Dead Letter Office

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
If today you pitched me the idea of the US Postal Service, there would be no way you could convince me that it could actually work. I mean, it’s not perfect as it is, but the fact that you can put a .49 cent sticker on an envelope, and have someone deliver it across the country in two days is amazing. Just take a second to imagine all the systems that have to work together to pull that off. So let’s stipulate postal services around the world are pretty great, but with any complex design system, there are failures that occur; mail that never makes it to its destination and can’t be returned to the sender. And it’s into this rabbit hole that producer Samara Freemark found when she began searching for all the lost mail.

Samara Freemark:
Once upon a time, I lost something in the mail. Maybe this has happened to you, it probably has happened to you, but what makes my story different is that I went looking for what I lost. And the place I ended up was so strange, so dreamlike.

Samara Freemark:
But let me back up a bit. It was 2007, August. I was moving from Minnesota to Michigan to start grad school. I packed whatever couldn’t fit into my station wagon into three cardboard boxes and shipped them parcel rate; books, mostly. The first box arrived at the leisurely pace that books shipped parcel rate usually do, and then I waited for weeks.

Samara Freemark:
The second box never showed. Though when I say that it never showed, I mean that most of the box never showed. A piece of it eventually did arrive. It came in a large envelope, a neat rectangle of cardboard, the box top where I had written my address. Someone had taken a razor and very carefully sliced it off the box. An enclosed note on Postal Service letterhead informed me that my address label had become detached from my box.

Samara Freemark:
And so I was thrilled when I came home one day, months later, and found my third box waiting for me on my doorstep. My lost box was here, but something about the box was different. It had been torn apart, and then lashed back together with plastic zip ties. When I cut it open, the cookbooks I had carefully packed were in disarray. My 4″-thick hardcover ‘Joy of Cooking’ had been torn apart down the spine, like a weightlifter had used it for some feet of strength. The two halves were sandwiched around a cookbook I had never seen before. Someone else’s copy of Sophia Loren’s ‘Recipes and Memories’. Sophia leered at me from the cover. Her cleavage was distracting. I was perplexed. I told my mother about it. “Oh yeah,” She said, “That’s happened to me too.”

Samara Freemark:
She had shipped a box of books home from Europe, and when she opened it, this box was filled with other people’s things all from different countries.

Samara’s Mom:
“It had a Bible that was in Russian, a magazine from I think Germany. It had some candy from the Netherlands.”

Samara Freemark:
“So it was like everyone’s European vacation was in your box?”

Samara’s Mom:
“I was just astounded.”

Samara Freemark:
My friend Helen had mailed some boxes, and she had a story too.

Helen:
“When I got the boxes open, they looked like they had been put in a washing machine, and then dried. Like the boxes were so mutilated, and when I opened them – the box with all the food magazines – half of the issues were taken out. The rest of the boxes were all cookbook boxes, all like vintage cookbooks, and in place of that they had put all of these Southern Homes, Southern Home Living, whatever, cookbooks from the 1980s in the boxes. Deviled eggs on the cover as though that was like a reparation for my loss.”

Samara Freemark:
Helen and my mom shrugged this off, and they let things go, but it nagged at me. Who was reading my books? Whose copy of ‘Recipes and Memories’ was guiding me through tiramisu? And just who had switched them? Now, if you ask enough questions like that, you’ll find yourself in Atlanta on a day so hot the pavement shimmers, driving past the Coca-Cola Museum, past the World’s Largest Aquarium, past the CNN headquarters, and finally turning down a service road, and pulling up in front of a nondescript suburban warehouse directly across from Six Flags Amusement Park – the Mail Recovery Center.

Samara Freemark:
Where lost mail goes to be sorted, processed, and sent back to its rightful owner, or, barring that, it’s sold off. I walked up to the door of the warehouse and I opened it on…

Auctioneer:
“iPod and accessories, opening bid $500.”

Samara Freemark:
An auction.

Auctioneer:
“Six, seven, eight, nine. Sold to paddle 151.”

Samara Freemark:
200 people lined up and folding chairs, waving paddles in the air. And in the back, bins upon bins, hundreds of bins of lost mail.

Auctioneer:
“Eight, nine, 1000.”

