Today I went and did one of the least intelligent things one can do. I went to the Post Office. On the busiest day of the year.
In my defense, I was sure Wednesday was the busiest day. And, that I had beaten that marker by two whole days. I even sort of patted myself on the back, all kind of gloating about it. After all, I’d wrapped presents all day Saturday and Sunday, all 31 of them. Fourteen each for my two sets of in-laws – we do “the seven days of Christmas” (don’t ask) – and three more for my mom-in-law and sis-in-law who each have a January birthday. More gloating because: why, I was so clever to get the birthday gifts in the flat rate boxes.
My smugness was short lived.
I arrived at the U.S. Post Office a little before 9 a.m., bag of wrapped gifts, separated into two piles. A line of bedraggled and confused looking people snaked to the outer door. A postal worker sang out: “Number 104!” I pressed the button and got my number: 122. Oh boy.
Well, I thought, I will just mosey over to the flat rate box self-packaging area and get started – I’ll be totally done by the time my number is called. That was my first misstep. Because there are a number of self-service packaging areas, and I didn’t see one labeled “flat rate.” A fellow DIY-er had to show me where to go. So I sat down my Santa Claus bag and got started.
Misstep No. 2: The presents wouldn’t fit into the “medium” sized box. After I had splayed them out across the counter and folded the cardboard edges, it was clear they weren’t going to fit. OK, I’ll get the large box. But the large didn’t have self-stick strips on it like the medium one. I looked around for some tape – not really frantic or anything (yet). No tape in sight.
I stuffed the gifts back into the bag and walked into the main room to find tape. “Tape? Do you see any tape?”
There was only “priority” tape and I was planning on sending my flat rate boxes as inexpensively as possible – that’s why they call them “flat rate,” right? So, no thanks for the priority, which, I assumed, would cost more.
“If you don’t have any tape, there’s some on the wall. Labels, too,” called out a postal worker who must have noticed my where’s-the-tape glazed over eyes. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. I grabbed my packaging implements and started for the worktable out in the hall.
“You can’t go out there with the tape and labels – you’ll have to do all that in here.”
I started to sweat. I was wearing my winter coat and faux fur hat and I was going about 100 miles an hour trying to jam the presents into the boxes – and get them taped up and labeled – before my number was called.
Then, another postal worker pointed out that I did not need the tape and labels I had grabbed from the rack – yes, my boxes were flat rate, but, they also were “priority” mail. Huh? So, that meant I could use the priority tape and priority labels, free of charge.
I began assembling box No. 1. The priority tape was really, really sticky and kind of hard to maneuver. Plus, I found out – but not soon enough – that it was not in the kind of dispenser that cuts the tape for you. The dispenser had a pair of scissors chained to it for that purpose. Huh. Awkward.
Beads of sweat popped out on my brow. The line of people waiting was growing. I couldn’t get the tape to stop snarling. I was still on the first box.
Now there were about four of us using the same tape dispenser with the ball-and-chain scissors. We all were trying to hurry and at least once I worried that I had maybe snipped more than the end of the tape as a flurry of clumsy hands kept grabbing at it because we all wanted to hurry, hurry, hurry to get it done before our numbers were up.
I started on the second box.
“Hey,” I called out to the people in line, “that’s my number, but I’m not ready, does someone want to switch numbers with me?”
“No number switching!” A really cross looking postal worker gave me the stink eye. “If your number is called, go ahead and finish and just approach the counter and wait. We will get you after the next person in line.”
I finished taping both boxes, filled out my labels and was just about ready to move to my place at the side of the line. I looked at my labels. I looked at my boxes. Both boxes were the same size. In the frenzy of the tape and the cardboard folding and the numbers being called out and the line getting longer and the Soup Nazi Post Office rules – I totally forgot which was which. I thought I knew, but what if I was wrong?
I couldn’t handle the idea of that, so I did what I imagine a good third of the DIY Christmas packagers do – I opened one of the boxes to peek inside. Just to make sure. After carefully setting the proper labels on the correct boxes, I moved to my designated slot. Finally. I stood there bedraggled and confused like everyone else looked, and marveled at the fact that I was a professional business person, got a real paycheck and everything, but here, perspiring and laden with lumpy boxes wrapped with gnarled taped, in the bowels of the U.S. Post Office, a week or so before Christmas, I felt anything but bright.
Nearly two hours after I had arrived, Linda began processing my boxes and ringing me up. “It’s pretty busy today, huh?” I was attempting small talk. “But this isn’t the busiest day, that’s Wednesday, right?”
“Nope. Today is the busiest for shipping. Tomorrow is the busiest for mail processing, and Wednesday is the busiest for delivering.”
“You mean, I came to the Post Office on the busiest day of the year?”
“Yep,” she smiled. “Congratulations. You survived.”
The U.S. Postal Service expects to deliver 420 million packages this year for Christmas – a 12 percent increase over 2012. If you haven’t gotten your packages in the mail, I suggest you hurry on down to your local U.S. Post Office, take a number and give yourself an hour or two. Oh, and, you might want to box up your presents before you get there.