Friday, January 22, 2010



Several weeks ago, I walked down to the post office on 18th Street. I had to send a letter by "Certified Mail," and it's easier to do that at the post office. So off I went to Old Chelsea Station.

Old Chelsea Station is old. Very old. The building probably dates from the 1920s. It has faux stone pillars and pale green deco linoleum floors. Notices about wanted criminals and special postal offers line the peeling walls. Some notices are over ten years old. The employees work behind ornate, dull bronze bars and a marble counter top. It even smells old in Old Chelsea Station. It is a place that time forgot. And it's oddly comforting.

I filled out my Certified Mail form on a marble table that probably has been in the same place since FDR ruled the White House. I stuck the form on my letter and put it in the "Certified Mail" slot. The slots looked original, too. Faded gold letters adorned them: "Regular Mail," "Express Mail," etc. I looked up and saw a faded gold Federal emblem with an eagle on it. It said "The United States Postal Service" under it.

I left Old Chelsea Station. I thought to myself: "So this is what the world would be like without private enterprise."

I felt at ease at Old Chelsea Station because I could feel continuity with the past. All too often in America, things change overnight. Businesses open and close. Buildings change with the times. People move in and out. Commerce is tough. People either hack it fast or they lose. They need to stay current to compete. If they don't, they go out of business. In the process, they lose touch with the past and live perpetually in the present.

Not so at the post office. Under the Constitution, the Federal government has a "postal monopoly." U.S. Const. Art. I sec. 8, cl. 7. The government manages post offices. They are public institutions. They do not exist for private profit, nor must they worry about the rent. Rather, they get their money from Washington. They don't have to worry about bad months or changing times. They can just keep doing what they have always done.

That is why Old Chelsea Station looks and smells the way it does. It does not need to change. The buidling opened in the 1920s to handle mail services in the neighborhood. It does exactly the same thing today. It does not have competitors. It does not fight a frantic battle every month to scrounge enough money to pay the bills. As such, it can move leisurely. It does not need to renovate every few years. It does not need expensive decorations or gaudy advertisements. It does not need to install creature comforts for customers. It can just stay the way it has always been.

Private enterprise pushes businesses into a life-or-death struggle. Unlike the post office, private businesses need to adapt to survive. They need to constantly change their look. They need to advertise and promote. They need to remain attractive to consumers. In short, they need to stay modern. If a private business operated like the post office, it would have failed decades ago. In private commerce, people need to stay on their toes. They can't worry about continuity. They need to change fast or die.

Perhaps progress depends on this life-or-death struggle. Perhaps society benefits when private economic actors ruthlessly compete with each other to deliver better products and please more people. But that struggle transforms life into one vast, bitter, breathless race. And that race lives in the present moment. The past vanishes. The future does not exist. The race is all. In private commerce, it is all about today. No wonder Americans have such short memories: They can't think about yesterday or they lose the economic battle today.

It is so easy to forget what came before us. I marvel at history. People find it strange that I obsess about things that used to exist in New York decades ago, like the Third Avenue El and S. Klein's Department Store on Union Square. They wonder why I care. I care because the past means something. We can understand the world better when we know what existed before we showed up. We can put things in historical context. Yet it is so easy to lose sight of context because commerce sweeps the past away without a trace. Commerce swept away S. Klein's and the Third Avenue El long ago.

But it did not sweep away Old Chelsea Station. The post office is immune from private commercial pressures. It gives us an insight into bygone times. And it shows us what life might be like without financial worry. True, it might be slow and inefficient. But sometimes it's refreshing to slow down and just remember once in a while. Sometimes it's refreshing to put the present on hold and just look around.

You can do that at Old Chelsea Station.


Sarah said...

i don't know. if it's really pressure free why do they say 'he went postal' ? my favorite is the post office scene in 'men in black' where all the postal workers are aliens!

askcherlock said...

To negate our history is to negate how we became the people and societies of today. It is often the simplicities in life and times remembered which give us balance. Money is a quick amnesiac. Foolish, those who believe it has true meaning.