COLUMBIA — Jeff Connell knows the name of nearly every resident in the 65203 ZIP code.
He knows the worn wooden porch with the wide awning on Spring Valley Road is home to two children and twice as many bikes. He knows the owner of the adult video store on Walnut Street loves Canon cameras. He knows what time the residents of Crestmere Avenue slide up their automatic garage doors and leave for work. He’s even been known to recognize lost dogs and deliver them to their own yards.
The residents know him, too. They know peanut butter cookies are his favorite. They know the birthday of his 17-year-old daughter, Danielle. They call him "Monkeyman" because of the tattoo on his left shoulder.
The familiarity is built on thousands of visits, week after week, year after year.
For almost three decades, Connell, 48, has delivered 3,000 to 4,000 pieces of mail each day to local businesses, houses and apartment buildings.
Despite massive technological upheaval and financial chaos that threaten the future of the U.S. Postal Service, Connell’s routine has remained relatively unaffected.
He uses the same mailbag he carried on his first day on the job 28 years ago, the navy cloth now strained and gaping with holes. His routes have expanded but have stayed consistent enough that he has watched children grow from their birth announcements to high school graduation invitations.
“We are part of the community,” Connell said. “It’s what we do. When I adopted my daughter, I took a week off. When I came back there were presents, like tiny pink sleepers and blankets. People on my routes had been shopping for the mailman.”
A buzzing route
Mail funnels into Columbia through the giant processing center near the Columbia Regional Airport. There, it is sorted, organized and trucked to two post offices: Tiger Station on 3212 Lemone Industrial Blvd., which delivers to ZIP codes 65201 and 65202, as well as the main post office downtown at 511 E Walnut St., which delivers to ZIP codes 65203 to 65218.
More than 100,000 letters, packages and flats – the Postal Service’s term for large envelopes, magazines and advertisement mail – are sifted each day at the downtown post office where Connell works, general clerk Howard Hutton said.
Connell and other postal employees, like clerks and supervisors, are called “one touch” workers. It’s an appropriate description for the people who literally touch every piece of mail by hand, moving it across the city from bin to truck to mailbox. The term is used to distinguish them from those in managerial positions who rarely come in contact with the tide of incoming and outgoing mail.
In the mornings, letter carriers sort and arrange their bundles for about two hours before hopping in their trucks. Technology has sped up the process — but only human touch can correct the missed addresses and sorting errors made by machines.
The letter carriers touch family Christmas cards, crates of cheeping chicks, bouquets of roses and glossy coupon sheets. And, in Connell’s case, bees.
“I have had to deliver bees more than a couple of times,” he said. “Once, there was a hole in the crate and there were bees flying everywhere. I made sure to deliver that as quickly as I could to get them out of the car. I’ve also delivered snakes, ashes from the crematorium and coconuts.”
On a Tuesday in early spring, Connell’s cargo was a bit more mysterious.
He dislodged a thin, oblong box from the back of his truck, stopping to check the address before shoving it in his mailbag. A corner of the package fell through a gaping hole in the bottom of his bag. Walking into Jerry's Instrument Repair Shop, Connell speculated on its contents.
“It’s probably a trumpet,” he said, giving the box a slight shake. “Or maybe a trombone?”
He handed the package to the shop owner, pausing to scan its bar code, an extra step for insured deliveries. The machine spit out a string of high-pitched squeals.
“It’s saying, ‘Don’t rush me. I’m a 1995 version,’” Connell joked to the shop owner.
The man meticulously signed his name on the blinking screen and then reached for a pair of scissors to open the box. Inside: a violin.
The fabric of America
In 1958, jeweler Harry Winston wrapped the Hope Diamond in brown paper and mailed it from New York City to Washington, D.C., for $2.44. The jewel was a present to the Smithsonian Institution.
He delivered it through the Postal Service because he had more faith in it than any special guards, Winston is quoted as saying in a Nov. 24, 1958, issue of Life Magazine.
Today, you can still mail a precious item and have it moved by hand across the country. You can mail a postcard from Hawaii to your next-door neighbor for 33 cents, a handwritten birthday note to a great aunt for 46 cents or a 3-ounce package of homemade chocolate cookies to a child in college for $2.07. You can even mail a diamond necklace in a padded envelope for $19.95.
