Long time, no see RSVP

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT & BOOKS - Ken Her­man

To­day, a story that’s ei­ther an up­lift­ing tale of heroic suc­cess or a de­press­ing yarn of ab­ject fail­ure. Your de­ci­sion might turn on whether you’re the kind of per­son who sees the glass half- full or the kind of per­son who’s of­ten half- loaded.

It starts with good news. My fam­ily’s long­time friends Beth and Larry Gold­stein of Plano say they will be at­tend­ing our daugh­ter’s wed­ding.

“Look­ing for­ward to your cel­e­bra­tions!” one of them (my money’s on Beth) wrote on the RSVP that showed up last month.

The wed­ding date on the in­vi­ta­tion is Aug. 20. 2011. Yes, 2011, as in four years ago.

I’m no eti­quette ex­pert (why do you have to put spoons on the ta­ble for meals in which there is zero chance a spoon will be needed?), but shouldn’t the hereto­fore- re­spon­si­ble Gold­steins of Plano have re­turned their RSVP a bit sooner?

Turns out they did. It was mailed in North Texas on June 21, 2011, to what was then my daugh­ter’s New York City home ad­dress.

The Gold­steins in­deed showed up for the Au­gust 2011 wed­ding (a good time was had by all) but their RSVP didn’t show up un­til May 11 of this year — about four years late and 3,000 miles west of where it was sup­posed to go — when it found its way to my daugh­ter’s cur­rent Cal­i­for­nia ad­dress.

( FYI, it’s ac­tu­ally two ad­dresses later. She moved into a dif­fer­ent NYC apart­ment, though in the same build­ing, about two years af­ter the wed­ding.)

How, you ask, does an RSVP show up four years late? I’ll tell you what I know and leave it to you to de­cide if it’s gross in­com­pe­tence or im­pres­sive per­sis­tence by your Postal Ser­vice. I’m lean­ing to­ward the lat­ter.

I’m a great ad­mirer of the Postal Ser­vice de­spite its flaws and fi­nan­cial woes. What it does on a daily ba­sis, and with an ad­mirable suc­cess rate, is a mi­nor mir­a­cle.

The ser­vice’s task is sim­ple and for­mi­da­ble: Send some­body to ev­ery ad­dress in Amer­ica, busi­ness and res­i­den­tial, six days a week. It doesn’t even sound like a good idea.

That dis­claimer aside, I en­deav­ored to find out where the RSVP from the Gold­steins of Plano has been th­ese past four years.

The post­card it­self of­fered lit­tle ev­i­dence, merely bear­ing a sticker telling my daugh­ter to “no­tify sender of new ad­dress.”

An­tic­i­pat­ing a long, drawnout process, I asked the Postal Ser­vice for some an­swers. My re­quest went to Sam Bolen, the Postal Ser­vice com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­grams spe­cial­ist for our part of the world.

Seek­ing a prompt re­sponse, and de­spite my con­fi­dence in the Postal Ser­vice, I opted to sub­mit my in­quiry by email in­stead of by way of a mail­box.

I told Bolen what hap­pened and asked if there was any way to fig­ure out what hap­pened with this one.

To his credit, Bolen got right on the case. Im­pres­sive. I had a re­sponse in about four and a half hours.

Feed­back such as mine, I was told, as­sists “us in iden­ti­fy­ing prob­lem ar­eas,” he told me by re­turn email.

“Cer­tainly, the ser­vice your daugh­ter re­ported is not in­dica­tive of the level of ser­vice we wish to pro­vide,” he wrote. So that’s good. “While we are gen­er­ally very proud of the man­ner in which the mail is pro­cessed, it is dis­ap­point­ing to rec­og­nize and ac­cept that some­times, no mat­ter how hard we try, er­rors and de­lays will oc­ca­sion­ally oc­cur,” Bolen told me, pretty much echo­ing my thoughts about life in gen­eral.

Bolen re­ported that “iso­lated in­stances of de­layed mail, like the one your daugh­ter ex­pe­ri­enced, are or­di­nar­ily caused by hu­man er­ror and it is some­times very dif­fi­cult to pin­point a spe­cific lo­ca­tion or in­stance caus­ing the de­lay.”

Hey, we all make mis­takes. And the Postal Ser­vice has more op­por­tu­ni­ties to do so than most folks.

While un­able to pin down specifics with any cer­tainty, Bolen was able to of­fer this:

“In your daugh­ter’s case, af­ter look­ing at many pos­si­bil­i­ties, it ap­pears that this mail piece was lost some­where in our sys­tem, be­tween where it was mailed in North Texas and where it was ap­par­ently re­cov­ered in New York, at some point pos­si­bly fall­ing un­der heavy ma­chin­ery, accidentally left in stored mail equip­ment be­lieved to be empty, or oth­er­wise be­ing set aside — pos­si­bly by a cus­tomer who re­ceived it in er­ror and left it ly­ing around for sev­eral years — where it went un­de­tected for some time be­fore be­ing re­turned to the live mail stream, for­warded and de­liv­ered.”

Bolen closed with an apol­ogy to my daugh­ter for the mis­take.

“Ev­ery ef­fort will be made to serve you, your daugh­ter and your fam­ily’s needs in a man­ner more con­sis­tent with your ex­pen­di­tures and our stan­dards,” he wrote.

I ap­pre­ci­ated the prompt and frank, if un­spe­cific, at­tempt at an ex­pla­na­tion. It seems we got to the bot­tom line we of­ten get to in this life: Th­ese things hap­pen. I’m OK with that. I do, how­ever, feel the urge to hire some­body to do an RSVP au­dit to see if there might still be some oth­ers out there un­der heavy ma­chin­ery.

KEN HER­MAN / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

The Gold­steins made it to the Au­gust 2011 cel­e­bra­tions, but their RSVP didn’t show up un­til this May.

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