Samara Freemark:
Everything that Americans have ever stuffed into a mailbox and never seen again, all sorted by type. Bins of pillows, bins of tennis rackets, bins of coffee makers, bins of stuffed animals, computers, bibles, electric guitars, bins of stuff you can’t imagine anyone ever thought it was a good idea to mail. Bins of stuff you didn’t know it was possible to mail, like tractor-trailer tires. And all these bins being auctioned off by officials of the US Postal Service.

Auctioneer:
“350, 4-450, sold to paddle 126 for $450.”

Samara Freemark:
A middle-aged man sporting faded jeans, a sweat-stained baseball cap, and a handlebar mustache came up behind me jabbing at an auction list. He was a buyer.

Ricky:
“My name’s Ricky.”

Samara Freemark:
And he was here with his wife, Cindy.

Ricky:
“I mean, they’ve got some stuff in here that’s irreplaceable. They got some vintage stuff in here from the 40s and the 50s. They’ve got one in there, it’s got a Life magazine with John F. Kennedy on it. Now, how much is that worth to somebody? To you, it wouldn’t be worth nothing. To me, I can remember the day he got killed, you know? So….”

Cindy:
“He’s got the buttons Kennedy for President.”

Ricky:
“I remember the election. You know, it’s just according to who you are and how much it’s worth to you. You’ve got apparel, accessories, clothes, starting bid $500. Cameras and accessories, starting bid $2,000. Ethnic items, $500.”

Samara Freemark:
“What do you think an ethnic item is?”

Ricky:
“I don’t know.”

Samara Freemark:
“What do you do with all this stuff?”

Ricky:
“I wish to resell everything we get. That’s what this thing’s about. There’ll be people sitting out in the parking lot on eBay before they leave here.”

Samara Freemark:
“You’re kidding? Like in their cars?”

Ricky:
“I’m not kidding. In their cars, they’ve got buyers waiting.”

Samara Freemark:
Ricky and Cindy were hoping to get lucky today. As lucky as they got once, almost a decade ago right after September 11th.

Ricky:
“We got a whole tote of American flags. You could not buy American flag nowhere in United States, everything was gone. We ended up with American flag pins, American flag everything.”

Cindy:
“Earrings.”

Ricky:
“Earrings. We had five boxes of McDonald’s little arches with the American flag on it. McDonald’s didn’t even have them. We came out smelling like a rose on that one.”

Samara Freemark:
And just then, Gordon Clements swept out from behind the wheel of a baby blue, 1960 Cadillac. Heads turned, people whispered. Mr. Gordon was Mail Recovery Center royalty. He was 80-years-old with a pink face, white hair, bright blue eyes. I swear he even twinkled. He didn’t seem surprised when he saw my microphone. It was almost like he was expecting me.

Gordon Clements:
“Brooklyn, New York. Is that where you’re from?”

Samara Freemark:
“Yeah.”

Gordon Clements:
“You come all the way down here from Brooklyn, New York?”

Samara Freemark:
“Sort of. I’ve been on a road trip for the past month.”

Gordon Clements:
“Oh, so you didn’t come here specifically to find out about the pot?”

Samara Freemark:
“Wait, the pot?”

Gordon Clements:
“Yeah, I was on Jay Leno last Tuesday night.”

Samara Freemark:
Of course, he was. Mr. Gordon had been buying stuff here for 10 years. He’d take his bins home, unpack them, and resell the contents. At the last Mail Recovery Center auction, he had bought a bin of paintings. One of them was especially pretty, an orchid in a vase. He tried to resell it at a different auction for $25 but no one was biting.

Gordon Clements:
“So they put it back on my truck, and as they put it back on the truck, they tipped it and felt something inside the box moving. The frame was a box itself. So one of the guys helping me took a screwdriver and took the back off of it, and inside was $5,000 worth of marijuana.”

Samara Freemark:
Mr. Gordon and I sat and thought about what kind of person would send $5,000 worth of pot through the mail, and how that person must have felt when they heard about Mr. Gordon on Leno, and whether they filed a claim for the painting. Or whether they were just relieved that the post office had lost it so absolutely that it couldn’t be traced back to its original sender. And then Mr. Gordon headed to the Florida bid, but first he looked deep into my eyes and he sang me a song for luck.

Gordon Clements:
(singing in Spanish)

Samara Freemark:
In addition to being a Mail Recovery Center celebrity, he also sings mariachi at a restaurant in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Gordon Clements:
“You belong to my heart, now and forever” (singing)

Samara Freemark:
And into this reverie walked Lionel Snow, the director of the center, and Michael Miles Postal Service representative, who escorted me out the door-

Michael Miles:
“Go outside.”

