The U.S. Postal System is struggling to stay alive and remain relevant these days with FedEx and UPS keenly competitive, with cell phones everywhere and with email and social media at the center of personal relationships.  The post-office, in comparison, appears slow, stodgy and decidedly old-fashioned.  (It arrives but once a day; the others operate continuously.)  What’s keeping it afloat is 1st Class Mail, though as postal rates continue to climb, that service, too, may be in jeopardy.

Still, with all the competition and the grousing about flyers and “junk” mail, the experience of receiving mail six days a week remains enormously appealing, especially among older people and retirees whose connections to the “outside world” tend to shrink with each passing year.  That was confirmed for me recently while strolling the hallways of a local residential building.  One woman, somehow sensing my presence, opened her front door to ask whether the mail had come.  “I just saw the postman,” I replied, and assured her he was heading toward her section of the building.  She was pleased; she’d receive her mail shortly.

Next I observed another woman approach her mailbox, open it, then walk away, clearly disappointed.  “Nothing today”, she declared forlornly.  I felt sad for her.  On other occasions I have noticed how anxious and visibly upset people can become when the mail is “late” and how often they’ll venture out to the mailbox before the postman finally arrives.  That’s because “getting the mail” for so many is deeply woven into the orderly fabric of daily life.  For that reason, delays and disruptions can be unsettling.

People can’t be sure of what the mail will bring.  Part of its allure is this mystery along with heightened expectations.  We await checks that “are in the mail”.  Also packages with items we’ve ordered along with our favorite magazines.  We still look forward to birthday wishes and cards celebrating other happy events.  We’re pleased to receive invitations to parties, weddings and reunions.  Also, postcards from people on vacation and, more rarely now, personal, handwritten letters.  (Once upon a time much awaited love letters flowed back and forth.)  Many of us remember the delight when receiving letters from our kids at summer camp, and also how anxious we were day after day while awaiting word from colleges to which we had applied.

Of course, the mail does bring bad tidings as well.  Just listen as people, upon emptying their mailboxes, complain that it’s “all bills”.  Though expected, they are not welcome.  But there are also the “shockers” – including bills much higher than usual, as well as the surprise exactions, say, from the IRS or local property assessments and tax bills, or additional “late penalties”, or exorbitant medical charges.

The United States Postal System may not, in its present form, survive.  More rapid and less expensive modes of communication could replace it.  But that surely would upset tens of millions of Americans for whom daily mail delivery has long been a reliable, a reassuring and stable feature of their lives.

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