Out of America: Stamp of failure spoils golden memories of the Pony Express

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Maybe it was too many hours during my youth wasted on films glorifying Wells Fargo and the Pony Express, but I've always had a soft spot for the United States Postal Service. This was the country where the mail always got through, where, I remember reading somewhere, the safest way of keeping a valuable out of the hands of the bad guys was to pop it in the nearest blue mail box. For security and reliability, the postal service ranked right up there with Fort Knox and the Bank of England. Such was my belief, at least until certain recent goings-on in Chicago.

The Windy City has long been the black hole of the US postal system. Delivery may be worse elsewhere - with just six out of 10 letters delivered on time, Washington ranked bottom in a survey this month of first-class mail service.

But for consumer dissatisfaction Chicago is tops, as befits a city where an exasperated customer last year sent a letter of complaint to the Central Post Office at 433, West van Buren St, only to have the envelope returned marked 'No Such Address.' This winter though, matters got out of hand.

Caches of mail were found dumped in fields, burning under a railway viaduct and in the boot of a car belonging to a man who had worked for the Postal Service for 16 years. But, nothing beats the strange habits of former Chicago postman, Robert Beverly. A couple of months ago, firemen were called to tackle a blaze at his house. Jammed into a bedroom cupboard they found bag upon bag of undelivered mail. That was the start of it. Mr Beverly had squirrelled away more than a ton of the stuff - letters, junk mail and over 4,000 compact discs ordered by CD club members, almost from the day he joined the Postal Service in 1987.

Entering his guilty plea, Mr Beverly said he had been 'overwhelmed' by the amount of mail he had to handle, and proffered the interesting excuse that 'I thought I was buying myself time to deliver the mail at a later date'. The law, however, considers such dilatoriness to be theft, and Robert Beverly faces a two-year jail sentence.

Needless to say, his case is not the rule, and the heads of three top Chicago postal officials have already rolled. But the fiasco could not have come at a worse moment for Mr Beverly's beleaguered former employers, for the US postal service is fighting a losing battle for life.

Mail, claimed the Postmaster General, Marvin Runyon, not so long ago, 'is the one common thread that has made this country great'. But America has moved on. The US Post Office may well be the largest non-military employer on the planet, a dollars 50bn (pounds 33bn) business with 780,000 workers and 40,000 post offices - more outlets than McDonald's. Less charitably, it could be described as a bloated, inefficient creature of the junk-mail merchants, facing a record loss this year of dollars 2.4bn.

I've never lived in a place where you get so much mail as here. But quantity is in inverse proportion to quality. Half of it must be junk mail, albeit skilfully personalised ('You, Rupert Cornwell, can win dollars 10m . . .').

Then there are bills, which one day must disappear as this country gets around to bank direct debiting. Old-fashioned letters and parcels, the core business of the Post Office, are shrinking. For fast delivery, businesses, including the federal government, may use private rivals like Federal Express. Newspaper home delivery is done by private courier. Then there is computer E-mail and the fax, whose share of business mail is one third and rising. All of this leaves the US Post Office in a jam. Mr Runyon insists it will remain essential, especially to rural or poor areas, which can never be profitable for the private sector.

But the only growth area now is junk mail: to flourish, the postal service must hook up with interactive television. Later this year, Orlando, Florida will witness an experiment whereby the mailman will deliver groceries ordered by customers on two-way cable television.

The Post Office in the home-delivery pizza business? For those of us weaned on the movies, it is an unappetising prospect. But compared with the mail system as it has operated in Chicago, you can call it progress.