The Dead Letter Office

The United States Postal Service never delivered my Father's Day card this year. I held up my end of the arrangement by placing two forty-nine cent stamps on the envelope, just in case the card was too heavy. On the front, the card featured an illustration of a young boy running to the right yelling, "Papa!" The same illustration appeared again and again on several interior flaps. The final flap, at the end of the card, shows the young boy telling his father something in another language. My personal note said, "All that work and now you have to translate it!"

A lost piece of mail "isn’t too different from losing your hat," according to the United States Post Office Inspector General, who probably never had a Father's Day card of his own lost in the mail. "In both cases, you’ll want to check the lost and found bin."

The Lost and Found Department, or The Dead Letter Office, or, officially, the Mail Recovery Center (MRC) of the USPS is there to help. Maybe. I reviewed the Mail Recovery Center Guidelines, and they are unhelpful and obtuse—just as you would expect a governmental document to be. The website states that items sent to the MRC include loose-in-mail items valued $25 or more, eyeglasses, cell phones, guns(!) "as per the Postal Operations Manual (POM) 691.57," clothing (high-valued used and all new clothing), and letters in letter trays."

Among the list of items outside of the MRC’s jurisdiction are "any undeliverable or unendorsed Standard Mail® letters and flats." The information wasn't very helpful so I continued my search.

The Postal Explorer webpage of the USPS ("a virtual library of postal information and tools designed for U.S. Postal Service customers") states that "mail can be undeliverable for these reasons (emphasis mine):”

  • No postage.
    See: The aforementioned two stamps.
  • Incomplete, illegible, or incorrect address.
    My handwriting is legible and the addresses were correct.
  • Addressee not at address (unknown, moved, or deceased).
    Unless he moved without telling me, my father still lives there.
  • Mail unclaimed.
    That's the problem.
  • Mail refused by the addressee at time of delivery.
    That would be pretty messed up of my father to do.
  • Mail refused by the addressee after delivery when permitted.
    That would be even more messed up.
  • Minimum criteria for mailability not met.
    I have no idea what this means.

I needed a more personal explanation, so I went to the local branch of the post office during my lunch hour. The man behind window twelve at the Cooper Station Post Office in New York City was warm and helpful. "Was there anything of worth in there?" he asked me.

"Apart from the priceless sentiment of a son wishing his father a Happy Father's Day," I replied, trying not to laugh at my own joke. "Only the worth of the card and the two stamps."

After we acknowledged that it was addressed correctly and properly stamped, he told me the most likely scenario was that the letter was shredded in processing.  If any remnants of the addresses survived intact, they would be delivered to one of the two addresses on the card in a plastic bag. I shouldn't bet on that, though. He then apologized on behalf of the Postal Service for the situation.

In any event, happy belated Father's Day, Dad!