Self-correcting Inefficiency

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Here is a story so bizarre that it boggles the mind. I don’t know whether to file it under “True but improbable”, “Self-correcting Inefficiency”, or a category not yet invented, but I will leave it to the reader to place it in the proper file.

The Flemington, NJ 08822 post office services 30,354 patrons according to unitedstateszipcodes.org, in an area that covers 63.71 square miles. These facts will become relevant later in the story.

We are residents of 08822, and are planning a trip to Wales in the near future. My wife Florence made travel arrangements with a tour company in the United Kingdom, and as part of the plans the company sent two packages of information in large, white, padded envelopes with our address clearly imprinted and the indicators “1 of 2” and “2 of 2” written in black Sharpie on the outside. The packages cost £19.60 and £13.25 to ship (about $42.00 US) and left UK on May 11, 2017.

About a week later, package “1 of 2” arrived at our home on Meadowrun Way, delivered by our “new” postal delivery lady. I say “new”, though she has been delivering to our home for at least five years. I also don’t refer to her by name, not because I am protecting her identity, but because we don’t know her name; she avoids any contact with the people she services and so we have never learned her name. Her predecessor, Mark, was the model of efficiency. He had our route for the first sixteen years we lived in 08822. He was friendly, helpful, and rarely made any delivery errors. He would make a single pass through our 72-home neighborhood each day, efficiently passing each home on the right side of the truck one time only, inserting the mail fully and closing the door of each box all the way. If the mail was too big to fit in the box, he’d get out of the truck and bring it to the door. Each parcel was precious cargo to him, and each patron was a postal customer who had great respect and love for him.

For simplicity-sake, let’s call the “new” mail carrier “Happy” since her method of delivering mail can only be described as haphazard. It takes her several hours each day to make the deliveries in our neighborhood. She is frequently seen turning around in driveways halfway down a block to deliver mail to the other side of the street, only to have to do so again to finish the second half of the block. Happy drives in reverse at high speeds to the previous box sometimes. You would expect it is to correct an error she made delivering mail, but the laws of chance seem to go against this notion since at the end of each day, when neighbors go out to retrieve their mail, there is a rehearsed square-dance of neighbors do-si-do’ing down the street as they re-deliver all of the incorrect mail that they have received, and hoping that the other neighbors will bow-to-their-partner to redistribute the mail they received by mistake. Mail frequently does not show up, likely because the person who received it felt it was sufficiently unimportant as to require them to re-deliver it, or because it has been lost in the bottom of the mail truck forever.

Such was the case with our package “2 of 2” from the UK. For a week it did not appear. So my wife contacted the tour company who indicated that the two packages had indeed left their hands at the same time, and asking her to wait another week to see if it had been misrouted.

The story shifts gears a moment here, as I mention that we have been talking about our upcoming trip for several weeks to everyone with which we chance to have a conversation. The topic came up with our Deacon’s wife who, like most Deacons’ wives, make it their business to know everything about everyone. They use this skill not in a creepy way, but in a very useful and cataloging way that can be instrumental in making many connections between people. Our Deacon’s wife mentioned that there is a couple in our Parish who used to live in Wales, and that they may have some good travel advice. Rick and Jeanmarie are the Parishioners’ names, and we know them as good acquaintances. They were a wealth of good information, and before Mass last Sunday Jeanmarie said to us that she’d put together some lists of things to do, travel books, and some of their “must-see” places for our visit.

Back at home another week went by, and our travel packet had not shown up from the tour company. So Florence again contacted them to let them know. They did not want to mail another packet out, owing to the high postal cost and expecting that it might not arrive in time. But they agreed to have a packet delivered to our first hotel in Wales so that we could take advantage of the information while on our trip.

Sunday came again, and at church we saw Jeanmarie walking towards us with a large bag in one hand which included all of the aforementioned travel information for Wales. In her other hand was a large, dirty-brown envelope which said “2 of 2” at the bottom of it. The envelope, which was indeed the one from the travel company and correctly had our name and address on it, was evidently sliding around the bottom of the mail truck for two weeks before being delivered to Jeanmarie’s home the previous day. She lives on Meadow Lark Ct., which is in our zip code but is more than two miles from where we live, and her box number is different from ours. Our last names both begin with “D”, but the similarity ends there. When we compared notes on postal carriers, Jeanmarie indicated that theirs is a “ditsy” and unfriendly woman. We were fairly sure she was describing Happy.

So I pose the question: How did it happen that a package makes it a quarter the way around the world and arrives in our post office with no trouble in a period of one week. But the same package is then kicked around a mail truck for two weeks, is delivered to one of 30,000 possible recipients, and the recipient is not the correct recipient, but is the one other person in the zip code that would have similar business with the intended recipient?

The chances seem so astronomical that I feel like I am missing a simple and obvious explanation, and yet that explanation eludes me. I will entertain alternate explanations.

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