Samara Freemark:
“Oh, we have to go outside?”

Samara Freemark:
Told me I was violating Postal Service policy-

Samara Freemark:
“Can you just tell me why?

Michael Miles:
“Postal policies. This is postal policy.”

Samara Freemark:
“Yeah, but why? Do you know why? Wait, so I have to be like 50 feet from the center?”

Samara Freemark:
And led me across the parking lot.

Michael Miles:
“Here’s what we would clearly be prepared to talk to you about. I thought you were going to walk around in here, kind of get the lay of the land, see what’s what. But however, whatever kind of documentation that you’re trying to do inside, that’s where we run into a problem.”

Samara Freemark:
“Okay, is it a security issue?”

Michael Miles:
“It’s security. That’s among other issues, but yes, security certainly is one of them.”

Samara Freemark:
“Is it because, you know, people’s stuff is in there…”

Michael Miles:
“Not only that. That’s not the critical issue.”

Samara Freemark:
The critical issue.

Michael Miles:
“The critical issue is something I don’t want to discuss it. I mean there’s things that there have been there from the early 50s. There’s body parts possibly, ashes and stuff that’s been there for years. We would like to get things back to customers, everything, but there’s some that we’re unable to.”

Samara Freemark:
This sounded… Well, to be honest, it sounded troubling, because if the Postal Service could accidentally sell $5,000 worth of marijuana to Gordon Clements, didn’t that mean that they could accidentally auction off those human remains?

Jill:
“Ashes. Yeah.”

Samara Freemark:
Said a small woman in acid wash jeans with frazzled hair standing behind me. Her name was Jill.

Jill:
“One poor lady I know bought dishes and it had gray powder all over it, and when she finished unloading her dishes, there was all the paraphernalia for somebody’s memorial. It was actually somebody’s ashes, so that was funny.”

Samara Freemark:
“Wait, it was someone’s ashes?”

Jill:
“Yes.”

Samara Freemark:
“On her plates?”

Jill:
“Yes, all over because it was in the bottom.”

Samara Freemark:
I wandered around to the back of the building where postal officials were unloading bins with a forklift. Auction winners are queued up waiting to collect their purchases. One buyer was hanging to the side.

John Smith:
“Oh boy.”

Samara Freemark:
“What’s your name?”

John Smith:
“My name is John Smith.”

Samara Freemark:
I’m pretty sure that wasn’t actually his real name. John came to the auction a lot, he said, and he specialized in buying books. He might have bought my books once upon a time, jumbled up with thousands of others. He sympathized with my loss. He knew what it felt like he said, it had happened to him.

John Smith:
“Yeah. Let me tell you a really funny story. We shipped a case of books one time to us. We bought books and we got the same box taped up. It looked like it had been through a tornado, and inside it was a bunch of screwdrivers and pliers. There was tools inside the same box. Nothing was said, just, “Here you go, here’s your package.” And they just replaced it with the same weight, I guess, with screwdrivers, and hammers, and stuff, but my books were gone.”

Samara Freemark:
“Did you ask them what happened to it?”

John Smith:
“They just… well, I don’t know, it got lost in the mail, I guess.”

Ricky:
“Poor man can’t buy nothing in there today.”

Samara Freemark:
The auction was still going on inside, but Ricky and Cindy, that couple who had bought that bin of American flags back in the day, they were leaving empty-handed.

Ricky:
“This is crazy.”

Cindy:
“Must be the rich people.”

Ricky:
“People haven’t got no sense in there today. Some woman paid $50 for a box of VHS tapes. What do you do with VHS tapes? I thought people was having money problems. I mean…”

Cindy:
“Not here.”

Ricky:
“There’s nobody here got money problems today. Gosh. I’m leaving. I mean, there ain’t nothing I can touch that I wanted, so I’m going back to home.”

Cindy:
“We’re going to go find lunch.”

Ricky:
“First of all, yeah, we’re going to go find lunch then we’re going home.”

Samara Freemark:
I watched Ricky and Cindy drive away. I was hot, sweaty, almost in a daze, longing for home. But before I left, I turned and stood for a moment, and I watched the river of other people’s things pouring out of the loading docks and into trucks and moving vans. Those clothes you shipped home from college and never saw again, that fancy perfume your grandmother swore up and down she sent you for your birthday, the model Eiffel Tower that your dad says he airmailed you from Paris, your complete set of Southern Living cookbooks, the ones with the deviled eggs on the cover. All those things that you thought were lost forever, they’re all here. They’re all in Atlanta, across from Six Flags Amusement Park, and they’re all going home with someone else.

