Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why I Hate Post Offices

Let's start with a point of clarification: it's not the institution of the post office I hate, it's the local instantiation of that august service. Posting - and receiving - things is generally good, tax time excepted, and they perform an important local function. It's simply that I hate going there, and without knowing any of them I hate the other customers in there regardless of who they are.

Here's an example. I had to go and collect a box from the local one because it was too big to fit in our mail box. Fair enough. (And I'll spare you the details of why we buy toilet rolls in bulk from Amazon and have them delivered even though this does explain the size of the box.) OK. Friday afternoon in-between meetings so have a slot to fill. Good news, after hanging around trying to park there were only three people ahead of me. Trouble was, after 20 minutes there were still three people ahead of me and the line hadn't moved, despite two counter clerks being on duty.

From what I could tell, first counter bloke was attempting to figure out how to send a parcel from somewhere out East - he didn't yet know where - that was going to weigh some amount that he also didn't yet know. Could the USPS please tell him how much postage to buy now to stick on it? Unsurprisingly the answer was "of course not you &*%^$% moron" but that message was delivered more politely and over a longer period than anything I could have come up with. It also involved suggestions like, "guess the weight, pick the furthest spot you will be from the destination it is going to and then add 50% to the required postage for that example" which was quite reasonable I thought. Alas, box-man couldn't get his head round the concept, despite the answer being, and I'm not making this up, three dollars and five cents. He left, eventually, with nothing decided and without buying anything at all.

Second counter woman was equally skilled at vacillation. She was trying to mail something of such vital importance that you'd think the US Secret Service would happily courier it in person if they only knew. Alas, there were such a bewildering array of options - exactly two - that met the various constraints that she, too, was unable to decide. For some reason, she wanted more choices than that, a position she was hard to shake loose from despite the answer being that there weren't any. Had it been me behind the counter I would have invented a special "secret" offering just for special customers that was three times the price and involved a special sign being hand written on the envelope. Remember the Monty Python sketch where the bloke goes to buy a fish licence and is incensed to find that the counter clerk won't sell him one, and that when the poor man's finally brow beaten into doing so finds it's a licence with the word "dog" crossed out and "fish" written in biro instead? Just like that.

Why do post offices attract the sort of people who have lost the will to live? Who measure their entire day by how long finishing a transaction that would take an average human being no more than 1 minute can take in order to fill out the meaningless hours between waking and finally being allowed to crawl back into their hole in the ground at dusk?

Just as banning seat belts and instead welding a steel spike to the centre of the steering wheel was once recommended as a way of encouraging safe driving, so too should something similar be found to fix post office queues. I'd vote for tasering. If you are taking more than three minutes (two-and-a-half on Saturday) to finish a simple transaction then the counter clerk is federally required to hit you with 50,000 volts. Not only will this encourage faster decision making it will also have the side benefit of boosting the shares of those who manufacture personal protection devices, as well as requiring more medics to be on stand-by to clear away those who don't survive the experience (thereby also saving the health care industry the expense of keeping the weak alive in the future).

Wonder if I could get this onto a 2009 CA ballot proposition? Trust me, as proposals go it makes way more sense than half the ones that actually do.

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