Bryson's America: What's great about the US postal service? Doughnuts

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ONE OF the pleasures of living in a small, old-fashioned New England town is that you usually get a small, old-fashioned post office. Ours is particularly agreeable. It's in an attractive federal-style brick building, grand but not flashy, that looks like a post office ought to.

It even smells nice - a combination of gum adhesive and old central heating turned up a little too high. The counter staff are always briskly efficient and pleased to give you an extra piece of sticky tape if it looks as if your envelope flap might peel open. Moreover, American post offices deal only with postal matters - they don't concern themselves with pensions, car tax, family allowances, TV licences, passports, lottery tickets or any of the hundred other things that make a visit to any British post office such a popular, all-day event and provide a fulfilling and reliable diversion for chatty people who enjoy nothing so much as a good long hunt in their purses and handbags for exact change. Here there are never any queues and you are in and out in minutes.

Best of all, once a year every American post office has a Customer Appreciation Day. Ours was yesterday. I had never heard of this wonderful custom, but I was taken with it immediately. The employees had hung up banners, put out a long table with a nice checkered cloth and laid on a generous spread of doughnuts, pastries and hot coffee - all of it free.

It seemed a wonderfully improbable notion, the idea of a faceless government bureaucracy thanking me and my fellow townspeople for our patronage, but I was impressed and grateful - and, I must say, it was good to be reminded that postal employees are not just mindless automatons who spend their days mangling letters and whimsically sending my royalty cheques to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba, but rather are dedicated, highly trained individuals who spend their days mangling letters and sending my royalty cheques to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba.

Anyway, I was won over utterly. Now I would hate for you to think that my loyalty with respect to postal delivery systems can be cheaply bought with a chocolate twirl doughnut and a styrofoam cup of coffee, but, in fact, it can. Much as I admire the Royal Mail, it has never once offered me a morning snack, so I have to tell you that as I strolled home from my errand, wiping crumbs from my face, my thoughts towards American life in general and the US Postal Service in particular were pretty incomparably favourable.

But, as nearly always with government services, it couldn't last. When I got home, the day's mail was on the mat. There among the usual copious invitations to acquire new credit cards, save a rainforest, become a life member of the National Incontinence Foundation, add my name (for a small fee) to the Who's Who of People Named Bill in New England, examine without obligation Volume One of Great Explosions, help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign and the scores of other unsought inducements, special offers and solicitations involving naff little adhesive rectangles with my name and address already printed on them which arrive each day at every American home - and you really cannot believe the volume of junk mail that you receive in this country nowadays - well, among all this clutter and detritus was a forlorn and mangled letter that I had sent 41 days earlier to a friend in California, care of his place of employment, and that was now being returned to me marked "Insufficient Address - Get Real and Try Again" or words to that effect.

At the sight of this I issued a small despairing sigh, and not merely because I had just sold the US Postal Service my soul for a doughnut. It happens that I had recently read an article on wordplay in the Smithsonian magazine in which the author asserted that some puckish soul had once sent a letter addressed, with playful ambiguity, to




and it had got there after the American postal authorities worked out that it was to be read as "John Underhill, Andover, Mass." (Get it?)

It's a nice story, and I would truly like to believe it, but the fate of my letter to California, freshly returned after a 41-day adventure trip to the west, seemed to suggest a need for caution with regard to the postal service and its sleuthing abilities.

The problem with my letter was that I had addressed it to my friend merely "c/o Black Oak Books, Berkeley, California", without a street name or number because I didn't know either, I appreciate that that is not a complete address but it is a lot more explicit than "Hill John Mass" and anyway Black Oak Books is a Berkeley institution.

Anyone who knows the city - and I had assumed in my quaintly naive way that that would include the local postal authorities - would know Black Oak Books. But oh no. (Goodness knows, incidentally, what my letter had been doing in California for nearly six weeks, though it came back with a nice tan and an urge to get in touch with its inner feelings.)

Now just to give this plaintive tale a little heart-warming perspective let me tell you that not long before I departed from England, the Royal Mail had brought me, within 48 hours of its posting in London, a letter addressed to "Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales", which is a pretty impressive bit of sleuthing. (And never mind that the correspondent was a trifle off his head.)

So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me, but can tackle a challenge, and one that gives me free sticky tape and prompt service, but won't help me out when I can't remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there's nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I'm happy.

Now if you will excuse me I have to drive to Vermont and collect some mail from a Mr Bubba.

`Notes from a Big Country' (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)