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Danny Heitman’s ‘At Random’: A lifeline in Louisiana’s pandemic now has challenges of its own



MONROE, La. – I got my first professional byline in 1981 while working as a high school student for my hometown weekly newspaper. It involved the increase in price of a first-class postage stamp to 18 cents. The story was easy to report because I lived across the street from the post office.

Growing up near the post office placed us beside the heartbeat of the world, or so I thought. Patrons came there day and night, as I was often reminded when I spotted a car in the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning. Someone was mailing something important enough to make a trek to the letter slot while most of the city was asleep. Maybe it was a bill; maybe it was a love letter. I could only guess as the car slipped away and I returned to bed.

I thought about all of this the other day with the news that the U.S. Postal Service is in trouble, prompting Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to propose big changes. Slowing delivery and raising postage prices are on the table.

We all know the biggest reason the postal service is ailing. With the advent of email, online shopping and electronic bill payment, fewer people are putting a stamp on an envelope and dropping it in the mail. Post offices no longer rest at the center of national life in the way they once did.

I use email daily and welcome its invention. One recent morning, I sat at my keyboard a few moments and caught up with a friend in England, connecting cheaply and instantly across the ocean. The miracle of it all is no small thing.

But when my English friend decided to send me a new book — the old-fashioned kind bound within covers — email wouldn’t do. She dropped her parcel in the Royal Mail, which eventually passed it along to the U.S. Postal Service. A couple of weeks later, a small box with Queen Elizabeth’s familiar face on a stamp at the top arrived at my doorstep. This, too, was a miracle: a beautiful gift, passed through many hands and across the sea, all for a price most anyone could afford.

The last hand to touch the parcel before it reached me belonged to the postal carrier who serves my neighborhood. A tiny woman of obvious strength, she was, through the weeks of last year’s lockdowns, sometimes the only daily face we saw beyond our household. That’s perhaps the biggest irony of the postal service’s latest round of problems. They come after a year in which millions of homebound Americans got a renewed sense of what the mail can mean.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I thanked our mail carrier for serving us so well during the pandemic. She seemed surprised — and a little embarrassed — to be complimented for doing her job.