Point Of No Return

Saving dead letters at Atlanta’s Mail Recovery Center.

The next time you contemplate sending a letter without a return address, think again. Every year more than 100 million pieces of mail pour into the U.S. Post Office’s Mail Recovery Centers (MRC), virtually all of them lacking a valid address and return address. The vast majority of this mail never gets delivered, although it’s not for lack of effort. The postal service goes to great lengths, at its own expense, to try to find each piece of mail’s intended destination.

Currently, the post office operates three MRC’s—in Atlanta, St. Paul and San Francisco. At 66,000 square feet, the Atlanta facility is the largest, responsible for the eastern United States—twenty states in all. At any one time, the building’s 80 full-time employees can be found combing through hundreds of thousands of letters and packages, many of them simply marked “Dead Letter Office” by local post offices with nowhere else to turn. Ironically, the term “dead letter office” has become obsolete. The postal service, part of an effort to standardize the mail recovery process, officially ceased using that term in 1992. Still, old habits seem to die hard.

According to Ray Long, manager of the Atlanta branch and 36-year veteran of the postal service, “ninety-nine percent of what we get is due to customer error. This is mail that customers have failed to put return addresses on and the address is bad. When it comes here we'll open it—Mail Recovery Centers are the only postal operation authorized to open mail—trying to find an address inside, where we can either forward it or return it.” 

Statistically, the Atlanta center is able to “recover” 15% of the letters and 25% of the parcels it receives, although the procedure is different for each. All the incoming letters are sorted by a high-speed scanner that has a magnetic eye; it looks for indelible ink, which generally is an indicator of important documents. “A letter does not have ‘value’ unless it contains money, checks, an insurance policy—that kind of thing,” says Long. Any letter not identified by the magnetic eye as being potentially valuable is put on the fast track to a super size paper shredder. “To protect the privacy of the mail we’re required to shred it,” continues Long. “If you ever mail anything that didn’t get there, don’t worry. It’s shredded somewhere.” 

Meanwhile, parcels and packages have to be opened manually, and this is where the job can get really interesting. “The things we get, you just can’t imagine,” says Long. “Not too long ago, one lady here opened a package and inside was a live python. One other time we found some tarantulas. And we’ve had birds get loose in the building. We opened the box and they flew out,” he says. More often than not, the contents of packages are relatively mundane—books, CDs and clothing are the most common items. 

The procedure for recovering a piece of mail depends, in part, on the customer. If someone files a claim at a post office, “we will take that form and search for the item the customer has described among the inventory we’ve got here,” notes Long. Most items of value are held for ninety days, before the center sells them at one of its in-house auctions. The public auctions are held every six to eight weeks and attract 400-500 people, many of them vendors from flea markets. “You can’t come here and buy one ring or one watch,” says Long. “You might have to buy five televisions or five hundred books at a time.” The purpose of the auctions is simple—to help the postal service recoup a percentage, however small, of the cost of operating the center. “There’s no way we can support or justify the cost of what we do,” continues Long. “It’s a goodwill operation—just something the postal service wants to do for its customers.” 

Often, people who are frantically in search of lost packages call the MRC directly. “One lady contacted us the week of her wedding after all her bridesmaids dresses got lost in the mail because the address tags came off. We were able to find them and Express Mailed them to her [at no charge] in time for the wedding,” says Long. According to Ruby Calloway, who has worked on the floor of the Atlanta MRC for three years, she once received a series of panicky calls from a woman after the local postman accidentally picked up $8,000 worth of computer equipment that was near a pile of outgoing packages. “When you call up and tell people you have something for them they are very appreciative, but when they call in they are sometimes real hostile,” says Calloway. 

If the MRC receives an item that is particularly valuable or intriguing—human remains, 14-carat gold dentures, and a bearskin are three items that Long cites—the center will trace and/or hold onto them for up to a year. “We found major league pitcher Pedro Borbon’s World Series ring,” says Long. With only a name, some clothing, and a cleaning ticket as clues, the MRC made phone calls until “we finally got referred to the Atlanta Braves,” tells Long. “We called them and they told us he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. So we called the Dodgers and they said they had traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays. But we kept at it until we found out where he was and were able to get him his ring back. Stories like that keep us going,” he says. 

With mail volume generally on the rise, the MRC's figure to continue doing a brisk business. “You would think that people who messed up last time would begin using return addresses, but we talk to customers who say, ‘I just don't have time,’” says Long. But as hard as they try to recover mail, sometimes MRC workers have to resign themselves to the inevitable. “When there’s nothing on the outside and nothing on the inside, then it’s dead,” reminds Long. “At that point there’s nothing we can do.”