Post for a Postmaster

MR. Kenneth N. Andre Postmaster Portland, Maine Dear Mr. Andre:

No doubt about it: This crumpled scrap of paper on my desk was once an envelope. It still bears the postmark of our small Maine town and my handwritten address to a business colleague in the Midwest. It still contains the remnants of the check I had sent her.

When she sent back the remains (I promptly sent her another check), she enclosed your letter. ``Dear Postal Customer,'' it begins, in the timeless impersonality of form letters, ``As part of our modernization of mail processing procedures, the Portland Post Office has installed electronic equipment to speed the cancellation and distribution of first class mails. Occasionally, a piece of mail will be caught in this equipment and become torn or damaged in some other way.''

``Damaged,'' indeed! The front of my envelope looks as if it has been run over by a Ninja mutant all-terrain vehicle. The back is stained with swatches of black, greasy ink. And the entire upper left quarter of the envelope - and of the check - is missing. Not merely damaged, you understand: Just plain gone, as though it had been torn from its moorings by sharks.

Yours is, obviously, an amazing machine, capable of performing a variety of manglings in what was, no doubt, the twinkling of eye. Aware of its capabilities, you rightly fortified yourself with this form letter, which continues in droll understatement:

``The enclosed piece of mail was damaged during this process. As a result, we have placed it in one of our official envelopes to complete delivery to you. Please accept our sincere apology for any inconvenience this matter may have caused you.''

I do, Mr. Andre, I really do. It's not your fault. Fortunately, my envelope contained something merely valuable but not priceless, like an old photograph or a contract signed by my grandfather. So my concern is less with things than with communications.

Take your first sentence. There, you justify what you quaintly call ``damage'' in two telling words: ``modernization'' and ``speed.'' Think of the precedent your justification sets for a nation galloping pell-mell into new technologies.

If we are to excuse the results of haste and novelty at an institution so trusted by the citizenry, what's next? An ``official'' plastic bag from the dry cleaner, containing three-quarters of my slacks? A ``sincere apology'' from the car wash when I emerge with the entire left front fender missing?

I know: I'm stretching things. So let me get serious. We live in the age of Chernobyl, Bhopal, and the Exxon Valdez. In the name of speed and modernization, we have found ourselves frighteningly willing to sacrifice vital margins of safety. And what is our first response when the ``damage'' is done? We repackage the loss and issue a one-size-fits-all apology. The mistake is to imagine that we're dealing with objects. In fact, we're dealing with lives.

Where will it end? Well, imagine some grisly electronic future in which the following letter arrives from the superintendent of schools.

``Dear Parent:

``As we modernize our schools, we are installing the latest equipment to speed the education of your son or daughter.

``Occasionally, however, a student lands sideways on our educational conveyor belt and gets mangled by the system.

``We wish we had some actual people to look after such children - people who could pick them up, read their mental address, stamp a mark of approval on them, and forward them gently to their moral and intellectual destination. But we've spent all our money on machines.

``Hence this form letter, which, along with your child, we're sending back to you. We regret the inconvenience.''

So do I, Mr. Andre, so do I. This time, it cost me only the writing of another check - and another stamp, of course. What will it cost next time?

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