was in England. I submitted to fate and nodded.
England and Ireland $24.97 appeared a second time.
“Which one?” he said. “England?”
In Absurdist comedies, none of the characters ever laughs. Not in Beckett’s famous Waiting for Godot nor in Stoppard’s hysterical re-telling of Hamlet — told from the perspective of two minor characters in Shakespeare’s play — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The audience might laugh, but the characters do not. The major characters in those works know that their lives don’t make sense, that their lives don’t make sense though everyone else’s seems to, that the Universe itself doesn’t make sense — at least, no sense that they can ever grasp — and that, additionally, everyone else seems to understand all the things they themselves can’t figure out, but the major characters do not laugh.
I can assure you, I wasn’t laughing either.
The problem was, neither was the USPO-USPS clerk.
Yet the USPS wonders why it’s bankrupt and has had to close so many of its offices.
I wanted to thank Buddha again for this extended opportunity to practice patience with my fellow man, but I admit, rather ruefully, that I am not yet spiritually enlightened: instead, I was using every ounce of energy in my body not to reach the short distance over the counter, grab the clerk by the hair, and slam his face into the metal scale, gleefully imagining the broken nose that would result. The only thing that stopped me was the vague idea that assaulting an employee of the USPO-USPS might be a federal crime.
“I’ve never had anyone send anything to England,” he said as he apparently searched for the button to total my cost for postage, Customs, and insurance on the two packages. “Will you be sending packages there often?”
“No,” I said, meaning not from this particular branch of the USPO. “No, I will not.”
“Too bad,” he sighed. “Just when I learned how to find England.”