Samara Freemark:
And then there was nothing left to do but get in my car and drive home. And when I got home, I made eggplant parmesan. You can find a good recipe for it on page 153 of Sophia Loren’s ‘Recipes and Memories’.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Samara Freemark originally for the KCRW program ‘UnFictional’. We found out about it via the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Samara now works for American RadioWorks. You can find her on Twitter at @sfreemark. That’s S-F-R-E-E-M-A-R-K.

  1. Craig Berry

    So are we just going to glaze over the fact that it sounds like the Post Office is just stealing stuff out of packages and selling it at auction? If you got a zip-tied package full of stuff you didn’t ship, went to Georgia and saw it at auction, would you have to pay in order to buy it back? This is all sounding pretty sketchy.

    1. Tori G

      Agreed!

      Considering the Postal Service can just steal my stuff and sell it at an auction at a premium is infuriating. Especially if I call them and they tell me “there’s nothing we can do”. Nothing but sell my stuff and I don’t see a red cent, huh? This wasn’t interesting, this was aggravating. Worse still, when she was shooed away, they gave her the most ridiculous excuses. Extremely sketchy, and they know it.

  2. Confused

    So…. How did that stuff end up in the third box that you received? Where did it come from? If it was the post office, why did they open it at all if they eventually sent it to you anyway?

  3. Confused x2

    Dido to the previous comment, how did random things end up in the box that you and the other person interviewed received?

  4. Siiri

    Aaah, trying to find that song with the eerie/spooky singing. I’ve heard it somewhere before, and now I’m obsessed with it. I’m assuming it’s “hospitalarp”? Nothing by that name on the internet

  5. Janet Sugarman

    Samara, did you write this? Why don’t you do some more research on the subject, and stay with us while you do it?

  6. Paul

    Wtf how did that story end without explaining the mystery? Clearly the jumbled and spliced cookbooks etc in the package didn’t happen because the stuff was sold on auction to someone else.

    Because then she wouldn’t have received it–it’d be in the auction winners’ cars!

    I feel dazed and confused… At least as dazed and confused as an unresolved radio story can make someone feel. Was there an extra 6 minutes of story that got incorrectly cut out of the final podcast episode that was released?

  7. jeb Jones

    Agree with other posters. How can you pose this mystery at the beginning of the show and then leave it totally unresolved? This kind of bait-and-switch is a poor way to treat your audience.

  8. Jayinchicago

    I believe part of the reason books so often wind up missing/jumbled is because people use media mail for a cheaper ship without realizing that the USPS definitely opens media mail to check it, but they aren’t very careful about putting stuff back.

    1. Confused

      Now that’s an interesting possibility and would make sense. It raises even more questions about why they are so bad at putting stuff back. Why did that one guy send books and get screwdrivers instead, when screwdrivers aren’t even allowed to be sent media mail?

  9. John

    Really dissapointed that you did not look into how this random content happens to get mailed to people.

  10. B. R.

    It’s not lost if they have the address! The package arrives at the right address, but the contents are different?? Well, that must mean someone has opened the package and switched the stuff, but how does that happen? Is it just an accident? And if it is why just put any junk back in and send it on? I AM SO CONFUSED! You must admit that it all seems very questionable – even if there is an acceptable excuse why don’t they just come out with it?

    1. +1 – I was soo mad at this episode. The story here is not the USPS auctions off lost items, but the late delivery of the correct package to the correct address with DIFFERENT content. I wish they at least acknowledged that they could not find an answer to that – rather than pretending there was an ending.

  11. Disappointed

    Love this podcast but WTF, such a fascinating yet disappointing episode. It’s a beginning without an end. Would be great to see a part 2 with more in depth investigative reporting. From the disclaimer at the beginning, perhaps you are being censored??? You should wait until you finish a story to publish it next time.

  12. Bob

    So they take the things out of your pacakge and put something else inside… why?? Is there no accountability for shipping companies?

  13. An interesting reference to the Dead Letter Office

    Great podcast. But there is an interesting reference to add!

    (Spoiler alert?)

    The Dead Letter Office plays a key role in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener:

    … But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it. Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener’s decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without certain strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in , from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

    Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

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