An independent federal agency, the Postal Service has both public service duties, such as delivering mail to every resident, and special rights, such as the exclusive right to carry first-class mail. This includes letters, postcards, large envelopes and small packages weighing less than 13 ounces.
But the sanctity Benjamin Franklin envisioned when he created the Postal Service in 1775 might soon be headed in the same direction as the Pony Express and land-line telephones.
The Postal Service is facing attacks on multiple fronts including technology, competition from private delivery services and escalating debt. Revenues are dropping, and talk grows of the long-term survival of the agency.
As letter carriers retire and the city expands, carriers such as Connell are forced to carry more mail and work longer shifts. For the past five years, local post offices have placed a hiring freeze on career-track letter carriers, instead filling gaps with temporary employees.
Letter carriers typically work 50 to 60 hours a week, often taking on extra routes and working on their days off. They are tracked by Management Sequence Points, which are small bar codes hidden inside mailboxes at specific locations on their routes. The carriers scan the code so managers can track their efficiency.
Dale Wade, a 34-year veteran, said there is mounting frustration within the Postal Service.
“There is pressure to do 'x' amount of work in 'x' amount of time,” Wade said. “I can’t do it in the time they want it to be done sometimes. It causes friction. Every day I do the same route, but every day is different. It is a different kind of mail now.”
A shifting culture
While his actual job has changed little, the culture surrounding it has. At parties, Connell said he often hears people trash-talking the business, saying the Postal Service should just close its doors and give up on delivering mail.
“We’re getting so used to it,” Connell said, growing agitated. “These people have no idea what they’re even talking about.”
The use of email, increased competition from businesses such as FedEx and UPS, massive debt and the economic recession all drag on the Postal Service.
A mentality shift came shortly after 2006 when Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which required the Postal Service to set aside funds for future retiree benefits. The act effectively funds retiree health benefits for employees who haven’t been born yet.
Every September until 2016, a payment of more than $5 billion, which equals about 7 percent of the agency's operating costs, must be made to the fund, according to Postal Service documents. Last year, the postal service defaulted on two payments.
The mandate is imposed on no other government agency, Connell said.
The agency has been hemorrhaging money ever since. Since 1970, the Postal Service has run either modest deficits or earned small profits each year, according to documents prepared by congressional analyst Kevin Kosar.
But since 2007, the agency's revenues have dropped dramatically, as has the volume of the first-class mail it handles. Annual operating expenses run between $70 billion and $80 billion, according to Postal Service documents. Those documents show that from 2007 through 2011, the agency lost $25.4 billion and its debt climbed to $13 billion.
Much of this loss was driven by its payments to the retiree health benefits fund, Kosar said in his reports.
In the past fiscal year, the Postal Service reported a nearly $16 billion loss. In February, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced plans to drop Saturday delivery nationally, with the exception of packages, to save an estimated $2 billion each year. That change would have gone into effect in August.
But on April 10, the Postal Service’s Board of Governors said in a statement that the plan would be delayed because of congressional roadblocks. Congress passed a spending bill to continue the long-time prohibition of cutting delivery days, basically restricting the Postal Service’s ability to implement its plan.
The decision has resulted in a tug-of-war between the Postal Service and the government as to whether the service has the authority to make cost-cutting decisions, such as eliminating a delivery day, without congressional approval.
Closer to home, unionized postal workers and community members are fighting to stop the proposed downsizing of the Columbia mail processing center. Earlier reports have said as many as 42 of 133 jobs are slated for elimination as part of a cost-cutting plan.
“I think they are trying to force the hand of Saturday delivery,” said Jim Marsden, a 27-year-employee of the Postal Service and president of the Central Missouri chapter of the American Postal Workers Union. “It’s a poker game where you have to ante up and bid to stay in it. They are trying to do more with less.”
At the bottom of the chain of downsizing and upheaval are the letter carriers. Day after day, they pack their bags and deliver mail to the homes of the people who claim their service is dying.
They have started carrying more letters, and along with them, an increasing load of stress and frustration.
Dale Wade keeps a print out of an old, faded email with him, the edges worn from folding and unfolding. Scrawled on the backside of the now-meaningless correspondence is a list: “Ways to Save the Post Office.”
He has passed retirement age but has no desire to quit any time soon. His wife, Sharyn, thinks he might be too invested in his job.
