March 14th, 2013
For Sale, Human History
The US Post Office (I put the “US” in because, in a couple of years it will probably be the Fed Ex, UPS, or, maybe, Amazon Post Office, so I just want to make sure of my nomenclature).. The US Post Office, having already announced a cessation of Saturday deliveries to start this summer, is now engaged in the process of selling off post offices—buildings in small towns and small cities mostly but certainly ready to expand into large urban areas.
A lot of these stand-alone post offices buildings were built in the Depression as public works projects—to put starving Americans back to work and provide a lift to small construction and supply businesses… Some of the buildings that pre-date that era—which you can see in their more stately/solid design and what now would be called “gratuitous” decorative flourishes. Marble was used, some of the plaster, wood and cement work was done by crafts people who no longer exist (or if they do, work exclusively for the wealthy).
Why are they (whoever “they” is) selling these buildings off? Because, says the post office, they are going broke and need the money. In fact—and this is a whole other discussion there wasn’t really a need for the Post Office to be in so much debt and curtail its services (and sell landmark buildings). A lot of the problem has to do with having to fund pensions in some absurdly expensive way that, to my mind, is a set-up by people who deliberately wanted the PO to fail, so they could—let’s all say it together now: PRIVATIZE it.
Obviously, because of the Net and other communications improvements, first class mail is hardly ever used anymore for personal or even legal and business communication, so that right there is reason enough for them to be in trouble. But they didn’t have to be in so much trouble.
What I’m feeling right now is that, as a taxpayer, I resent these wonderful places being sold off—I don’t think any bureaucrat or politician has the right to sell of national architectural treasures like these without consulting the electorate—either nationally or locally or both.
Now, almost everything that’s built is utilitarian; ugly glass, steel, cement and melatonin-deficient brick excretions, placed in towns and cities like soul-less modernist chess pieces. Almost every new building, public and private, looks like something from a bad 1950’s urban planner’s wet-dream; almost entirely devoid of humanity.
On the other hand these solid, quirky and history-drenched old buildings that are now for sale are like time capsules of our suffering and triumph. They have the look and feel of habitations; places designed and built by humans, not computer programs or real estate developers; and, inside and out, they very much look like they were designed to be used by humans going about their daily lives.
These old buildings have seen millions of personal letters and packages come and go; letters and packages that have brought news of deaths and births, of retribution and love. Consolation and hope offered and denied. Packages were sent and received that contained Christmas and birthday presents, clothes, books, films, music, food, vitamins, and a million useless little knick-knacks and trinkets. My fairly bleak childhood was brightened here and there by the arrival in the mail of some comic-book, cereal box-top space gun or secret decoder ring—sent straight to me by a super-hero or an Olympic athlete (or maybe somebody named Estelle in the shipping department).
Letters written and sent, envelopes slit or torn open… Instead of staring at some cold arrangement of dots and pixels, viewed through a cold piece of glass or plastic, you opened a hand-addressed envelope and read a letter written in pen or pencil, the product of hasty emotion or thoughtful reflection—the passion and thought clear in the way the pen-strokes moved over the paper.
Well, every progression comes at a price, we have texting and e-mail now, and certainly that accounts for a huge loss in revenue by the PO, but, since the whole plan seems to be to sell the enterprise to some private contractor, no imagination has been put into how to maintain this service; a service that, in it’s essence—beyond the paper and stamps—is as old and universal as the need to tell somebody something important, or transmit an object from one place to another.
Now we live in a time when effectiveness and utility trump content and emotion—and buildings (and parks and other public places) that were built by the people for the good of the people are given into the hands of fools or thieves. This sale of old post office buildings is a perfect example of that. These places should never be sold—to wind up as iPhone stores or gun shops, red-neck churches or strip joints. At the very least, if “our” government, too busy invading and occupying countries and giving tax breaks to tax-dodging corporations, can’t afford to keep them then they should be donated to local communities, to be used as youth hostels, schools, clinics, day-care centers.
This is the way of things now—and the only people who can reverse this trend are common American citizens—the same people who built these places in the first place; the same people who have used them over generations. No appeal to Congress will make any difference—does it ever make a difference to appeal to Congress, or the White House? The only way to keep these places open is to initiate lawsuits stopping the sales and to demonstrate outside and inside the buildings.
Kurt Vonnegut used to answer some his fan mail personally.
He told this little story once… a conversation with his wife when he was going out to buy an evelope.
“…Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
Right— and we’re not supposed to own the architectural treasures of the people anymore, built with their own money, in a time when everything seemed almost hopeless—buildings that are the repositories of millions of bygone communications, temples to the sacredness of human connection.