Boston — Grumbling about the US Postal Service's slow delivery is almost a national pastime. Nearly everyone has woeful tales of missives sent zig-zagging around the country just to get across town.
To put the Postal Service to a test, the Monitor sent 20 letters by first-class mail from Boston to points around the United States as far away as the West Coast, Texas, and Florida and as near as this city's suburbs. Participants were asked to note the date of arrival, and then return an enclosed post card.
On arrival back in Boston, the outbound and return-mail data were recorded. A few of the findings:
* Some of the mail traveling in both directions arrived at more distant addresses faster than did mail to nearer ones.
* In only one case - a delivery to Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City - did the arrival in either direction take as long as five days.
* Delivery times out and back between the same two points tended to be uneven. Some outgoing mail took longer to reach its destination than did the return mail. But the reverse was also true in some instances. The difference, however, was never more than two days.
* The type of pickup for the return post cards seems to have made little difference. The average return time to Boston was three days, and no card took longer than four days.
* Participants generally were favorable in their comments about mail delivery service, but there were some complaints.
US Postmaster General William Bolger is well aware of these criticisms. He was in Boston recently to address a luncheon meeting of large-volume mail users. After the fish, popovers, and ice cream pie, he told the group:
''Without a doubt, this past year has been the toughest and most challenging for your Postal Service since postal reorganization in 1971.''
Mr. Bolger's own family even became embroiled in controversy when his wife reportedly complained that a department store circular was delivered too late for her to take advantage of a sale. The incident allegedly led to favoritism in the delivery of Mrs. Bolger's mail.
But Mrs. Bolger's complaint is the one that many Americans - to whom matters such as electronic mail and massive federal subsidies seem remote - share about the Postal Service: slow delivery.
Columnist Jack Anderson's new magazine, the Investigator, devoted the cover story of its November issue to what it called ''The Great Postal Scandal.'' The story, in part, cited ''instances when it has taken two weeks for a letter to cross New York City and six days for a package to move from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento Calif., the same time it took the Pony Express to make deliveries between the same two cities.''
Indeed, such reports are legion. One resident of Andover, Mass., recently complained that his mortgage payment - sent by first-class mail - took 16 days to arrive at a bank in Concord, Mass., fewer than 25 miles away.
The letters the Monitor sent were sent over a two-day period to the residences of people in major and intermediate-sized cities, small towns, and rural areas. The test was conducted in early November so as not to conflict with the Christmas holiday mail rush.
Each recipient was asked to use an enclosed addressed and stamped post card to note the date his or her letter was postmarked, the date it arrived, and any comments about his personal experiences with mail delivery. Additionally, recipients were requested to start the post cards on their way back to Boston by one of four means: taking them to the nearest corner mail box; to the nearest post office; to the mail drop at their offices or other places of business; or by leaving them in or clipped to their home mail boxes.
One resident of North Haven, Conn., noted that a letter mailed from adjoining New Haven recently took five days to arrive - covering a distance of eight miles from door to door.
A Sudbury, Mass., resident said that his letter from Boston took one day to travel the 25-mile distance. But an unrelated letter to his address, mailed on the same date from the same site, arrived four days later.
Said one respondent from Belleair, Fla.: ''Distance mailing is quite decent. It is the local mailing that can be questionable. A local letter picked up by the carrier is returned to the local office and then sent 15 or 20 miles to a distribution center for cancellation and distribution back to the local office for delivery: wasted time and effort.''
A resident of Boulder, Colo., said he was convinced that mail delivery in the Western states was better than in the East. Mail from Boston to his home, he thought, took longer to arrive than did mail he sent back to Boston. However, the letter sent by the Monitor arrived in two days, whereas his return card - mailed on a Monday - took four days to reach Boston.
Complained a participant in Chicago: ''Mail service is slow. My mother, who lives 100 miles away in Wisconsin, frequently mails letters which take four to five days to arrive.''
Added a resident of rural Grove, Pa., about 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia: ''The mail seems to be arriving more promptly than it did a year ago - letters in two or three days to Florida, as opposed to five or six before.''
A Louisville, Ky., participant said her main complaint about postal service is that ''I have trouble using up one roll of stamps before the rates increase.''
Postmaster Bolger, a candid man, wasn't seeking sympathy when he recently visited Boston. But since last January the Postal Service has been at the center of controversies over:
* An increase in the price of a first-class stamp from 18 to 20 cents.
* Whether or not to implement the nine-digit ZIP code.
* The terms under which it may operate electronic mail service.
* Reduced federal subsidies.
* New union contracts.
* Resale of allegedly unsafe delivery vehicles to the public.
In defense of the Postal Service, Bolger told the Monitor:
''Our standard for first-class mail, including post cards - anything mailed before 5 p.m. - from coast to coast is three delivery days. In other words, you mail it on Monday in California, it ought to be delivered on Thursday in Boston. But I would say four calendar days probably is good from coast to coast. If it's mailed from Framingham (25 miles west of Boston) before 5 p.m., it ought to be in Boston the next delivery day.''Bolger acknowledges criticism of the bulk-mail system, established in the early 1970s at a cost of nearly $1 billion, and through which millions of letters, cards, packages, and other items pass each day. The system often is called too costly and time-consuming.
''I would have done them differently,'' he says. ''I probably would have had some smaller ones and more of them - and in more strategic locations throughout the country. But we have 21 of them now, and they're operating every day. And they're doing a good job. Without them, the Postal Service would be tied in knots.
''He also defends the use of high-speed automated equipment now in wide usage in the service, which has reduced the ranks of employees (''through attrition'') by 74,000 since reorganization, but which is blamed for mangling many letters and packages.
''I haven't seen the latest statistics,'' he says. ''But a few months ago our statistics on damage were down (to) something like one-half of 1 percent. There may be days when something malfunctions and it goes up higher than that. But I don't think anybody who's reporting that now has looked into it very thoroughly to see what the damage rate is.
''The Postal Service claims that in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, it processed and delivered 110 billion pieces of mail - as opposed to 26 billion at the time of reorganization 10 years ago. Productivity, the postmaster general says, has increased 41 percent in that time - 3.5 percent in the past fiscal year alone.
But he maintains that congressional approval to implement the nine-digit ZIP code - or ''ZIP plus four'' as it is called in the service - is needed if the expected return on investment in automated equipment and further increases in productivity are to be realized.
''Without (it), we can only automate the first processing step, from the originating office to the delivery office - which means that we would only achieve half of the possible savings: a 22 percent return on investment compared to 48 percent with ZIP plus four,'' he says.
Bolger acknowledges that ''if you're on the receiving end of one of (our) 1 percent errors, you're disturbed about it - as you should be. We're disturbed about it, too.
''But he adds, ''We provide, I think, the best service in the world.''
Mail delivery test - posted from Boston Addressee's Arrival Return Returned Home Time Time via Chicago 3 days 3 days Office mail drop Los Angeles 3 days 4 days Corner mailbox San Francisco 3 days 3 days Home mailbox Atlanta 2 days 2 days Home mailbox Washington 3 days 2 days Nearest post office Shreveport, La. 3 days 3 days Home mailbox Sandy, Utah 5 days 3 days Home mailbox Houston 2 days 3 days Corner mailbox North Haven, Conn. 2 days 3 days Nearest post office Boulder, Colo. 2 days 4 days Corner mailbox Belleair, Fla. 2 days 3 days Corner mailbox Louisville, Ky. 4 days 4 days Home mailbox Sudbury, Mass. 1 day 3 days Nearest post office