The scent inside this squat federal building is not fir or cinnamon, but it does have its own particular holiday aroma: cardboard Priority Mail envelopes and packing tape.
Christmas at the post office. Possibly the one time of year when everybody still makes a pilgrimage here. Over a lunch hour at this Bethesda location, the people in line at the post office stand as if they have forgotten how to be in line at the post office, as if 364 days of e-cards have left them incapable of operating ballpoint pens or responding to the orders of the middle-aged ladies who preside over their stations with an attitude best described as Stop-Your-Foolishness. Next. Next. Next?
Next is this exhausted woman, shuffling through an imposing stack of holiday cards. “Does Elizabeth still have the same last name?” the woman asks her cellphone, a pen poised above an envelope. “No, the same last name. [After] she got married?”
Earlier this year, the Postal Service announced that it hoped to close up to 3,700 facilities across the country by 2015, part of an effort to cut $20 billion. Suddenly, people were outraged, campaigning to save the buildings they rarely visit for a service they are using less and less. They started e-mail campaigns. Some of them noted the irony of saving the post office with e-mail campaigns. Then, last week, the 3,700 facilities were granted a moratorium, saved from shutdown at least until the spring. A Christmas miracle.
But no one wants to be here, though everyone has to come here, to be reminded of the people they don’t speak enough to and probably bought the wrong things for and should have included the gift receipt with.
In Bethesda, the workers dole out the Christmas (and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Eid) stamps, assisting in the celebration of a holiday whose secular folklore is based on what is ultimately a grand postal miracle: Seven billion people, one sleigh, one night, one red-suited mailman.
“Just think. If we had a building in every single town that was the local IRS office,” would it become a community center? Nancy Pope asks. No! It would fill you with dread. “It wouldn’t give you the feeling that we’re all tied together the way that post offices do.”
Pope is the curator of the National Postal Museum, in a granite temple next to Union Station that used to be the city’s central post office. She has been with the museum since 1984, and she choreographs the installations.
Last week, a new permanent exhibit opened. It’s called “Systems at Work,” and it explains how mail has moved from one point to another over the course of 200 years. Today, Pope is admiring her favorite artifact: a wooden distribution case owned by John T. Jackson, the postmaster of Alanthus, Va., from 1891 to 1940. Alanthus was a small town, which meant that its post office was categorized as Fourth Class, tucked into a corner of Jackson’s general store.
“To me, the case represents the concept and the feelings of a gathering spot,” Pope says.
This museum is the best place to go if you want to feel patriotic about the post office — a sentiment that has recently become fashionable. “The Daily Show” did an ode to the P.O. last week, getting a bunch of famous people who probably never have to mail their own packages to sing about the wonders of American mail. SaveThePostOffice.com passionately tracks location closings. One young graduate student named Evan Kalish has become the philatelic poster child (stamp child?) for post office awareness, via a project he curates on his Web site, Going Postal. Kalish has traversed 43 states and 2,700 post offices with a digital camera, shooting everything he sees on the way: pickups, antelope, clapboard, flagpoles, Ameri-kitsch Americana.
Post office nostalgia is quickly replacing air travel nostalgia or farmer nostalgia, iconic concepts of when America Had It Right. It stands for all the skills we fear we are losing: penmanship, communication, manners, patience, folksiness, duty, George Washington said the post office was “among the surest means of preventing the degeneracy of a free people.”
Our mail, our liberation. Our fairly impressive (still!) system by which one of 300 million Americans can send an object to another of 300 million Americans for less than a dollar, in less than a week.