Last Friday night, I walked over to my local post office to buy some 1-cent stamps. Sure, the post office was closed at 9pm, but it has a new computerized machine to serve our posting needs 24/7. In fact, the Postal Service is so keen on our using this machine that, last time I was there during business hours, they had assigned one of their employees to walk along the line of customers waiting to be served and suggest that we take our business to the machine–rather than have that employee work behind the counter so that we wouldn’t have to wait in line so long! She’d said that this new machine could weigh my package and provide appropriate postage, as well as sell me stamps. I do prefer to deal with humans, but for after-hours use this machine sounded quite convenient.
Well, I felt like taking a walk at sunset Friday, and we needed some 1-cent stamps to supplement our 41-cent stamps now that the rate has gone up. I planned to buy two booklets of 18 or 20 or whatever, one for me and one for Daniel. Our post office’s previous machine (which was more like a vending machine than an ATM) had offered several denominations of stamps, both singly and in booklets, and since the rate increase was just a couple of weeks old I felt certain that 1-cent stamps would be in stock.
The new machine only takes credit cards, not cash. I felt pretty silly inserting my card for a transaction that would total less than $1, but oh well.
The machine offered me a booklet of 42-cent stamps or “single stamps” in any denomination. Huh, no booklets of 1-cent? Well, I’d just ask it for a large number of single stamps. I assumed the machine would position the roll of stamps behind its slot, spit out the right number, and cut off the strip.
I keyed in “0.01” for the stamp value I wanted and prepared to enter “40” for the amount. But the machine instead offered 5 touchscreen buttons: 1 stamp, 2 stamps, 3 stamps, 4 stamps, or 5 stamps. There was no “more” button. I went back through the menus to figure out how to get a larger number of stamps. Nothing. The machine did mention that I could do additional transactions with a single credit-card charge, without inserting my card again. Greeeaat. The only way to get my 40 stamps would be to punch through all the menus eight times. Well, there was nobody waiting to use the machine. I figured I’d get a couple more sets of 5 and then buy a larger amount from the humans another day.
But then…just as I happily prepared to watch my stamps spit out and wondered what picture would be on them…the machine’s screen said, “Printing stamps. Please wait.” Printing stamps?! In a cheezy little machine that is, by the way, too short to be used comfortably by a normal-sized adult?! I waited to see how this would turn out. I waited some more. It took kind of a long time, by today’s impatient standards–maybe about two minutes.
And then, out of the slot dropped these horrible things. They are not stamps!!! They are black-and-white labels with a machine-readable blotchicode and just enough printed information to convey to humans that they represent $0.01 in U.S. postage. There is no Wood Duck or Knitting Heritage Month or other commemoration of human interests. As if that isn’t bad enough, each of these labels is double the size of a normal stamp and is surrounded by a section of blank label of at least equal area, and the whole shebang is stuck to a piece of slippery paper about 2″x3″. They’re ugly, wasteful, bulky, hard to handle without dropping, and hard to peel. I felt betrayed and insulted and defrauded. I just wanted to buy stamps! Stamps in a denomination that ought to be readily available in large quantity at this particular time!
I didn’t go back through the menus to get more of them. It’ll be interesting to see if a purchase of 5 cents really does turn up on my credit card statement. I thought credit-card transaction processing was expensive; how can this be a cost-effective strategy for the Postal Service?
These labels are similar to the ones that are printed for the human postal clerks to affix to packages, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the machine print one if I’d been sending a box requiring, say, $6.23 in postage. But when what I want–and what the machine led me to believe I was purchasing!–is stamps to keep in my desk drawer at home and affix one at a time to bills and letters, these things are a poor excuse.
What irks me most is this: I’ve used a postage meter, back when I was an office minion 15 years ago. Set the amount, run the paper tape under the stamper, tear it off, and you’ve got legal postage in the desired amount, ready to moisten and stick on an envelope, biodegradable, with no extra label or backing-paper to throw away–or you can run the envelope itself through there and not even use the tape–and it’s fast. If they’d just put an old-fashioned mechanical postage meter inside this machine, it could’ve printed the 40 1-cent postages I wanted in less time than it took to print these 5 horrible things. They still wouldn’t be stamps, and it shouldn’t claim to be selling me stamps, but at least it would be faster and less wasteful.
Welcome to the Future. Stamp collectors, get ready to collect the special commemorative stamp commemorating The Postage Stamp. Postal workers, look forward to a career of sweeping up little slippery papers from the floor of the post office. Everyone else, get in line and wait your turn to use the machine, while the people ahead of you beep through the same menus eight times in a row and wait for the hideous sticky labels to print.
I can’t resist mentioning how much this reminds me of a dream I had earlier this century: I got some money from the bank machine, but where Andrew Jackson’s face should be was a blank with the words ENPORTRAITIZE WITHIN 21 DAYS TO VALIDATE. I went home and asked Daniel, “What’s with this new money?” He said, “Oh, you have to get these stickers from the post office,” and showed me his money, enportraitized with a finny-headed alien wearing a tie, captioned FAIRLY ELECTED LEADER QUOMM. Daniel shrugged and said, “I guess things will be different from now on.”