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Illustration by Hannah Sotnick
On the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 6, the United States Postal Service announced that, this coming August, it would stop delivering mail on Saturdays. I was sitting at the help desk in the Diana Center, where I work, when I heard the news. I felt close to tears—I love the USPS. I was so worked up about the end of Saturday mail that I had to put up the DESK STAFF WILL RETURN IN 15 MINUTES sign and take a lap around the building to calm myself down.
The United States Post Office has been around in one form or another since before our country was officially founded. Since its very first iteration in the late 1600s, the USPS system has been one thing that all Americans share: Every town in America has a ZIP code and everyone can receive mail. And we do—according to its website, our postal service still processes 554 million pieces of mail every day. Nevertheless, the USPS is going broke, and fast: Last year alone, it lost $16 billion. To compensate, it has had to lay off hundreds of employees and close numerous small post offices, and this breaks my heart.
I have always loved sending and getting things in the mail—postcards, magazines, letters, packages—I don’t care what. Even the filler mail, the promotional cards sent out by seemingly every nonprofit, are kind of exciting; it’s thrilling to see my name on an envelope, regardless of whether it was stamped there by a machine devoid of the warmth I generally associate with receiving a letter.
I love snail mail because it can serve as a record of a relationship, romantic or otherwise—it is an elegant back-and-forth exchange, a history in call and response. For the past three years, I have squirreled away every letter I’ve received, and those letters are stories individually and collectively told: Good luck notes from my mother, a postcard from a friend’s hometown, envelopes with stickers on them. One letter, from an old boyfriend, contains pieces of crumbled plaster and a brochure from a cathedral he visited. He was the first person I ever said “I love you” to, though I didn’t actually say it out loud—I wrote it, put a stamp on it, stuck it in the mail, and anxiously checked my Altschul mailbox every single day until I received a letter in reply.
Just think about how many secrets, like a first “I love you,” are working their way through our postal system. We place so much faith in this system, hardly questioning whether whatever it is we’re sending will arrive, having been carried by any number of trusty postal workers. Even in college, our mail service plays an important role in our day-to-day lives. How many of us order our books in the mail or wait for care packages from our parents and friends? How many of us called another ZIP code home before 10027, and sent absentee ballots through the mail when we voted in November? I find almost nothing as exciting as receiving a WITS automated email from Barnard’s Mail Services letting me know that there’s a package waiting for me; anticipating what’s in the box on the way to the mailroom is almost as good as actually opening it. And finding a letter from a friend has the force to make my day, because it’s not just letters we’re sending—it’s recipes and perspectives and good news and bad news and, yeah, love. It takes real thoughtfulness to sit down, write out a letter, lick and seal the envelope, and walk it to the USPS blue iron mail- box on the street corner, wishing it a good trip as you slide it through the opening.
It’s no wonder, then, that thank-you emails don’t have quite the same impact as handwritten ones. “No one sends thank-you notes in the mail anymore,” a man told me as I was sitting at the Diana desk and he was waiting for his daughter to return with coffee. I had just told him about the USPS’s announcement.
“I do,” I told him.
“I do, too,” he said, nodding wistfully.
And what about holiday cards and letters to Santa? What about pen pals—can you still call them “pen pals” if you exchange notes online? And what about love letters, and the intimacy that comes from seeing your name written in someone else’s handwriting? These sentiments cannot be re-created in emails.
It’s true that we live in the electronic age: I first read about the USPS’s decision to stop Saturday letter delivery online, and then I posted the link on my Facebook. I know that our reliance on technology and social media is progress; we’re changing the way we live, and that’s a not a bad thing. Our use of technology has helped us to establish a society that is more efficient, more connected, than it has ever been before. It used to take weeks and weeks for a message to get from one place to another; now it takes fractions of a second for my email to get from my dorm room here in New York to my best friend, who is studying abroad in Italy. This isn’t about renouncing technology. It’s about choosing the right medium and stick- ing to it, even if it’s a little more expensive and takes a little longer.
As I read the article announcing the USPS’s decision, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. If this—the end of Saturday mail—was really something I could be upset about, then I was lucky. But the thing is, it’s not just Saturday mail—this is the beginning of the end. First they’ll cut Saturday mail; that happens this August. We’ll be down to five days of letter delivery. Sooner or later, they’ll cut another day, and then another, and before we know it, the USPS and snail mail will be practically obsolete. I don’t want, 50 years down the road, to have to explain the joy of great stationery or special-edition stamps. I want everyone to know the magic of getting a letter in the mail—in rain, in snow, and on Saturdays, too.
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