Why mailmen don't deliver the mail.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 20 2008 6:59 AM

The J. Crew Catalog Destroyed My Spirit

Why mailmen give up.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

It's a discovery worthy of a murder mystery: In a parking lot in the mountains outside Santa Cruz, Calif., a truck is found abandoned, the keys still hanging in the door. Inside the police find … a note? A body?

Advertisement

The recent discovery in Bonny Doon, Calif., of a former mail carrier's old stash was not exactly unprecedented. There's also the recent arrest of a Detroit postal carrier who squirreled away 9,000 pieces of mail into a storage locker, a work dodge worthy of a Seinfeld plot. A week earlier, a postman was nailed for hoarding 27,000 letters in Leeds, England; the week before that revealed a postal hoarder with 20,000 letters in Frankfurt, Germany. ("[He] didn't deliver mail addressed to himself either," a police statement dryly noted.) And all of them were dwarfed by the North Carolina postman who admitted in August to filling his garage and burying in his backyard nearly a tractor trailer's worth of undelivered junk mail.

But the hoarding and abandonment of mail is a phenomenon that extends at least back to 1874, when Providence, R.I., postman Benjamin Salisbury was caught throwing mail into the ocean "to avoid the trouble of delivery." Some things don't change much; a Long Island postman used the same MO in 1954, when he blamed a bum leg from the war for forcing him to dump his mail off a local pier. The scheme kind of worked … until the tide came in.

In 2006, the last year the U.S. Postal Service released figures, there were 515 arrests and 466 convictions for "internal theft." That figure includes abandonment and hoarding cases, where the motive has remained constant since the days of penny postage: A worker gets overwhelmed or simply disinclined to finish his route. "It's not a huge issue," Agapi Doulaveris of the U.S. Office of the Inspector General told me. "We work on referrals."

And there's the rub: For a referral to happen, first someone has to notice.

The deliveries affected are often what the U.S. Postal Service now terms "standard mail"—and what the rest of us call "junk." With the railroad-driven growth in catalogs, postal abandonment stories were already common by the 1880s. The New York Times complained of mailmen burning their bundles and in 1883 ran the immortal headline "To Deliver His Letters Some Time" after the discovery of a mailman's old stash in the basement of an Upper East Side saloon.

For a mail-sack slacker, there's a dark allure to hoarding junk. Think about it: If someone's first-class mail with paychecks or credit card bills doesn't show up, they're liable to complain. But if the umpteenth Eddie Bauer catalog doesn't arrive, well … who's gonna notice?

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

An Unscientific Ranking of Really, Really Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 11:51 AM It Seems No One Is Rich or Happy: I Looked
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 23 2014 12:02 PM Delightfully Awkward Studio Action Shots of Players, Used on Early Baseball Cards
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 12:01 PM Who Is Constantine, and Should You Watch His New Show?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.