"The Persian messengers travel with a velocity which nothing human can equal. . . . Neither snow, nor rain, nor heart, nor darkness are permitted to obstruct their speed."--Herodotus, Book Seven.
Now while the average Cambridge postman knows very little about Persian messengers or even about Herodotus, it should be fairly obvious from the above quotation that he has something in common with the former and is somewhat in debt to the latter.
In this country, Herodotus' phrase has been slightly rewritten to conform to the more heroic conception of a courageous courier who fights his way through the cold, black night to bring the news to a last outpost of civilization. "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," is the popular adaptation of Herodotus' words, which, although certainly discriminatory towards Persian messengers, has been inscribed atop the main Post Office Building in New York City.
In Cambridge, the post is not quite so ostentatious. One local carrier puts it quite simply, "The letters have got to be delivered somehow." They do indeed, and for the students at Harvard and Radcliffe, they are delivered by the Cambridge 38, Post Office, located on Mount Auburn Street just below Brattle Square. Most students have probably never been inside this building, or if they have it was only to look over the fascinating Rogue's Gallery of wanted desperadoes which covers the bulletin board and buy a stamp or two. But behind the row of barred clerk windows, Cambridge operations of the world's largest public utility are carried out with a considerable degree of efficiency.
Cambridge, 38 is one of 93 branches of the main Post Office building in Boston. Although under the jurisdiction of the central control, it is largely autonomous with regards to most of the actions involved in mail-delivering procedure. Its area of distribution is the largest of all Cambridge postal districts, extending from the Charles River to North Cambridge and Somerville, and from Belmont to Dana Street and Putnam Avenue.
To cover this territory, the Post Office breaks it up into about 50 separate routes. When the mail bags arrive at the office in the morning, they are marked by their route number and taken over to the appropriate bench where the mail is further sorted into street divisions, with special sections for magazines, newspapers, and other mail too bulky to be put in with the letters. Most post offices do not have this special rack for breaking down the magazine mail down into street divisions, and indeed the Mount Auburn Street office is "very proud of this distinctive feature," according to Superintendent B. David DeLoury.
As for mail leaving the city, Cambridge, 38 merely bundles it and sends it to the main Cambridge Post Office in Central Square. Cambridge 39, or Cambridge A, as it is often called, handles the classification of the mail from there. With Parcel Post, however, the local office must deal with an unusually large number of packages, mainly because Harvard has so many students whose homes are at a considerable distance from Cambridge. These packages are put in sacks according to state or foreign destination, and three times a day are sent to the railway station for distribution.
Since one-quarter of the letters that come to Cambridge 38, are headed for the University, a large part of the office's man power is concerned with getting this mail distributed to the various parts of the University. There is one route devoted entirely to the Yard, and several routes contain parts of the Yard within their boundaries. One of these boasts a carrier who greets the students each morning in French, and although he can not be fairly described as the "average" mailman, he is certainly another one of the office's "distinctive features."
About ten more routes take care of the Houses and graduate section of the University.
Weld Finds Addresses
Many letters, however, are not marked with the student's room number or dormitory, and in this case, the Post Office sends the letters to the Information Office in Weld Hall, where the mail is addressed and returned to the Post Office which delivers it the next day.
With the exception, then, of the University Mail Service which handles the delivery of such things as term bills, office-to-office mail, and other purely intra-University deliveries, Harvard's mail is delivered solely by Cambridge, 38 branch office.
With such a relatively efficient Post Office handling the mails one naturally wonders why many letters from New York and environs take two days to arrive at their College destination. At this point, one must widen his field of observation, and consider the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. This strange utility is responsible for delivering the mail each day from New York to Boston on the late night train, but, according to the Superintendent in the central Cambridge Post Office, that train is as often late as it is on time, with degree of lateness varying from one-half to one and one-half hours.
Due at 5:30 a.m.
The New York train is scheduled to arrive Back Bay Station at 5:30 a.m. where mail trucks from the Cambridge A office take the mail and bring it out to the Central Square building. There it is sorted into the various route categories before being brought over to Cambridge 38, where it is further subdivided into street divisions. These processes take a fair amount of time, and since by postal regulation all postmen must be starting on their routes by 8:40 a.m., a late train often means that no New York mail is delivered in the University until the next day.
In a community such as Harvard this late mail is more serious than it might be in other areas. The Superintendent at the Central Square office points out that for every one Wall Street Journal delivered in his own district (Cambridge 39) four are delivered in the Harvard Square area, and a corresponding figure is shown on several other publications which come daily from New York, with an obvious time value. The problem is a considerable one from both the post office's and the public's point of view, but there appears to be no ready solution which might come about in the next few years. It seems unlikely that the New York, New Haven, and Hartford will change their ways in the near future (the line now blames "inclement weather" for the bulk of its delays), and to start a system of twice-daily deliveries throughout the entire area is not presently feasible, according to Post Office authorities. Though such a plan would get the New York mail out regularly, it would also be quite costly.
Thus, while over the past 150 years snow, rain and heat wave all failed to suppress the swift couriers, the New York, New Haven and Hartford has at least partially succeeded.
Since the University occupies such a prominent position in the delivery program of the Cambridge Post Office, and since the amount of time value mail which comes into the University from outside and which often must wait an extra day for delivery is so great, the question of having a separate federal post office for Harvard has naturally been considered.
The University petitioned the Federal government for such a Harvard branch office in 1951. The government refused, reportedly because the University could not offer the building space which would be needed to have an efficient Harvard postal service. At that time the University felt that the construction of a special building for this purpose would run into too great an expenditure of funds which would be better used elsewhere.
However, if a Harvard postal system were to be set up, it would not necessarily have to be contained in a single unit. At M.I.T. the system is broken down into several small units which serve various parts of the M.I.T. campus. Cambridge 39 brings mail sacks to each of these postal divisions where a clerk sorts it and has it distributed to the offices and dormitories in his particular domain. This has the advantage that regardless of whether or not the mail train is late, delivery of New York and western mail can be always made on the day it arrives in Boston.
No Definite Plans
This plan, however, is one that does not appear to bear very heavily on the near future, and although the postal authorities in this area think that such a system would be a good thing for the University as well as for the post office, they are not including it in any plans for the future. The same thing may be said about the lateness of the mail train; it poses a problem which lies out of the local office's domain and which must be considered as part of a daily routine.
This situation is largely due to the vast bureaucratic structures which gradually spiral down to level of post office such as Cambridge, 38, and which is so tied up with relatively small considerations that any large-scale improvement such as the correction of the existing New York mail situation becomes virtually impossible. A Post office for Harvard University falls victim to the same type of disinterest in any sort of problem which might take an excessive amount of study and consideration. Within this framework the local office is quite helpless.
Cambridge, 38 handles the mail when it comes into its area of action and jurisdiction and rests content to devote its energy to the task of maintaining an efficient postal system on a relatively small scale. If it continues to succed in doing this, it will have done one job well.