‘Your mail is here in a bucket:’ Why are Brooklyn post offices so terrible?

'Your mail is here in a bucket:' Why are Brooklyn post offices so terrible?

The Crown Heights post office sure is a welcoming place. Photo by Andy Beaudoin/Brokelyn.

In the pre-internet, pre-home computer era of my pre-teens, I wrote a lot of letters. At my peak, I was courting 11 different pen pals, filing their correspondence in a shoebox. My grandparents would give me stationery sets for most birthdays and holidays, which I would use to send them thank you notes and ask for Barbies. Sending and receiving mail was a hobby, a pillar of friendship, and the only way to express your deepest desires (e.g. Jem!) to the people who could fulfill them. Flash forward our current age in which communication with your loved ones is so easy that you can do it by accident with your butt, and my sentiments persist: a letter is worth a thousand likes. The only problem is that actually getting your mail in Brooklyn can be a maddening experience, and it’s not getting better anytime soon, because in case you haven’t heard, the post office is broke.

Here’s how that translates down to the local level: In late fall 2015, a week went by where I didn’t receive any mail at all. Not a single bill from Time Warner, campaign postcard for Lincoln Restler, or baby wolf calendar from the Sierra Club. Something was amiss. I called my Greenpoint post office and they told me that the mailman was on vacation for three weeks.

“So, is there like a ‘substitute’ mailman?” I asked.

“Yea,” the mail lady said. “But he doesn’t have a key to your building.”

“I’m expecting some very important real letters,” I said. Wishful thinking, but I didn’t want to rule it out. “How do I get my mail?”

“Your mail is here!” she said “All of your building’s mail is here at the post office.”

“It’s at the post office?”

“Yea. It’s here, it’s in a bucket! You can come and get it.”

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Your mail is in a bucket, come and get it. (Photo by Bridget McFadden/Brokelyn)

Your mail is in a bucket, come and get it. (Photo by Bridget McFadden/Brokelyn)

This was not how I remembered the postal service working, but it had been a long time since my pen-pal days. I rearranged my work schedule a bit to make a special trip to my local Post Office during operating hours, arriving at 9am sharp. I explained my situation to several different clerks behind the counter, waited, wrote my name down on a slip of paper, and waited some more. After about 15 minutes, a woman came out of the backroom.

“There’s no BUCKET.”

I went home, letter-less.

For the next two weeks my mailbox remained empty, and I pursued the matter on and off. Finally, I got a woman on the phone who seemed to know something. She listened to my story, whispered “Don’t tell anyone I told you this. . .” and gave me a secret phone number with specific instructions for what time to call and what to say. I was fully prepared — actually pretty amped — to call the secret number and find my mail. But I didn’t have to. That night when I got home from work I was greeted by three weeks’ worth of mail for 11 apartments piled in a giant heap at the foot of the stairs.

I’m not the only one who has gone a tad postal trying to retrieve packages in the borough. Brokelyn writer Katy once had to head to a place of urban legend – the collection center in Maspeth – to retrieve a replacement cell phone.

“I was the last person in line who got served that day, and it was like the Hunger Games behind me,” she told me.

Brokelyn’s Pascal had it even worse. When his neighborhood in Canarsie got pummeled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, his mail service was seriously derailed, causing important graduate school paperwork to go missing and delaying his enrollment by nine months.

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The whole experience is frustrating and complicated, and it can be difficult to determine which machine to rage against. Is the postal service even necessary? We pay our bills online, get banking notifications on our iPhones, read the newspaper on a tablet. Lots of people can’t afford to live their life online and rely on the post office, but those numbers are shrinking all the time as technology becomes more affordable. And for those who do rely on it, is it even doing them any good? Is it worth dumping money into a sort-of anachronistic system just for the sake of perpetuating that fucking enormous Restoration Hardware catalog?

Yes. Yes, it is. And you know why? The romance that comes in the mystery, excitement or remoteness from everyday life that can be communicated via real mail. Silicon Valley produces things that are shiny and buzzy and meant to make our lives “easier” and “faster,” but not all expressions of the human heart are meant to be easy and fast and zapped into each other’s faces 24/7 demanding instant reactions.