But Wade, 55, won’t give up.
“I get it,” he said. “We’re snail mail. But the people need us, and we are understaffed tremendously. The Postal Service leadership is dysfunctional. The postmaster general is dysfunctional. This is what I have done for 34 years. I want it to continue to be there in the future.”
His solutions include:
- Auditing every employee who doesn’t touch the mail. (“If you touch the mail, you have a job. If you don’t, you get an audit of what you do every day for a week to make sure you are doing relevant work.”)
- Stopping the funding of future retirement benefits. (“All of our monetary loss is coming from one act. No one seems to understand that.”)
- Creating a network with pharmacies to increase prescription delivery. (“The pharmacies win, we win, and the people win.”)
- Promoting the work of the Postal Service by advertising on the mail trucks and uniforms. (“There are hundreds of thousands of carriers on the streets every day. What better advertisement is that? To have it walk right through people’s neighborhoods?”)
After the workday ends on an unseasonably warm March afternoon, Wade and Connell join some colleagues for some shop talk at Shiloh’s Bar and Grill. They don’t tiptoe around the topic of the future — instead they debate it. In between swigs from sweating beer mugs, they share their frustrations, fears and favorite memories.
The camaraderie is therapeutic. It’s solidarity. It’s why none of them can force themselves to leave the profession.
“We just have to hang in there together, Jeff,” Wade said, slapping his shoulder.
A family of carriers
At 6:30 a.m. on any given Saturday, Wade is nowhere near a piece of mail. Neither is Connell.
In fact, for once they aren’t even thinking about it. Instead, they are drinking black coffee at Panera on Ninth Street with the Mid Mo Macho Men.
The Village People parody group includes local letter carriers Connell, Wade, Lee Smith and Brian Cook. They only perform on special occasions — such as letter carrier Laurie Matthews’ birthday. Wade is quick to share the fact that their crowd pleaser, a rousing rendition of “Y-M-C-Dale” has 261 worldwide views on YouTube, including Singapore and the Netherlands.
Now the quartet and a few other carriers, dressed in their mail uniforms, hunch over cups of coffee and Diet Pepsi in their usual corner — a table near the counter on the left side of the cafe. It’s close enough to hear a Panera employee sing Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” as she sweeps and close enough for the postal workers to greet joggers as they enter, weary from an early morning run.
Matthews said there were only two other female carriers in Columbia when she joined the Postal Service 28 years ago. But her coworkers made a traditional "man's job" easier.
“It’s not for wimpy women,” Matthews said. “But I love this job. When you work with these guys, how could you not? At first, I would just go to work and then go home. It’s not like that at all anymore. We’re family.”
The four at Panera that day are among 92 mail carriers employed at the downtown post office. Many bike to work together, eat breakfast together and drink together. They vent together and support each other. On Wednesdays, they frequent Houlihan’s to visit their favorite waitress, Lauren. On Fridays, it’s Shiloh’s for beer.
“We hang out so much because we hate each other,” Wade said, with a poker face.
“It’s actually because no one else understands us,” Smith said, downing the rest of his Diet Pepsi. “We hang with each other more than we do our actual families.”
New bag, new perspective
Connell has worked on his routes long enough to realize change is inevitable, no matter how much he and the letter carriers avoid it.
Eventually, the children in the house with the worn wooden porch will outgrow their bicycles. The owner of the adult video store will relocate. The residents of Crestmere Avenue will stake sale signs in the front yard by the lemon colored day lilies.
Connell was halfway through his normal Friday route when he realized few things last forever. It is time to accept the forces of change and retire his most loyal companion: his mailbag.
“This thing is falling apart,” he said, sticking a finger through a jagged rip in the back of the bag. He traced the splitting seams and the frayed threads, patting the once-white U.S. mail insignia on the face of the fabric. “It’s the worst-looking bag in the post office. I thought maybe we were going to retire together, but it’s not going to make it.”
He paused a moment. In the next, his face shifted into a broad smile.
“Change is relative,” he said. “In the end, a bag is a bag. Why I love this job? It doesn’t change. These friends are family. They never change.”
He slung the bag over his shoulder for one of its last times and hopped into his truck, the engine grumbling a few seconds later. With a wave, he signaled right, turned onto Providence Road and was gone.