Simple Ideas

About a Box

Information Technology | November 10, 2009

The first mailbox appeared on an American street in 1858. Exactly 100 years before I appeared on an American street. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But let’s say it isn't, if for no other reason than this piece will come to an abrupt halt. No, let’s say instead that this timing is an omen. The omen being, I live to be 100 and the last blue box is removed from service in 2058. That's the kind of totally random stuff that I use to fill pages when I have no other idea. I used to be above that, sure. But not anymore. No, now I'll get down in the dirt. Or in this case concrete. The box I took a picture of today is at the corner of Park and Polk. The picture shows that the sidewalk has been "adjusted" to accommodate the box. It's not the usual pattern you see elsewhere. When this box went in, I suspect it was not the run of the mill 3000 PSI concrete used for walking. I expect there is some extra rebar under this slab. I expect the 4 rods that are used to bolt down the box are tied in pretty well to the rebar cage. I'm sure mailboxes get hit by cars and trucks regularly. In fact checking with an expert at USPS HQ, I found absolutely no data on that. Zip. Nada. Per them, it’s like it never happens. Hrmm, sez I. The USPS has reduced the number of blue boxes by over 50% over the past few years. They peaked at 395,000 boxes in 1985, Then the internet happened. Then 9/11 happened. After 9/11, they were all going to be yanked as they were handy places to drop bombs. But the USPS retrofitted the boxes to restrict the opening size. This idea came from Fred in Facilities. Fred is a genius for saving the boxes. There were plans to award him a Nobel Peace Prize for his idea, but you know how that worked out. Fred isn't sad though, because he knows that the boxes out there have survived on account of him. He made a change in the world, Fred did. The retrofits cost a certain amount per box, but the USPS says that is close hold information. One might wonder who it is being closely held from. UPS? Fedex? It’s sad to say but when a quasi-governmental agency withholds info in an era when we have a president who is hammering on transparency, you have to think. Oh, Senator Fiddlesticks had the retrofit contract delivered to his cousin Billy and well, it would be an embarrassment to start pulling that thread, so, lets just say its close hold info. And the real answer is probably nothing that sinister, but that is the problem that occurs when you make otherwise innocuous information unavailable. People have to think its in some way embarrassing and so just by keeping it close hold they have embarrassed themselves. And it really is a shame, because as a country, we do like the Post Office. And people, even people like me who aren't going to live be 100, they loves boxes. When people wake up and find their local box gone, they get upset and write a letter, way too late, to try to save their box. We are down to 175,000 of these boxes in the US. There are 4 bolts holding these boxes to the concrete. They look to be about 1/2 to 3/4 inch bolts. They don't appear to be locking. I'm thinking someone who wants to swipe a box could do so without too much trouble. Sure most the boxes are near street lights. But you would think a college prank or two would result in a few boxes being hoisted. But that number is very small, and oh yeah, not reported by the USPS either. .Mailboxes are considered federal property, and federal law makes it a crime to vandalize them. Violators can be fined up to $250,000 or imprisoned for up to three years for each act of vandalism. Perhaps the federal fine and prison time seems a little harsh, but this is America. Sure you can plot to fly a jet into a skyscraper and 150 million liberals will argue that you are subsequently being mistreated in Gitmo. But you mess with our mail, you do not have a friend. The price of boxes has increased over the years. The first boxes probably cost the USPS about 10 dollars in the 1800's. (This is my guess, as you now know, the USPS is mum on just about everything that would qualify as cost or price data on these boxes.) So rather than bother to ask the current price, I presented the problem to 29 contract experts in my part of the government and gave them 10 minutes to come up with a price. They figured $473 to $629 was a fair price range (without a snorkel). My engineering estimate from looking at a box and having spent some of my misspent youth in a machine shop was ‘roughly $500”. So this is what happens when you don’t provide data, people either figure it out or make it up. I guess the agency thinks that is preferable as they don’t have to defend other peoples numbers. Actually, with the boxes in decline, the USPS probably (they won’t say) hasn't bought a new box in 20 years. When they pull a box it probably goes into the blue box equivalent of an elephant graveyard. And should they need to replace a box, they recycle. It’s all about sustainability over the HQ these days. That’s a good thing, you ask me. My local post office is on the hit list for closure. A business would not even grapple with that decision. Starbucks closed two shops in my neighborhood in a flash when the economy tanked. But the PO does nothing in a flash. Not because they are lame, because of Congress and the political backlash of closing an office. They will actually transfer me to an office that is closer to my house if they do shut the one in North Park. Hillcrest is closer to me, more local actually. So shutting down the office is not a political issue to me. Not near the issue it is to yank the blue box. I use the boxes for my Netflix returns. As everyone knows, it is the internet that is killing the Post Office. And an internet based film service is what I use the boxes for. The bright red envelopes are too tempting a target to leave in my home mail box, so the blue box it is. It's true though, I hardly use the mail. I decided to see if I could live my life online a few years back. I have a select few insurance bills, utility bills and government fees and taxes that still come through the mail and require a stamped response. But if I buy two books of stamps a year, that’s a lot for me. And not much at all for the USPS. So it is no surprise that they are suffering. But through the suffering, they are still surviving. The box at Polk and Park is still there. I pass it on the way to the Farmer's market on Sunday. I try to remember to feed it and sometimes I do. Occasionally I open my junk mail and put in an empty postage paid envelope into a blue box. They seem to need a daily mail count of 50 items per day to keep a box in place, so anything I can do to keep the count up without using a stamp, well that is win-win for consumers and the USPS. Sure it’s a lose for junk mailers, but that isn’t something that keeps me up nights. I'm not sure I can feed my box on Park and Polk enough to keep it there for another 49 years. But if I'm going to make it to 100, I think that omen needs to make it too.

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