Things I Learned at the Post Office

March 12, 2008

I send exactly one letter a year: a signature form to the IRS to say that yes, indeed, I have eFiled my taxes. Other than that, I use the Internet, and to a smaller part mobile phones, for all of my communications. It's faster, easier, and significantly cheaper.

Walking into the post office, I felt as my Mom must feel when she comes with me to Fry's Electronics. A million options, and not a single clue where to go. All I knew was that, using the US Postal Service, I had to convey this sheet of paper to another post office in Austin.

Some lessons I learned:

The IRS requires a signature. On paper. For filing your taxes online. Or a "super secure five digit pin number" (which I used, once, a year ago and cannot remember). Or my return amount from last year (which is currently stored on hard cellulose media in a backup (box) somewhere in my garage). So signature it is.

Letters require an envelope. Email does not. However, being a post office, this was easy to rectify. For $.25

Letters require postage. Not only did they charge me for the paper sleeve, but they also charged me for "postage." The postal worker handed me the envelope and the stamp. I put the stamp on the envelope and handed it back. He took a rubber stamp and defaced that $.41 square of paper. Why didn't he just save me the extra step?

The post office doesn't automatically affix a "FROM" field to the envelope. He then handed the letter back, gesturing to the top left corner. Apparently, I needed to write MY address there, in case they couldn't find the recipient. Right!

First-Class Mail doesn't actually mean First. In fact, Priority mail goes out before first class. And so does Express mail. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a "Class" of standard mail below first class, making it "Last Class" mail (there is Parcel Post and Media Mail and Bulk Mail, but these aren't standard on-the-price-board listed services). This is like the old joke about the Soviet Union reporting that their car made second place, and the American car made second-to-last, without mentioning that it was a two car race.

Surliness is one of the few free services provided by the Post Office. Along with dinginess and long lines. Then again the guy behind the counter didn't have to make such a show of his open disdain for my inability to "properly" affix postage.

Unlike Internet forms, real world forms have two sides. With a barely restrained sigh, the federal agent behind the counter handed back my form, and made a twirling motion with his finger, requesting that I put my return address on the back of that form. Didn't I already give them my return address on the letter?

After filling out the envelope (twice) AND a certificate (both sides), the federal agent then proceeded to place stickers and stamps all over my envelope. When he was done it had no less than 3 stickers and writing over the entire surface. He then handed me a paper with a convenient 20 digit number I could use to check on the progress of the letter. By calling a "1-800" number. With a phone. It cost me $7 to send a single sheet of paper with my signature on it a mere 200 miles.

As I walked out with the civil servant's stare burning into my back, I thought to myself...

...why couldn't I just have encrypted my tax forms with my private key? Wouldn't that have been easier? And more secure.

Apparently the Post Office, headed originally by Benjamin Franklin (also known for the glass harmonica and a carriage odometer, along with other trifling achievements) used to be the fastest, and dare I say sole way to communicate over long distances. How did they ever get anything done? Seems like an incredible hassle to me.