Even for cold-hearted capitalists for whom the purpose of human existence is to make money, the slow death of the United States Postal Service should give pause. The USPS is about to shut half of the 487 American mail-processing centers, which means there will no longer be any guarantee of next-day delivery for first-class letters. Which is another way of saying there’s a broad infection in the USPS for which there is no cure. The patient, although now on life support, is doomed. The cause is simple: People no longer write letters. (As an aside, Netflix will finally be able to get its way and, proclaiming that it wasn’t their fault, abandon the mail part of its business.)
Patrick Donahoe, the postmaster general, explains that the Postal Service is in trouble because the post office has “a business model that’s tied to the past.” No kidding. And to solve its problems requires rolling time backwards—to the golden age before e-mail, when Grandma reached for her fountain pen to write a letter with fully developed paragraphs, using the elegant penmanship learned in a one-room schoolhouse. In her letter to her kids (who’d moved to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles), she’d succinctly describe how the farm was surviving even though there was a drought, adding at the end that there was no need to worry and she couldn’t wait to hear back about what everyone was up to. Donahoe, knowing this kind of Grandma no longer exists, proposes closing about 10 percent of the nation’s 32,000 post offices, reducing postal deliveries from six days a week to five, and cutting the post office work force of 653,000 employees by more than 15 percent.
Anyone who’s visited, even briefly, a small town in, say, upstate New York, understands that the post office marks the center of the town—the place where the town denizens go on a daily basis not to mail intimate letters (those days disappeared a long time ago), or even necessarily to pay bills, but to chew the fat. The post office functions as a kind of shrink—a talking and listening place where people go to ease the unsettling, quiet pain that haunts the human soul.
The death of the post office will destroy these informal community-centers-cum-psychiatrists. It also will mark the moment in history when Americans officially gave up on the epistolary exchange, where the writing, mailing and receiving of real letters, with its necessary slowness, generates a kind of prose that cannot be replicated in instantaneous electronic mail communication. More absurdly—stay with me here, for this is a big reach—the official end of writing real letters back and forth stands for the modern loss of the kinds of yearnings addressed in Plato’s Symposium, where human longing is directed at completion in something outside the self, rather than self-expression or self-absorption.
Why, living in an age of efficiency, practicality and problem-solving, should I end on such a sorrowful, philosophical note? OK, I won’t. Let me propose a solution. To save the post office, we should ask Starbucks to take it over. That way, when stopping in to see if they’ve got any mail, people could order a coffee and a pastry, go on the Internet and linger a little longer. Meanwhile, the Starbucks Post Office could set up a national system whereby it uses the drawings of grammar-school children, from all over the country, as designs both for stamps and mugs.
Although this would put out of business the artists who currently make a living designing stamps, as well as mug designers, it would inspire schoolchildren, who love sticky things like stamps and tacky things like mugs with art on them, to make art that ends up on a stamp or a mug.
If Mr. Donahoe would like to pay me for this idea, he can write me a letter saying the check’s in the mail.