Investigative Mail-Art: Postal Worker Answers DK’s Hard Questions
On behalf of mail-artists everywhere, DK conducted an in-depth interview with a former postal worker who achieved a high career rank in the USA mail system. DK’s source, now retired, agreed to answer all the gloves-off questions on the grounds that her identity is kept anonymous. The result is an insider view of the postal system with a close look at issues that impact the mail-art community.
DK: Since you work for the post office, can I do a not-so-formal interview with you? It would make you major famous in the mail art community. I can send you questions….believe in Nixies!!!!
Post Mistress X: Sure. But I’ve been retired from there for a few years.
DK: Even better! Please do this at your own pace because I want to pick your brain. Are you familiar with mail-art? I am a part of a network of artists that create art sent through the mail. It is our passion and postal workers are rock stars to us as they make it all possible.
Post Mistress X: I’ve never heard of it.
DK: Most of the time our mail is sent through even though much is strange and what we call ‘naked’ – meaning no envelope – just weird shit sent with stamps only. People have sent cans of soup, china tea cups, etc., with only stamps placed on the object and it has gone though. This is an international thing. We are having this discussion because sometimes mail will bounce back to us even if it is correctly addressed, with correct postage, etc. Sometimes it will come back several times.
Post Mistress X: LOL. Yes. I’ve seen that stuff.
DK: So this is the debate: I have always known my postal workers personally, and they love seeing the weird shit I get and send. I tend to think it breaks up their monotony. Others believe mail-art is a huge pain in the ass for postal workers. They’d rather send it back with a message, ‘Stop mailing this shit. You make my life harder.’
Post Mistress X: In these modern times, it is a pain in the ass. Most mail processing is done by machine. Anything that isn’t machine-processed just causes more work and usually takes longer to process
DK: What is the weirdest thing you have seen someone send through the mail naked?
Post Mistress X: Men’s underwear.
DK: What is the general response to such things at the USPS?
Post Mistress X: Local level: Amusement. District: Processing pain in the ass.
DK: Do you think the mailmen/women get a kick out of the unusual?
Post Mistress X: A very big kick.
DK: Why do they send shit back when it is properly mailed? Laziness? Disgust? Mind numbed?
Post Mistress X: If they are sending it back, it has to be for a reason, which should be shown on the piece.
Post Mistress X: Someone didn’t send it to manual processing and returned it via mechanical processing.
DK: That’s where the Nixie conversation came up. The piece that said Nixie was all correct yet came back twice. I did nothing different, and it went through the third time. Yet the person who mailed it on had it come back to him twice although it was all correct. Third time was a charm that time too. What do you suppose is the reason? If they send it back, why do they sometimes cancel the stamps? Why are stamps sometimes not cancelled?
Post Mistress X: Nixie clerks are just a job and most hate the work. It is usually given to folks on medical restrictions and is one of the worst jobs.
Post Mistress X: If it can’t be processed by machine, then the stamps could get missed. The carrier is supposed to cancel them if they are missed.
DK: I told you I have a lot of questions. Do most post office workers hate their lives/jobs? Do people really all wish to be Nixies? Do workers really not know about or call them Nixies? How, why and where do things go in the process of getting to the Dead Letter Office and what happens to all that shit?
DK: A bunch of us once sent mail art addressed to the moon. Where do you think that went?
DK: I had a friend that worked at the post office sorting. He said it was so mind-numbingly repetitive (this was before robots did it, I think) that they would trip on acid to cope. Are drugs common/a problem?
Post Mistress X: They might hate some of the working conditions, but I did love my job.
DK: Were you in the station or a delivery person?
DK: I see now you saw someone send underwear with just stamps no box?
Post Mistress X: Yep.
Post Mistress X: Nixies is just a term for mail that is undeliverable
DK: Where does undeliverable/unreturnable mail go? What is the process? Do they then destroy it?
Post Mistress X: The Dead Letter Office handles all the regional nixies that cannot be processed locally.
DK: One article actually called the workers ‘nixies.’ Is that bs?
Post Mistress X: At the Dead Letter Office they can open some things and return them if there is information inside.
DK: So Nixie is a noun not a person?
