Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Vexing Paradox of the Empty Box

Imagine a Venture Capitalist listening to a pitch for a new service: For a small fee, customers would have to wait in long lines during restrictive hours, adhere to the company’s rigid restrictions at the risk of being turned away, and still have no guarantee that the service they paid for would actually do what they wanted it to do.

The VC would silently shred the prospectus in full view of its author, then quietly buzz for security to escort the poor soul from the building.

Yet that’s exactly what the Postal Service expects us to do. But, to paraphrase the ad for a city that has adapted beautifully to change, “What worked in the 19th century should stay in the 19th century.” The P.O.’s creaky approach rules out an IPO any time soon. It may sound like a good idea to hang on to an institution because it’s been with us so long, but we tried that with things like segregation and not letting women vote, and, sorry to say, it just didn’t work out.

Nobody expects the Postal "Service" to be efficient, but recently, I was caught in the bizarre, Zen-like conundrum of trying to mail an empty box. What is the sound of one empty box clapping? The situation was a paradox wrapped in a riddle sealed with cellophane tape.

What I had was an oversized, empty box of Kodak film, a old-time camera store display piece for a shutterbug friend of mine. My friend requested I send it as is, rather than collapsing it and causing wear and tear on the seams. Simple, right? Yet, apparently, no one at the P.O. had ever encountered a hollow, three-dimensional, rectangular object before. To say the clerk was flummoxed is an understatement. Here is the actual dialogue:

Me: (putting Kodak box on counter) I need a box . . .
Clerk: You have a box.
Me: No, I need a box so I can send this box.
Clerk: (suspiciously lifting box) But it's empty.
Me: That's right.
Clerk: You want to send an empty box?
Me: Yes.
Clerk: You'll need a box.
Me: (mentally screaming) Are you Abbott or freakin' Costello??

Since the Kodak box didn't fit their standard shipping cartons, they kindly offered to sell me a much bigger one. How nice of them: the cost of the box and postage would have set me back more than twice the normal rate. Just to mail an empty box!

Did I mention they don't even sell those little foam peanuts you need to fill the space inside?

Heck with that, I thought, and set upon a banker's box with a cutter and tape. I built a box from scratch, slicing and sticking and winding up with a pretty good container. So there.

Or so I thought.

Sorry: it turns out the Post Office doesn't accept homemade shipping boxes if they have any markings left over from previous use.

Great. Box cutter and tape once again in hand, I sliced more cardboard and used it to cover the writing on the sides. Heaven forbid the mail carrier get confused and accidentally deliver it to "Weyerhauser."

By the time I had covered every outer marking with cardboard and tape, my poor empty Kodak box weighed more than a pound and change. If anyone ever wanted to annoy Al Gore with campaign discouraging recycling, this package could be used on a poster. (I already have the slogan: “It's Only Earth - Why Bother?“) It was the sorriest, most forlorn example of "Re-Use" ever.

I let my friend know ahead of time that this pathetic package was hurtling its way toward his home.

That is, if the Postal Service actually delivers it.