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Disappearing Rural Post Offices: Why Should We Care?

SEVERAL years ago, they moved the post office one town over from where I grew up. It used to be on Main Street. Now it's out by the highway, in a shopping center.

For years, the Postal Service has been closing rural branches, all over the country. Efficiency, they say.

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Anyone who has seen a central bulk mail facility - the numbing assembly-line, the bored and angry workers, the lost mangled mail - would have to question that "efficiency" stuff right off. And is it really more efficient to make patrons drive extra miles to get their mail, as opposed to walking to a post office in town?

But the real problem goes much deeper.

The cost cutters know how to add. But they add only what they want. And they don't understand what counts.

In our town, the post office was the hub of daily life.

The town was really just a hamlet, with the post office and library at one end, the general store and garage at the other, and a smattering of houses around and between. There wasn't much happening; in winter in particular, the days could be flat and bleak.

The mail broke the monotony. It was something to look forward to, an errand to be about.

It came in twice a day, and folks would be there first thing in the morning, sipping coffee in their pickup trucks, or reading the paper, or lamenting the Red Sox or the lower grade of tourist that had come in recent years. People chatted as they turned the brass dials on their post office boxes, and as they weeded out the junk mail. Some of the friendships seemed to go back for decades.

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The postmaster was second only to the telephone operator in his acquaintance with the affairs of the populace. Some called him nosy. But he was always a good source of news and gossip. And he kept an eye on things. If an older resident hadn't been in for their mail in a while, he might want to know why. Word got around pretty quickly when someone was sick or in the hospital, or needed help in some other way.

The post office provided a social ritual that was especially important to the older folks.

It was a point of connection to the life around them; it gave them business to attend to, a real reason to be up and about. They remained functioning parts of the world, along with everyone else. I couldn't tell who was retired and who wasn't.

Young people like myself got to be part of that business as well. Kids today are shunted off into ghettos like television and school. They don't have much contact with the daily working life.

But when I picked up the household mail, or bought a money order to get a basketball hoop from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, I got to overhear the gossip and the banter. I picked up bits of information about septic tanks, social security, zoning, the rental business - pieces of the puzzle that was the adult world.

Life does not provide many crossroads any more, where the generations meet and people get to chat. Those few that remain should be declared endangered social species; like traditional Main Streets, they should be protected and supported.

This is not mere nostalgia. What the post office saves, will come out of other pockets many times over.

If they do keep closing post offices, loneliness and isolation will increase. The glue that holds communities together will erode that much more. Sensing the fragmentation, from this and other causes, officials will soon be calling for "senior citizens' centers" and the like, at public expense, to replace what post offices (and small town cafes) once made a normal part of life.

People will scratch their heads and wonder why taxes are so high and why people don't seem to fend for themselves the way they used to. They will wonder why kids retreat further into their generational ghetto - why they don't know much about the world and don't seem to care.

"The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world," declared John Gatto, teacher of the year in New York City. "This defies the experience of thousands of years."

Why should they care, if they don't have any contact, or place in it?

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