A few days ago I went down to my local post office to mail some copies of my new book to some folks. Normally I have someone do this for me, but the schedules were such that day that I ended up doing it.

Because it’s a government-run operation, I know that whenever I go to the post office I will have to wait in line for at least 30 minutes, regardless of what time of day I go or which post office in my area I use. There are very few times I get right in are rare, and I consider those an unplanned bonus.

I walk into the post office carrying a huge and heavy box of individually wrapped hardcover books. We had already paid and pre-stamped the packages using print-on-demand labels, but since these were international packages, the post office insists that you wait in line and give them to a live attendant. You can’t just put them in a post office drop box. Dumb, but okay, I’ll play.

Of course, upon entering the post office I see a long line of bored and angry people a mile long with just two attendants helping people behind the counter. The line isn’t moving. At all.

No problem, I prepared for this. I set down the box, pull out my phone, and start reading some web sites and catching up on my email.

After 40 minutes of standing in line and pushing my big box before me, I finally make it up to the counter. The post office worker was very pleasant. I tell him that I’m dropping off these international packages, already pre-paid, pre-labeled, and ready to go. “Can I just leave them then?” I ask. Oh no. These are international packages. I have to stand there while he processes each one.

Just great. I had about 17 packages.

But hey, I’m an optimist. Maybe it won’t take very long to process these. Oh, how dumb I was.

I unload the packages on the counter. He grabs the first one and scans it with his barcode scanner gun. Or at least, tries to. It doesn’t work. He tries again. Then again. Then again. It doesn’t read the code. As I always do, I had made sure to not cover the bar code with packing tape, so the issue wasn’t anything with the package or the print label. His barcode reader simply wasn’t working.

He tried again and again. “What’s wrong with my scanner?” he asked himself. In exasperation, he throws, yes throws, his scanner gun down on his desk (that probably won’t help it much) and grumbles as he manually enters the numbers on the label. Now I’m worried that he might mis-enter them. Great.

But then I realize something else. “Does this mean you have to manually enter all the numbers on all of these packages?” I ask.

“Well, hopefully my scanner will work for the next one,” he says with a smile.

He finishes typing the number, puts the package aside, grabs the next one, and tries his scanner. It doesn’t work. He tries three or four more times, shooting the barcode this way and that, covering the gun light with his hand, etc. No go. He grumbles and starts entering the number manually.

I sigh as I realize I’m going to have to stand here like a dumbass while he manually enters every number on every damn package.

Sucks. But it gets worse.

More minutes go by. After about the fifth package, the guy suddenly looks in horror at his computer screen. “What the hell is wrong with my computer?” he says. He turns to the other postage worker over at the next counter and says, “All the numbers I just typed in are gone! What happened?”

They go back and forth for a few minutes. In exasperation, he goes back to the five he already entered and has to re-enter all five packages. Manually of course, because his bar code scanner still won’t work.

I stand around and wait even longer. People in line behind me, having already waited 40 minutes at least, start to shuffle and get pissed. I don’t blame them. I shrug, pull out my phone, and catch up on some more email. Thank god for mobile technology.

After waiting an eternity, he finally manually enters every package, prints me a receipt, and we’re done. (I’m amazed his receipt printer worked.) Now I’m worried he mis-entered one or more of the packages. He assures me that won’t happen because the “computer will catch it” or something. Yeah. Your computers work really great here.

Before leaving, I ask him, “Is there any way I can ship multiple international packages like this in the future without having to wait in line?” He says there was an option on the USPS web site when I made the shipments to print some kind of drop-off receipt. Or something. I didn’t see anything like that, and I bet I won’t next time I go to the site (without spending a huge amount of time digging around at least), but I thank him anyway and leave.

So even after taking the effort to pay for and print my own shipping labels and package everything correctly in an effort to save time, I still had to wait over an hour at the post office just to drop them off.

Honestly, why did I bother to go to their web site and buy print-on-demand shipping labels? I might as well have just done it at the post office. But then why do they encourage you to do this on the web site? Why don’t they clearly say, “Look, if you’re shipping internationally, you don’t want to print these labels. Just go wait in line at the post office for an hour and do it there with our broken equipment. Yes, we know that sounds shitty, but that will actually take you less total time.”

Look, I’m impressed that the post office gets my mail to where I want it to go. Really, I am. People who work for the post office are hard working and good people. But the customer service infrastructure of the post office is just as incompetent and dysfunctional as any big government operation (coughDMVcough, coughIRScough, coughfamilycourtsystemcough). I have been saying for decades now that we need to privatize the post office, and eliminate the post office’s insane and completely useless monopoly on first class mail.

In a future post I will explain exactly how this can happen.

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