“Did you get the mail today?”
“No, I thought you’d gotten it already.”
That simple exchange in our kitchen last month marked the moment I realized that the former mildly anticipated ritual of getting the mail had now become an afterthought.
In the not too distant past, getting the mail at our house was actually looked forward to. The prospect of postcards from traveling friends, birthday cards, personal letters and magazines once made the trip to the mailbox an adventure of mystery and discovery.
The mailbox was the conduit to the larger world from the foot of our driveway.
“Has the mail come yet?” was an oft-heard refrain six days a week.
That is no longer so.
Home mail delivery now seems to be going the way of the milkman. For quite awhile now, regular mail service has been co-opted by the Internet. Facebook and e-mail are the new conduits. The items left in our mailboxes these days are largely advertising and charitable appeals; no postcards from exotic places, no letters stuffed with newspaper clippings from the old hometown. News that arrives by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is generally old news, bad news or no news.
As a result, the USPS has found itself embattled with mounting debt and declining volume. An infrastructure that handled more than 200 billion pieces of mail at its peak in 2006 is projected to handle only 150 billion pieces of mail by 2020. According to a study prepared by the Boston Consulting Group in March of 2010, “The volume decline and the mix shift, coupled with an increasing cost base, will cause profits to experience steep, unrelenting declines.”
It is almost amusing to hear politicians debate whether or not to cut costs by eliminating services such as Saturday mail delivery. It’s as if doing so would be like slaughtering a sacred cow. They insinuate that any attempt to streamline regular mail service or close an underutilized post office would rip apart our very social fabric.
They probably said the same thing when the telephone replaced the telegraph. I suppose this angst is rooted in the personal connection we have with mail delivery.
For evidence of this, look no further than the mailboxes along any suburban street. While some homeowners are content to simply stick a black box on a post at the end of their driveway, others create curbside shrines around their postal receptacle, adorning it with landscaping and flowers and even the occasional American flag.
Except in Columbia, that is. In Columbia, there are no individual mailboxes, only communal cluster boxes. In fact, the cluster mailbox is one of the physical attributes that set Columbia apart from the rest of suburbia, like pathways and neighborhood pools.
In retrospect, the advent of the clustered mailbox may have been a harbinger of our changing relationship with our mail service. The cluster box depersonalized the mailbox. With rare exception, no one adorns a cluster mailbox with flowers or special landscaping. A recent drive- around survey in Columbia found that, for the most part, these metal monoliths sit unceremoniously at the curb on a slab of concrete, indistinguishable from the next cluster box down the street.
In other words, in Columbia the mailbox was depersonalized decades ago.
To be fair, the clustered mailbox was at least partially intended to engender community. The thinking was that neighbors would regularly come together to collect their mail and leisurely share neighborhood gossip.
The reality turned out somewhat differently. When I last lived in Columbia seven years ago, I already noticed that people in my neighborhood would tend to stand back a respectable distance when someone else was retrieving their mail, waiting their turn, much like they do at an ATM machine.
Nowadays they could just as likely be checking their text messages while waiting, instead of engaging in a random conversation with a neighbor.
Dennis Lane co-hosts “and then there’s that …” a bi-weekly local news podcast on hocomojo.com, and blogs about stuff around here at wordbones.com.