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Out there: ‘Can’t I just buy a stamp?’
By HERB KEINON
25/01/2014
Each time the post office advertises new, fancy services to the public, I sit there and shake my head: if only they would just concentrate on selling stamps.
 
I dread going to the mailbox, but not for the reasons I used to.

When I was young – in elementary school for instance – I dreaded it because my school would mail our report cards home, and I was always nervous about my parents’ reactions.

When I was a senior in high school I dreaded it first because I was afraid that my college entrance exam scores would be there and opening them would ruin my day. Later, after I used those very same scores to apply to various colleges, I dreaded getting the mail because I feared a rejection letter from the university of my choice: a thin envelope with a single page thanking me for my interest, wishing me well in all my future endeavors, but telling me I was not suitable for that particular institution.

And then I dreaded the mailbox when I moved to Israel because I lived in terror of that little brown envelope from the army – the nifty one without the stamp, that could turn into a return RSVP envelope by refolding it just the right way – informing me the state needed to tear me away from home and hearth for 30 days of reserve duty.

I’m beyond all that now – long out of school, well out of the army. Now I dread the mailbox simply because I’m afraid it will contain one of those red and white slips telling me there is a package or registered letter in my name that needs to be picked up at the post office. And the post office – with its long lines and number system to manage those lines that sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t – is not a place one ever wants to visit. Especially not on a Friday.

“OH PLEASE, OH PLEASE, oh please, make it be for The Wife or one of the kids,” I think to myself whenever I see that red-and-white slip peeking out through the junk mail. We have an ironclad rule in the house: “Whoever’s name is on the slip has to go pick up the goods.” And when it’s not for me, but rather for The Wife or one of the children, I feel like I just won the lottery.

Bucking the long lines at the post office – generally about 90 people waiting for three clerks who have no incentive in the world to move faster, because they know that no matter how fast or slow they move, a steady stream of people is always going to be there waiting for them – is not something I will do, even for those whom I love the most.

There is, or course, some consolation if the slip says what awaits is a package, especially if it is something you actually ordered: say Dunkin Donuts coffee from Amazon. But a registered letter? Chances are you don’t want that. When is the last time anybody got anything good in registered mail? It’s generally a traffic ticket, a notice from the tax man, or something bad from the bank.

My favorite is the bounced checks. My bank has this charming habit of physically sending back bounced checks; meaning bad checks that someone gave The Wife and me that we unwittingly deposited. Then you lose twice, or actually three times. Not only do you have to schlep down to the post office to retrieve the bounced check that comes via registered mail; not only do you have to wait in the long line; but then you have to pay a fine for trying to deposit the check. It’s like waiting in line for a table at a restaurant, paying good money for a dinner, and then waking up the next morning with food poisoning.

I have, at times, thought about simply not picking up the registered letters. I can tell if it is official or personal business by the way it is addressed. A letter to Herbert Keinon is from the state or one of its agencies.

A registered letter to Herb Keinon, however, would be from someone who actually knows me. I toy with only picking up the Herb Keinon letters, but – eventually – I always break down. Because what if this time the registered letter addressed to my full name is actually something good?

AND EACH TIME I do go to the post office I am stunned anew. This country has come a long way in the services it provides its citizens. It’s easier to get a passport renewed at the Interior Ministry than at the American consulate; with the advent of ATMs and online banking, one really need not enter a bank anymore; and dealing with the telephone companies today is so much easier than dealing with Bezeq 30 years ago.

One remnant of the good old days, however, is the post office. Every time I go in there I’m dumbfounded; this is “old Israel.” I’m astounded by the lines, astonished that the post office – which also doubles as a postal bank – never has change for a NIS 100 bill, and amazed at the many different things people do there: some exchange currency, some wire money abroad, some send faxes (when the fax machine is working), some switch their Kupat Holim (health fund) memberships, and some poor sucker is actually there to buy a stamp.

Each time the post office advertises new, fancy services to the public, I sit there and shake my head: if only they would just concentrate on selling stamps, delivering the mail, and giving people their packages, we would all be better off.

This is multi-tasking at an institutional level, and it doesn’t work. Do one thing, and you do it well. Even two things. But do a million things at the same time and something is going to give. You don’t go to a falafel stand to buy plumbing supplies; you shouldn’t have to go to a post office to buy a new remote for the cable television box.

“Would you like to buy some batteries, they are on special?” the post office clerk asked me the other day after I went to fetch a bounced check. I did a double take to make sure I was in the right place. Was this the post office, or the local hardware store, supermarket or gas station?

Walk into almost any supermarket, hardware store, or gas station these days, and as you check out there are a gazillion items the check-out person will try to sell you. I went to pay for gas the other day and the kid behind the counter spent five minutes trying to sell me everything from an espresso machine to a razor.

Go into the supermarket – which I generally do on my way to the post office because it is in the same neighborhood mall – and you encounter the same phenomena, only the products are smaller. You go to check out and can’t find a place to actually write the check because the counter is spilling over with all kinds of items on sale: from kiwis to Snickers bars to handy wipes to little screwdrivers.

I’ve finally figured out why supermarket cashiers are often so ornery: they have to work all day behind a constantly cluttered counter. That disarray would make anyone agitated.

Goodness knows it makes me agitated. And that’s even before I step into the post office to retrieve that bounced check.
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