Mastering the Mysteries of the United States Postal Service

You might not think that a postal service could be that mysterious. But, for me, the United States Postal Service most certainly was for the first few months we were here: mysterious and, at times, downright scream out loud frustrating.

So here is exhibit A.


Americans might not see anything wrong with this but a British person will immediately see something is missing – a letterbox! Now this may seem stupid, but, although I had seen all those cute mail boxes in the movies, it never occurred to me that that would mean you wouldn’t have a letter box in your door for people to hand deliver stuff.




Moving here it actually took a few days to realize that not only did we have no letterbox in the door, but we also had no cute mail box by the road. This is where the mystery deepened. We asked our landlords (co-incidentally living in the UK) where it was. Down the road was the helpful response. So it was. Can you see it in this picture from our drive?


Up there across from the car,  the grey blob on the left of the road? Finding it was not the end of the story because when we got there we were faced with this.


IMG_7442 (2)

Nothing to identify which box was for which house! The landlords helpfully thought it was at the top in the first set of boxes (it wasn’t!). So what to do? I had a key so I began very uncomfortably to try all the boxes looking over my shoulder in case someone thought I was trying to break into their mail box. I tried them all and none opened. So I gave up and went home. I thought to myself perhaps I was nervous and that can make it difficult to open a lock. So the next day I tried again and the next day. I even tried the large boxes at the end. No joy. This became more urgent as we were waiting for my husband’s social security number to come through. You need your social security number (SSN) for pretty much any form you fill in out here bank, car lease etc.

So my husband went and tried following our landlords’ instructions. Still no luck. We mailed them again and their local agent they couldn’t remember. ‘Just try the boxes’ they said helpfully. So my husband went to try again and came back triumphantly carrying a small card. ‘I opened it’. He said. ‘What did you do I asked?’ ‘Tried them all again’ he replied, ‘What does the card say?’ I asked. ‘This postbox is not in use. Please fill in to resume service’. So we filled it in and put it back.

So the next day I went back armed with the key and the knowledge of which box to open. It still didn’t work! So I tried all the top left boxes twice. Eventually I rang my husband. ‘I can’t open it’ I said. ‘I’m not sure I have the right box’ ‘It’s in the second set of boxes not the first and you have to turn the key backwards not forwards’ he told me. This made it sound more like something from a spy movie drop off than just a way of receiving birthday cards and bills. I tried that box again turning the key backwards. Yay it opened! I was confronted a huge pile of mail which turned out to be mainly flyers for local shop promotions but buried within the pile was the letter with my husband’s SSN!

I would like to say that that was the end of my struggles with the USPS but in fact it was only the beginning. The first thing I had to master was remembering to actually go to the post box. I had been spoilt by years of mail just dropping into the hall. Requiring no more effort than wandering over to pick it up. Now I had to remember to go to the box. Like any new habit this was remarkably hard. Eventually I hit on a solution. I would go at the end of the morning dog walk. I would take the key with me in my dog-walking bag and pick up the mail at the end. This had its challenges, as the post box was sited next to two gardens with dogs in them. These dogs barked loudly at Dougal causing him to pull on his lead while I was trying to open the box and get out the mail with my other hand. But overall it worked fine for a couple of months.

Until the day I turned up at the box, felt for the only mailbox key and it wasn’t there. Now I had 35 minutes of walk to re-track. My search was not helped by the fact that the key ring I had attached to the mailbox key was a small brown pebble like so many other small brown pebbles on the path and in the park! After what felt like hours I gave up and decided to leave it and go out again later with Dougal. Guessing that I had dropped it when I was picking up his mess. My theory was, when I walked him again I could see where he went and check there for the key. This did not work. After two days of searching on and off I confessed to my husband, Googled what to do and went down to the Post Office to request a new key. I had to admit to them that I had lost it and pay a $10 carelessness fee. Though they helpfully told me , if we had come when we moved in they would have got a whole new set of keys and it would have been free! But not to worry they would change it in a couple of days. ‘Come back Friday to pick up the key.’

I came back Friday no key, nor Monday, Wednesday, the next Friday, the next week or the next. I grew increasingly irate and the staff increasingly uncomfortable when they saw me come in. Feeling reluctant to keep going and asking. I took to staking out the postbox to see if anyone was coming to change the lock. I put sticky notes on the box saying please remove when lock changed. Those four weeks of driving for ten minutes to pick up mail from the post office made the 3-minute walk down the road seem like nothing. Once again we were waiting for important mail so I couldn’t just leave it. I had the frustration of going in day after day, them disappearing to get mail and coming back with a handful of circulars and no letter from the bank. Eventually I went in and didn’t even ask about the key just asked for my mail and the guy came back with a smile and 4 new post box keys!

I learnt my lesson. I gave one to my husband, put two in the drawer and instead of just putting the key in my bag I attached it to my bag. It felt tremendously liberating not having to drive 10 minutes to get my mail and I felt great affection for my mail box.

But my troubles were not over because then came the day I got a parcel. Or rather I should say I opened the box and saw another key sitting there. I stared at it. I took it out and examined it. The number 3 was written on the label. I looked again at all the boxes. Finally I noticed the really large boxes on the end that I had completely ignored since they failed to open tIMG_7445o the first key. Realization dawned on me. That must be where they put the parcels. Typically the numbers were nearly rubbed off and number 3 turned out to be the top left box not the top right. But eventually I got in and got my parcel. Only to find that I now couldn’t get the key out. I am embarrassed to say I tried for nearly 10 minutes to get that key out and any Americans reading this will be shaking their heads in disbelief. Because what I learnt is that those keys are designed not to come back out! For good reason only the postman can remove them so they don’t get lost.

So all in all my relationship with the USPS had a very rocky start. But I am delighted to say that now we get on just fine. I am very lucky that round here the post comes twice a day and on Saturdays. Having the parcel box is actually incredibly useful. I smile when I see the small USPS van driving about.

Though, yes, I miss a letter box I do not miss the ridiculous challenges of getting parcels in the UK. The games of ‘knock down ginger’ (Ding dong and run away or what ever you call that game) with the postman ringing the doorbell once and then putting the card through saying they tried to deliver and rushing back to drive off in their van before you can walk down the stairs to the door. I have literally run down the road before chasing the postman for a parcel. Or the trips to the post office where the woman at the counter seemed to delight in telling you at 4.45pm (when the card said pick up after 3pm) that the parcel wasn’t back yet and that they would close in 15 minutes. The worst time was when they flat out swore my daughters birthday present from my parents was not there only to tell me when I went back the next day that it had been put on the wrong shelf!

IMG_7448So I am glad to be here in America even without a letter box! I have mastered the mysteries of the USPS. Now I happily go and check the mailbox every morning. Looking forward to seeing the white key that says there is a parcel. I have even trained Dougal to sit quietly by me so the other dogs don’t bark!.


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