Post Mistress X: It is the writer making a short version of the job title. The title is Nixie Clerk. Nixies is actually the term for the mail, and the person processing it is Nixie Clerk
DK: Cool. Then what if they can’t deliver? Is this where letters to Santa go?
Post Mistress X: There are special procedures for letters to Santa. Usually a local organization will fill out the paperwork to get them or there is a national location where we send them. If it can’t be delivered or returned to sender and has no value, it is destroyed. If it is of value, it is at some point auctioned
DK: So they open it all as a last resort, and then where is it all auctioned? What is a postal worker’s ideal position and/or the most sought after? Is it common that a lot of valuable packages, etc. end up there?
Post Mistress X: Oh no, some will be opened and some just destroyed; it all depends.
DK: So our undeliverable mail-art most likely ends up destroyed, and what does that mean? Shredded? Burned? Dumpster?
Post Mistress X: Shredded and recycled.
Post Mistress X: Like everything the perfect job depends on the person. I loved being a postmaster.
DK: How cool. What is the most valuable thing that ended up auctioned?
Post Mistress X: Very little actually ends up at the Dead Letter Office.
Post Mistress X: I have no idea about value since I was never allowed to purchase through the auctions being an employee, so I’d never go or look them up.
DK: Is that because they try really hard to get it delivered in spite of obstacles or most people send it properly?
Post Mistress X: Both. We try really hard and most folks do send it properly. The best is the Christmas cards to ‘Grandma and Grandpa, City, State’ with no return address. We figure it out locally because of the postmark.
DK: What about the drugs?
Post Mistress X: I missed the drug question.
DK: I had a friend who worked at the post office sorting. He said it was so mind numbingly repetitive (this was before robots did it, I think) that they would trip on acid to cope. Are drugs a common/a problem?
Post Mistress X: Actually, drugs are not a common problem. You lose your job for that shit, and it is a safety issue.
DK: Good to know. I think he did lose his job. So you would say for the most part our mail-art is probably considered more of a pain in the ass than anything else?
Post Mistress X: Think about how clear your mind needs to be to know by address which route a piece of mail goes to in a town with 100,000 addresses and 200 routes. Drugged ain’t gonna cut it.
Post Mistress X: I think at processing it is a pain in the ass, and at the delivery office it is enjoyed.
DK: Can you remember other weird shit you have seen mailed without envelopes or boxes? Some post offices have said they can’t mail that way, but rules have been investigated and it is allowable as long as there is enough postage, although many just send it without a return address and it almost always goes through.
Post Mistress X: Coconuts. Lots and lots of coconuts.
DK: Each individually stamped?
Post Mistress X: Yep.
DK: Is it Kosher to use international stamps to send overseas? It has always worked for me, but I am never sure if that is okay. Any other weird stuff? And what are most workers’ reactions to it? Were the coconuts to the same person or just something done often over the years?
Post Mistress X: You mean postage you buy here or stamps from another country?
DK: Stamps from other countries used here to mail overseas. Over the years people who take trips to Hawii do it.
Post Mistress X: Not really. They shouldn’t be accepting it if it doesn’t have US international stamps or domestic stamps on it.
DK: Were people amused by the underwear and coconuts? You said processing would be annoyed but others amused?
Post Mistress X: Usually as long as it doesn’t take a machine down. Carriers and clerks at the delivery office think they are a hoot.
DK: Does mail break the machines down often?
Post Mistress X: Jams it up. We did have a time when folks were putting heart candies in cards and the machines would crush them. Then the powder would leak, and we would have to shut everything down and call haz mat.
DK: Are workers well paid/well treated?
Post Mistress X: I think so. In most cases there will usually be the bad egg or someone who thinks doing their job is abuse.
DK: Do they generally feel they are being paid fairly for the work, particularly the carriers because that has to be a hard-ass job?
Post Mistress X: It isn’t an easy job, but no job in the post office is easy. Again it will depend on the person if they think they are being paid fairly. They make a damn nice living in my opinion.
DK: Why do you think they haven’t come up with a drive thru option?
Post Mistress X: There are a few out there, but for most locations it just isn’t an option. Plus security issues: We are still a federal agency.
DK: Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate this!