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Jennifer Xu: Mailing it in

By Jennifer Xu, Columnist
Published February 18, 2013

Come Aug. 1, the United States Postal Service will no longer be engaging in Saturday mail delivery. The post office will still be open for the purchase of stamps and shipments, and packages will still hurtle their way across state borders, but letters — those slim, stiff folds of paper — will no longer be part of the weekend delivery flow.

The fact that the U.S. Postal Service has been steadily going bankrupt is not news: For every day it has remained open in 2012, the post office lost a cool $36 million. Multiply that a couple hundred times and you get an annual $15.9 billion deficit. Not much of a surprise that an institution with such massive fiscal failures would want to shut down a couple days out of the year. No, the real surprise was how upset I got over the announcement.

I’ve only recently started appreciating the benefits of living a few steps away from the post office. Years of accumulating on-sale clothing that doesn’t fit me has culminated in my creation of an eBay seller’s account; I’ve now become increasingly well-versed in all things bubble wrap, Paypal subsidization and the weight limits of First Class Mail.

I’m hesitant to bemoan the loss of letter-based contact because paper messages, in my eyes, are kind of overrated. I mean, so what if war wives no longer write tearstained love letters to their sweethearts, opting instead to jot down their best wishes in a concisely composed e-mail or sepia-toned Instagram pic? We don’t cry that we no longer use the telegram to convey our Morse code-encrypted emergencies, so I don’t see why the death of a letter should result in any kind of call to arms.

The post office has always symbolized a tangential mode of communication anyway — whether it’s a text, e-mail, chat message or letter, they’re all a way of saying flirty nothings to someone without actually speaking to them. While not necessarily a bad thing, such is the truth of the letter. Even when we stand in line on Christmas Eve, silently clutching the care packages we’ve carefully assembled for our loved ones, speaking is pretty much taboo. We can exchange knowing glances about the length of the wait or incompetency of the postal workers, but rarely is the companionable silence broken with someone asking you: Oh, hey, what’s in that duct-taped box you have there?

But the post office is, in a large sense, a community. The first time I filed my taxes, I did it with the help of the good old USPS. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail could have prepared me for the gala of smiles, coffee and powdered donuts that preceded my envelope’s fortuitous drop into the mailbox. Huddled amongst the other last-minute taxpayers, I felt like we were really connecting.

And I think what really upset me about the announcement was what the change symbolized, that this bizarre little community of secondary communication was steadily downsizing, one day at a time. That basically, the communiqués we used to seal so lovingly have dissolved into digital bytes.

Detractors say that the post office is an obsolete institution. Such remarks pain me, because USPS is trying — really trying — to take steps into the 21st century. Mail is less frequently lost and delivery is faster and more precise. And the new touch-screen machines are heaven-sent; I don’t have to wait in line in order to buy stamps or weigh a package anymore. It’s in and out in a matter of minutes: touch, pay, print, stick and drop in the box — done.

So that’s why the loss of Saturday delivery, to me, is a big deal. Because the postal service isn’t some fuddy-duddy institution with its head buried in the sand; it’s making adjustments, daily, in response to our digi-addled universe. That’s what makes the final outcome so depressing: that despite USPS’s plucky attempts to adapt and evolve to the new world, it’s still failing — miserably.

I’m certainly not saying we’re entitled to Saturday mail delivery if the government has to lose more than $30 million a day to keep these institutions open, but it’s distressing to know that one-sixth of the days I can receive mail has been forevermore curtailed. R.I.P., my Saturday pre-approved credit cards.

Jennifer Xu can be reached at jennifxu@umich.edu.