Often those same emotions are best received in a letter – something you can hold in your hand and read slowly in the breeze of an open window without pop-up ads from Priceline clamoring for your attention. We may not send and receive these kinds of letters on a regular basis, but you know what? Without the post office we never will.

A few years ago I got a three-page letter from my cousin. The first two pages were jokes and stories, and on the third page she shared the news that she was expecting a baby. I’ve seen a lot of Facebook ultrasound birth announcements since then, but that letter is the one I remember the most. There’s something to be said for writing down your thanks, hopes, and big announcements, and releasing them into the universe, trusting that they’ll be received. We need to work in solidarity with the post office to keep our hearts, minds, and letters out of the bucket.

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Some things can’t be emailed – like this box of botanical non-toxic cleaning products from my Mom. 36 stamps. (Photo by Bridget McFadden/Brokelyn)

Some things can’t be emailed – like this box of botanical non-toxic cleaning products from my Mom. 36 stamps. (Photo by Bridget McFadden/Brokelyn)

But how exactly do we save it? According to Devin Leonard of Bloomberg Businessweek, the troubled USPS is in need of legislative change.

“It’s the biggest mail delivery operation in the world, in history. If it was a private company it would be number 43 on the Fortune 500 list, but they can’t control their prices,” he said in that Businessweek report. “It’s drowning in red tape.”

A recent New Yorker piece emphasizes that the postal service “was once central to our social, financial and intellectual lives,” especially in the 1800s when the postal service system expanded significantly and prompted a spike in the number of Americans filing patents. The post office as a concept is smart: it’s the government saying that it will subsidize the ability of its people to get ideas, information, physical items and physical proof of ideas and information from point A to point B.

Between this most-sensible premise and the fact that the postal service “still has infrastructural might, in the form of a highly interconnected network of well-placed buildings and people,” the service could totally return to glory. In fact, the USPS has a special agency that has been cooking up ways it might leverage this impressive infrastructure to stay afloat – like having its employees deliver groceries or medicine to elderly people.

Or what about Bernie Sanders’ proposal that the USPS offer basic financial services, such as check cashing? It’s another compelling idea in a country where nearly 60 percent of post office branches are in zip codes with one or no banks, according to the New Yorker, forcing people to hit up check-cashing spots or payday lenders that charge obscene rates. This is also called “postal banking” and is common in Asia and Europe.

Congress doesn’t seem that interested in trying to fix the postal service by getting creative and experimenting. But getting creative and experimenting is Brooklyn’s M.O., guys. We have to take matters into our own hands and make Brooklyn’s post offices as hip as the zip codes they serve.

I’m going to start this off, but I am barely scratching the surface of the goods and services that could be offered to inject some energy and cash into the good old USPS.

Here are some other proposals for things the Brooklyn post office could offer to stay alive:

-Medicine and grocery delivery is a great idea. Let’s take it a step further and team up with the farmers markets. The sick, elderly and immobile need fresh veggies more than anybody.

-Vinyl record size priority mail boxes. Your non-Brooklyn based friends and family are probably living in a vinyl desert, but with the perfect-sized boxes you could send them regular shipments and share the vintage wealth.

-Furniture delivery services. I’m thinking strong-man-with-a-van local partnerships. Native pros who specialize in walk-ups and fitting big stuff through your small doorways that you could arrange via your local post office.

-Artisanal flavored stamps: fennel, street meat, Campari, lavender BBQ, bagels.

-Stagecoaches. Do we need to remind everyone how badass the Pony Express was? (Fees apply)

Why not? If these guys can make the subway hip, there is definitely hope for the post office.

What’s your biggest Brooklyn post office horror story? Let us know in the comments!

3 Comment

  • Ironically, the mail is the one form of communication not blanket-monitored by the federal intelligence agencies. So they’ve got that going for them.

  • I picked up exactly one package from the Bushwick post office, and that’s all it took for me to have all packages sent to me at work. Never again.

  • This article absolutely reeks of blind white privilege. Shame on you, Bridget and Brokelyn.