Safe Stamps | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Safe Stamps 

Be Careful: This Could Happen to You

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The woman at the Ravenswood post office is livid. She wants her stuck-together stamps replaced, dammit, and the clerk behind the counter won't cooperate.

"I'm sorry," he says. "We cannot exchange stamps unless they were defective at time of purchase."

The woman imagines such stamps--presidents' heads turned upside down or American flags with 14 stripes. She wouldn't be moronic enough to surrender a valuable misprint. Her stamps aren't collector's items; they're just stuck together.

"I got caught in the rain!" she says, hoping the forced pathos in her voice will convince the clerk she deserves a break. Hadn't she volunteered emergency baby-sitting services to a dear friend and walked a half mile in a torrential downpour with only a newspaper over her head? She'd arrived dripping wet, and the much slimmer friend had nothing to fit her while her clothes were in the dryer except a flowered wraparound skirt the six-year-old uses as a Batman cape. The next day the woman had discovered the damage: ink from the Arby's coupons in her handbag had bled onto her money, and two booklets of 29-cent postage stamps were permanently stuck together.

She knows her money's still good. The bureaucracy at the U.S. Treasury is less convoluted than that at the U.S. Postal Service. Any bank would replace the damaged bills with freshly minted ones as long as she had an account there. But the permanently stuck together stamps strike fear in her soul.

As she fears, the post office clerk does not emphathize with her.

"I'm sorry," the clerk says, "that's our policy."

The woman is insistent. "It's not the stamps I'm paying for," she says. "It's the service, right?"

The clerk lifts the corner of one stamp where the woman tried separating the stuck layers. "They're not all here," he says.

"Yes they are!" she almost shouts.

The clerk fingers the booklets, examines them from all angles, and squints. Can't he see the second layer of green-headed wood ducks beneath the first? "Just a minute," he says, and disappears.

Earlier that day she'd considered soaking the stamps apart and sticking them to envelopes with Elmer's. But finding the bottle and removing the crusty dried glue on the tip would be a half-hour project. This solution would be suitable for electric bills, but lumpy stamps with dried glue around the edges would not impress a New Yorker editor.

The clerk returns and motions toward the far end of the counter. "Stand over there. A supervisor will be right with you."

The woman now waits in another line behind two other customers. She is comforted by a small counter display: a photograph of Leonard Nimoy as Spock bearing the headline "Stamp Collecting Is Logical." It is logical that her stamps be replaced.

The supervisor is explaining something to the first customer in line, but she doesn't understand. The supervisor explains again. The customer doesn't understand again. The second guy is fidgeting. "C'mon already! Jesus," he mutters. When the first customer finally gets sent away with four forms to fill out, the fidgeting guy is told he's been standing in the wrong line. He won't go. He wants to argue. "I've always stood here to do this!" he says.

The woman notes that the regular line is suddenly empty--a rare occurrence, like a shooting star. Coming through the door is a string of customers bearing poorly wrapped packages. She tries to get the guy's attention to tell him to move fast, but he's not listening to her. The woman is tempted to give up on her mission, to leave the Ravenswood post office. Then she remembers: the clerk never returned her stuck-together stamps.

So she waits. The confused woman comes back with more questions and leaves with more forms. The fidgeting guy gets back in the regular line behind a dozen other customers.

The woman remembers seeing something on TV not too long ago about the U.S. Treasury replacing money that's been through fires, shipwrecks, paper shredders. Hundreds of thousands of dollars half-rotted away beneath some compost heap are weighed and chemically analyzed to tabulate their exact sum. The woman wonders if she'll have to go through this procedure with her stamps.

She doesn't. "Be patient," says the supervisor, and hands her back the damaged stamps. "There's a procedure. Just let me get the form."

The form is similar in complexity to the 1040A, and the woman isn't sure she can answer every question. But she's come this far, and she's not leaving without those stamps.

The form's filled out, but the supervisor has disappeared. Leonard Nimoy returns the woman's stare. The logical choice is to return to the regular line. It's not too long, and the supervisor may be at lunch. That's when the deja vu starts.

"I'm sorry," says the clerk, this time a new one. "We cannot exchange stamps unless they were defective at time of purchase."

"Talk to your supervisor," the woman says. "She approved this."

The clerk fingers the stamps, flipping over the little edge where the woman tried unsticking them. "You sure they're all here?" she says.

Just as the woman is about to grab back her stamps and leave the post office screaming, the supervisor appears.

"Just replace the stamps," she says to the clerk, handing her a small receipt pad. "Fill this out and have her sign it."

So the woman fills it out, receives her fresh stamps, and graciously thanks all involved.

"Just be careful," says the supervisor.

The woman looks behind her. "What?"

"With your stamps," says the supervisor. "Next time be careful."

The woman feels she has learned a valuable lesson. In this age of safe sex, buckling up, and smoke alarms, few people understand the concept of stamp safety. They eschew cigarettes, caffeine, aluminum cans, and cholesterol, but gad about town with their stamps unprotected. This woman was one of the fortunates.

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