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Friday, May 16, 2014

Going Postal

So here I am in scenic San Francisco, a city, in which, for all intents and purposes, I should be allowed to live in just because I really like it here. I like the fact that it is probably the most liberal, progressive, and environmentally friendly place on earth. A place where you can’t buy a single serving plastic bottle of water. A place where you bring your own bags to the grocery store or pay a fee for a paper one. A place where the majority of taxi cabs are not Crown Victorias, but rather, Priuses. A place where, up until a couple years ago, you were allowed to walk around buck naked in the street if you wanted to. They reversed that law when they realized that it was the people you really didn’t want to see naked who were the ones availing themselves of that law. If you’ve ever been to a nude beach, you’ve read that book.

But the paradox about San Francisco is: you have to be stinkin’ rich to afford to live here. Rents are so high that if they fell out the window, they would die. If you want to live here, you have to be a super smart rich kid who takes a luxury wi-fi-enabled coach to your systems analyst job at eBay, a place where poor people go to try to sell their old underwear. The toilets on these coaches actually use Dom Perignon for flushing fluid.
So when the low-to-moderate income Bills come to San Francisco, they stay in a hotel kind of place where the rooms are still less than a hundred dollars a day. This place is rated minus three stars and is so sad that travel sites like Expedia and Hotwire don’t even list it. This place is so below mediocre that when friends pick us up, due to embarrassment, we meet them in front of the Motel 6. We would meet them in front of the Fairmont, but really, who’s kidding whom?

One thing we like to do is send postcards to friends and relatives. Most of these postcards have pictures of places tourists like to go to like Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, and the 
Motel 6.

So yesterday we went to a post office to buy six postcard stamps. When we got there we were pleased to find a line with only one person ahead of us. The post office had a nice display of sub-American Greetings, dollar-store quality greeting cards for sale.

“Why is the post office selling cards?” Other Bill asked to no one in particular, but I decided I should answer it, or else the man in front of us would.

“If you were as financially strapped as the US Postal Service, you’d be selling your underwear on eBay just to make a penny.”

Because it was a US post office, there were no postal clerks behind the counter. They were all in the back performing pension payout calculations with variables of different dates of retirement. Either that, or they were just slacking off.

The man in front of us shifted from foot to foot, restlessly. Apparently, he had been waiting a long time for a clerk to come out and tender his resignation and retire. To our good luck, eventually there appeared in the lobby what looked like a postal clerk. This meant that she was dressed in postal garb, with a little patch of an eagle on her starched blue shirt.

She also answered the looming question, “What looks like a postal clerk but isn’t?” The answer we learned (and I will explain about later) is “A Postal Lobby Assistant.” Sadly, this is an actual job, and not just a punchline to the riddle.

The Postal Lobby Assistant asked the long-waiting man in front of us what he needed today.

The now-testy man said, “Do you have a stamp machine here?”

“I beg your pardon?” said the PLA, who seemed outraged that there was such a machine in existence.

“A stamp machine. All I need is one stamp for this bill.”

“No, sir,” said the PLA, who wrote something down on a scrap of paper. “But if you hand this to the next available employee, they’ll be happy to help you.”

“What is this?” asked the tired man.

“That’s what tells the associate what you need.”

“Well, hell, I don’t need that,” the old man said. “I can tell them myself what I need. I just need a stamp!”

“Well someone will be right with you,” lied the lobby assistant, and then she moved on to the next in line, which was us.

So the Postal Lobby Assistant position is basically an English-to-English translator of goods and services. Apparently the Postmaster General came to the conclusion that all postal clerks had IQ’s of 30 or lower and were incapable of comprehending customers' needs, but miraculously could still read the handwriting of an over-30-IQ Postal Lobby Assistant, and thus the position was born.

Before she could speak (or lie) to us, Other Bill made a pre-emptive strike and asked, an in incensed postal customer tone, “Is anyone working behind the counter?”

“What?” asked the PLA. Apparently she was partially deaf. I know she wasn’t stupid, because her IQ, by job description alone, was over 30.

“I said, is there anyone working behind the counter?”

“Oh yes. They’re just helping other customers,” said the PLA, lying through her insured teeth. “Now what can I help you with?”

She prepared her pencil and her scrap of paper, which was a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of an officially sanctioned US Postal Service form called a Lobby Assistant Checklist (see photo above).

“I just want six postcard stamps,” said Other Bill.

She wrote down on her scrap, “6 postcard stamps.” Apparently on the Lobby Assistant Checklist, there is no check box for stamps, because most people who go to the post office are there to order the veal cutlet, not stamps.

“Very well, is that all you need?” said the Assistant, as if she were actually doing something to help us.

Other Bill shrugged and said, “I guess that’s it.”

The Assistant then moved to the next person in line, which was now expanding.

At last, one postal clerk had realized that it was not his day to retire, and he came out and began a lengthy, drawn out philosophical discussion with a customer already at the counter about the five vs. nine digit zip code agenda. This diatribe forced the impatient man with the one-stamp need to give up and leave in a huff, muttering something about getting a got-dammed stamp faster at Walgreens.

“So, what, postal clerks can read English but they can’t understand it?” I rhetorically asked Other Bill. We just stood there laughing, and I insisted that he not give up the Lobby Assistant Checklist, but speak in his own voice when our time came.

Finally the one clerk behind the counter invited us to his domain and asked, “What can I help you with today?”

“I’d like six postcard stamps, please,” Other Bill requested.

“For Europe?” asked the clerk.

Apparently, postal clerks have been coached on confusing customers to get them to pay more for stuff they don’t need. Either that, or it was our Nordic broad shoulders, gleaming white teeth and thick blond hair that made the clerk think we were Scandinavian and were sending home well wishes.

“No, domestic, please,” I said.

“I think I have some,” he said, digging through his drawer. He rang us up and handed us our stamps, and we walked away. I looked down at the stamps.

There were four there, not six. We went back to the window.

“You said four,” the clerk told us.

“No, I said six,” Other Bill insisted.

“Oh okay, so you want two more?”

“Yes please,” said Other Bill. I paid him the change and got my two stamps, along with an apologetic glassine envelope to put all six stamps in.

As we exited through the glass doors onto Geary Street, Other Bill said, “See, if you had let me use the Lobby Assistant Checklist, he would have gotten the order right the first time.”

We laughed and headed to the Safeway. There was no way I was going to surrender that checklist. I needed it for this story.

That was yesterday. Today we walked up to the FedEx store and stood behind one person to get the Postal Lobby Assistant Checklist scanned to a jpg file.

“I’ll be right with you,” said the woman behind the counter.

“No hurry,” I said. Less than a minute later another FedEx employee came to the counter, apologized for making us wait, and then scanned the file to my thumb drive and charged us 97 cents. She then thanked us again for waiting patiently.

And unbelievably, she performed the entire transaction without having anyone to write it up for her.

I was going to say something about how the feds could learn something from private industry, but I guess that’s already implied.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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