The first time Casey Cep came to my attention, from the vantage point of our life in India, it was like reading a message from a future we had left behind. A couple months after that, a historical note of interest. Both times, I was captivated. Nearly seven years later, I am captivated and motivated by We Can’t Afford to Lose the Postal Service. I have been watching this story unfold during my adult lifetime, and while it is not the only ideology-driven frustration I have, it is one so wrapped in big picture history that the personal history here motivates me to respond by sharing:
I am probably one of the least consequential things my mother has ever delivered. She has two other daughters, for starters—one’s a public servant and the other is a special-education teacher. But she’s also spent her working life delivering love letters, college acceptances, medications, mortgage papers, divorce filings, gold bars, headstones, ashes, and care packages. In her thirty-eight years as a rural letter carrier with the United States Postal Service, she’s delivered just about everything you can legally send through the mail.
For twenty-seven of those years, she’s driven the same fifty miles five or six days every week, starting out at the post office and tracing Rural Route 5, bringing letters and packages to her five hundred and forty-five customers. Her best advice from all that driving is to carry duct tape, which can fix anything, and can even be made into a leash if you happen to find a lost dog. Her best day, she says, was a few years ago, when a retirement community got added to her route—a hundred and fifty-seven new customers, with stories and the time to tell them. The retirement home comes early in her fifty miles, but some days she stops again on her way home for longer visits, or heads back there on weekends for birthdays and anniversaries or to welcome someone home from the hospital.
My mother is so close with so many of the people who live along her route that they have always felt like second or third cousins to me—people I knew I was related to even if I didn’t see them very often. Mr. R. sent books home with her for me to read; the E. family pulled her jeep out of a snow drift and towed her back to the post office when her brakes failed; the F. family lost two children when their house burned down; Mrs. M. baked her bread and gave her iced tea in a to-go cup; the B. family had some landscaping work they wanted my father to do—and on and on through the years, a litany of routine or unexpected celebrations and tragedies and kindnesses. In the course of almost four decades, my mother has watched babies she saw come home from the hospital grow into adults who mail their parents Christmas letters with photographs of their own children, wondered whether a husband or wife or neither will stay in their house after a marriage ended, and seen grandchildren take over wheat farms from their grandparents.
Being a rural letter carrier suits my mother, and it enabled her to provide for a family like ours: it is a union job, with protections and benefits, insurance and vacation days, only modest raises but occasional overtime and reliable, transparent wages. It isn’t all wonderful; I was an adult before I noticed that the official vehicles she and her fellow-carriers drive do not have air-conditioning, and that her joints are already arthritic, her knees busted, her shoulders and back chronically sore, her gait wobbled by the wear and tear caused by hefting fifty-pound packages of dog food and forty-pound boxes of cat litter that are supposedly cheaper on Amazon than they are at the local store. Still, it is a better job than she thought she would ever have, and it allowed her to keep us in braces, allergy shots, X-rays, books, clothes, and movies. Eventually, it got her credit good enough to get us savings accounts and credit cards and loans.
My father, who is older and had been working longer than my mother had, was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers; my mother joined the National Rural Letter Carriers’ union as soon as she was eligible. They knew that whatever they hoped for their children, they themselves would always be labor, not management. So we were a union family: my parents spent a few nights a year at local meetings, and if we went on vacation it was to wherever the annual union convention was held that year—usually the beach near where we lived, in Maryland, although one year we drove all the way to Maine. While we three watched the miracle that was cable television or played mini-golf with Dad, my mother put on her Sunday best and spent her days doing what I later learned a lot of other people’s parents did all the time: attend meetings. To me, my mother suddenly seemed like an executive.
Unions are the most powerful advocate people like my parents have. That power is one of the reasons that, although the U.S.P.S. is by far the most popular government agency, it is the one most often threatened with extinction. My mother is about to retire, and I worry that the agency she has spent her life serving will be retired soon, too. The coronavirus, which has decimated the global economy, has not spared the Postal Service—and while shipping and package volume are on the rise, standard and bulk mail have plummeted, leaving the U.S.P.S. with increasing deficits. But if the coronavirus kills the Postal Service, its death will have been hastened, as so many deaths are right now, by an underlying condition: for the past forty years, Republicans have been seeking to starve, strangle, and sabotage it, hoping to privatize one of the oldest and most important public goods in American history.
Before they declared their independence, the American colonists decided that they needed a better way to communicate with one another. In the summer of 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, they created the Postal Service and named Benjamin Franklin its first Postmaster General. Where before letters or packages had to be carried between inns and taverns or directly from house to house, now there was a way for Americans to safely, discreetly, and reliably correspond across long distances. After the Revolution, when Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation, legislators included the Post Office in the ninth of those articles, and later enshrined it in the first article of the Constitution.
The Founders saw the Postal Service as an essential vehicle for other rights, especially the freedom of the press: one of the first postal laws set a special discounted rate for newspapers. But they also understood that a national post unifies a nation, allowing its citizens to stay connected and connecting them with their federal government. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young country several decades after its founding, he travelled partly by mail coach, noting in “Democracy in America” how “the mail, that great link between minds, today penetrates into the heart of the wilderness.”
But the mail didn’t just follow American settlers into the wilderness—it also led to the transformation of the frontier. The constitutional authority that created the Postal Service allowed for the construction of post roads to link faraway cities; eventually, these ran all the way from Florida to Maine. A few of those essential byways survive, some of them obvious in their names, like the Old Albany Post Road and the Boston Post Road. Later, that authority was interpreted more broadly to justify federal investment in railroads and highways. During its long history, the Postal Service has delivered the mail by pony express, mule train, float planes, ferry boats, motorcycles, skis, hovercrafts, and pneumatic tubes. There were only seventy-five post offices at the nation’s founding, but by the time the Civil War started there were more than twenty-eight thousand spread around the country…
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