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You don’t know what you have until it’s gone

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t even noticed that on certain streets in many neighborhoods the United States Postal Service has been unceremoniously removing and lugging away the familiar blue painted steel mail collection boxes.

Beset with problems across the land, regular mail has lost its rank as a leading mode of communication. As a result, the USPS has been rearranging pickup routes and eliminating many collection points and those chunky, clunky receptacles that have been in place for decades.

It doesn’t matter that those installations have achieved iconic status in many locations. With fewer traditional letters being written there is less mail being dropped in the mailboxes.

Alas, this is yet another example of one of those objects or situations where it suddenly becomes apparent that something was never truly appreciated until it was gone. When the USPS crew arrives and the men unbolt the box and load it on the truck, it may not be as emotional a moment as the time you learned of the death of your favorite uncle. But it grieves those who relied on that location as the gateway and path to correspondents in places near and far; it is a painful loss.

It has become commonplace. Across the country the USPS has removed more than 188,000 of those staunch, stolid and eminently serviceable contrivances as part of its restructuring in the age of e-mail. (Incidentally, I hate myself for using terms like "contrivance" or "object," but I have discovered that a mailbox is not that blue object on the corner; it’s the device at your home where mail is deposited.)

The presence of a mail deposit location within a short walk from home, down the block or around the corner is an accepted element of our culture. During the past few months on several occasions I’ve overheard customers at the branch post office complain to the clerks that a mail deposit location in their neighborhood had been removed. The clerks, understanding and polite, can offer little solace to the complainants. Consumers can call or write to the USPS, but there apparently is little chance that a collection box, once uprooted, will be reinstalled.

The places where boxes have been removed have been adjudged to be underperforming, those where only a minimum number of letters were deposited each day. The USPS keeps records of the volume collected at certain spots they suspect are being underused.

If the findings are positive, the location remains active and in good standing. But if they are negative, chances are very likely that a crew with a flatbed truck will materialize one day and abruptly change the world for the remaining loyal users of what had been a convenient and dependable drop-off point.

I speak from bitter experience as I recall the day I returned to my office one afternoon and quickly sensed some suspicious activity as I entered the parking lot. I was unfamiliar with the USPS strategy at the time since it had not been widely publicized. I noted the presence of several men in coveralls with hand tools, monkeying around with the mailbox that stood right outside the building’s front door. Letters had been collected there for years, well before my arrival, without regard to rain, hail, sleet or storm. Now they seemed to be unfastening and removing it.

I conducted a brief interrogation and was satisfied they were agents of the USPS on an official mission.

"We have been surveying this box and it has been underperforming for some time," one man said. I knew it was senseless to argue. They hefted the box aboard the truck and drove away.

I quickly realized I would no longer be able to write a letter late in the afternoon and hurry to drop it in the box for the 5 p.m. pickup, thereby possibly making it a candidate for delivery the following morning. On such occasions, and they were frequent, I always had an immensely satisfying feeling of efficiency.

When the box was decommissioned, it was a dreadful loss; I immediately directed what I thought was a persuasive plea to the proper functionary at the USPS Main Post Office. There was no response, and that was the last we ever saw of a blue mailbox outside that door.

There is a lesson here for those who cherish a certain conveniently located mailbox: Use it or lose it.

Dick Hirsch is a frequent contributor to the Opinion page.

11/27/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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