The rant has been building since Saturday. I braved the heat to mail some books, and for my efforts, encountered the typical line-out-the-door at my local PO. (I apologize to Eudora Welty for thinking of her cleverly funny short story every time I use "PO.") Saturdays are a nightmare, more so than the usual daily line at the counter, because only one person is working.

An elderly gentleman on a cane, obviously in discomfort and finding standing in line painful, was behind me. The man in front of me in the line had lost the one clerk (who disappeared into the nether recesses of the back room, not to reappear for over 15 minutes or more), when I asked the elderly gent if he'd like to step in front of me in the line. He accepted gratefully.

More minutes passed. No solitary clerk. Was she taking a smoke break? Who knew? Finally, the older man handed me a small manila envelope and a couple of bucks, and asked if I'd mail it for him. I agreed, telling him to sit in his car and I'd bring him the change. No, he said, he couldn't stand it any longer, he had to leave. Okay, I understood. We were ALL sick of standing politely in line, although several of us were becoming good friends, chatting about builders and law suits.

When I finally reached the counter and the lone clerk, who was none too happy from the expression on her petulant face, I explained I was mailing the envelope for the elderly man who wasn't able to stand for long. "ell," she snipped, "I can't accept that because you don't know what's in it!" I fingered the envelope and replied, "It's clearly paper." "No," she barked, "I can't accept that. It could be hazardous!" So I opened the envelope (committing some sort of crime, I'm sure, except it wasn't licked shut, just latched with one of those little metal clasps), pulled out a letter, and showed her the dangerous contents of this little manila envelope. Sniffing haughtily, she accepted the man's money and stamped it. Phew, mission accomplished. I escaped the depressing PO about an hour after I crossed its portal, promising myself to never return. At least not on Saturday.

Our branch PO has removed all the stamp machines, the gizmo where you can weigh your package yourself and affix postage, and every other vestige of do-it-yourself postal supplies. We're lucky if two clerks work the four-clerk counters, and if both of them are working the counters at the same time, it's a major miracle. Do you want to know why the PO is losing money by the bushel? Take a look at my branch PO. Staff cuts and do-it-yourself resource eliminations. From now on, I'll order books on the Web and have them shipped directly to my giftees. No going to the bookstore to handpick a selection for birthdays and Christmas. I'll do ANYTHING to avoid the post office.

To think that, once upon a time, I thought the PO was one of the coolest places on earth. I loved mailing boxes and overstuffed letters to friends and children, imagining their surprise when they received them. No more.