By Scott Jacobs

The worst post office in America? I know, the competition is stiff. But hands down, the title has to go to the Logan Square station at 2339 North California in Chicago.

Google it. Why not? You’re probably just standing in line there waiting to mail a package anyway. Whether that line is 20 deep or 6, it doesn’t matter. You are treated like just another obstacle standing between the person at the window and their lunch break.

I do love the building architecture. Opened in 1937, the foyer is Depression era art deco with wood paneled walls leading to six customer service windows and four convenient package counters where you can fill in those last minute addresses. And I have no complaints about my own mailman, James, who is as reliable and nice as they come. But step through the door of that post office, and all pretense of niceness goes out the window.

A Broken System

Whether you want to buy a stamp, send a package, get a passport, or pick up your mail, and you are suddenly trapped in a world of dysfunction ­­–– usually at the end of a very long line. The problems start right inside the door at an automatic postal machine that is broken as often as it is working. Not once in a while, but every other day, and sometimes twice a day, if through some miracle, somebody from downtown came out to fix it.

“Why’s it always broken?” I asked the manager during one frustrating week.

“I don’t know. They’re sending somebody out,” she replied.

“But he was just here,” I said.

“It’s a computer,” she said. “What more can I tell you?”

She said it like computer is a dirty word. But it’s not a computer. It’s a stamp dispensing machine. Every other post office has one –– and they don’t have “Out of Order” signs taped on them three days a week.

A Rolling, Day-Long Coffee Break

I wouldn’t be so upset about the machine if I had confidence the line ahead of me would move along briskly. But, of course, it never does. Waits of 20, or 30, or even 40 minutes are not unusual, especially on Saturdays when, somehow, the fewest employees seem to be working. And work is a generous way of describing activity that more closely resembles a rolling, day-long coffee break.

Other postal workers know the Logan Square reputation. “They never smile,” said one who occasionally gets transferred into the facility to help out. “And they are slow. They walk around like they are on their way to the guillotine.”

Christmas on California

I was in line one Christmas when the line was backed up out the door. Three of the six windows were open. As soon as someone emerged from the back to open a new window, another one shut – and both attendants took their time closing and opening up their stations, checking their stamp drawer, typing their ID codes, and otherwise tidying up.

“I’ve been here 45 minutes and I don’t think I’ve moved up six places,” a woman behind me complained to a friend on her cell phone. “I’ve seen faster lines waiting for Santa Claus at Macy’s.”

To quell the unrest, the manager walked up and down the line offering to retrieve packages for people holding a delivery receipt. When someone suggested a better use of her time would be manning a window, she said, “That’s not my job.”

At the Logan Square post office, no one really has a job. They have a position, a place in the hierarchy of their union contract that determines what tasks they must undertake, what rest breaks they are entitled to, and what pension they get if they last long enough. There’s no incentive to serve customers; it’s all about enduring enough grief to get their benefits.

A Pleasant Contrast

Not every post office runs like this. I’ve taken recently to driving over to Graceland post office in Lakeview (3024 N. Ashland) where the contrast is startling. With the same amount of employees, in the same amount of time, twice as many customers pass through the lobby (and the stamp dispensing machine works flawlessly).

Sure, customers have to wait in line, but it moves along quickly. There are no digital displays to indicate which window is open. The clerks scan the line as soon as their last customer leaves. “Next. Over here. I’ll help you.” Now those are words you just don’t hear in Logan Square.

Google It!

When I started writing this, I began worrying that maybe I was being too harsh. I went online looking some objective measure of the efficiency of the Logan Square post office, and I found it in the unlikeliest place: Yelp. Over the last six years, 114 people have taken the time to review the Logan Square station (officially, its the Roberto Clemente post office in Logan Square). Almost universally, they hate it. Some samples:

“The art-deco building gets the one star (the lowest rating Yelp allows),” writes Kim V of Chicago. “The service gets NOTHING, I just don’t get how this place can be so terrible.  The staff is amazingly bad. They see there is a gigantic line and they’ll just stand around and talk to each other.  There must be some sort of mandatory 5-minute wait between customers. I’d say they should just destroy the place and start over, but I really do like the architecture.”

“I would rather roll around in a pile of razor blades while getting shot with a firehouse full of rubbing alcohol and Tabasco sauce than go back to this post office,” adds Alice R of Phoenix.

“I bought postcard stamps there last week,” K.L. of Chicago chimes in. “It took two employees and five minutes at the counter for them to wrangle up 10 stamps.  These were the only two employees working there, by the way, which could explain my 25-minute wait to get up to the counter. This place is BRUTAL.”

“What a horrible god awful place.  I have never seen employees so rude, indifferent, lazy, and miserable . . . Everything wrong with the U.S post office is on display right here at this office,” says Kevin K. of Chicago.

Jacqueline J of Chicago calls the place “a time goblin. Do not set foot into this edifice without your own pen, any mailing supplies you THINK you may need and plenty of extra time.”

“Indescribably awful,” says Erik Z of Chicago. “Accursed and loathsome. Most foul and corrupt. Should be shunned and abandoned in the stygian darkness.”

“OMG, this place is hell.” – Lee W of Hayward, CA

“This might be the worst post office in the city. It’s like they’re actively trying to spite you.” – Drew H. of Chicago.

Some reviewers took the time to offer examples:

I’ve never had even one tolerable experience there,” says Courtney A of Chicago. “I would really rather have my teeth pulled without anesthetic than have to do business there. I waited over an hour once just to get to the window to pick up a letter, which they claimed they did not have –– even though I had a notice from THEM saying they did. The service is terrible, disorganized and rude.  I saw at least ten employees walking around behind the counter but only one was helping the at least 30 customers waiting.  When I asked to have my mail forwarded she tried to tell me it couldn’t be done. (WTF?)”

“Why does the cliche of a freaking post office have to actually BE how the post office is?” asks Julia A of Chicago.  “They didn’t open until 9:15 on Saturday, and there was a line outside when I arrived!  Lines, lines, lines; slow, slow, slow, slow: and honestly not that friendly. I mean COME ON.”

“This place is hell on earth,” says Rae K of Chicago. “The staff is incredibly rude and while they seem to have no time to help anyone, they have all the time in the world to roll their eyes, talk amongst themselves, and antagonize customers. Don’t come here unless it’s an absolute last resort and you don’t care about what happens to your mail. This place is run by lazy and inefficient people who seem to find amusement in stressing out customers and making them wait as long as possible. BEWARE.”

And here, finally, is Tom Z of Chicago summing it up: “What can be said about this swirling pit of ineptitude that hasn’t been said before?  They should post a sign above the door: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

“She Don’t Wanna Be Up Here Neither”

My favorite story on Yelp comes from Erin J of Chicago. She went into the post office one Saturday last June. The doors were supposed to open at 9 AM. At 9:12, a postal worker finally ambled up from inside to unlock the door, then disappeared. Customers dutifully formed into a line and, eventually, a lone clerk opened one window although other postal workers were “running around behind her, hollering and swearing and laughing loudly,” Erin reported.

When Erin got to the counter, she handed the clerk the tracking number for her package. “She disappears for a few minutes before coming back to say that she can’t find it. She needs a supervisor to unlock something or other, but she can’t find her, so I have to wait.”

So Erin stepped to the side to wait. After a while, she poked her head back in to see if the clerk found the package. No dice.

“So how long am I supposed to wait? It’s been 10 minutes,” Erin said.

“You’re supposed to wait however long it takes,” the clerk said, “I dunno.”

“Can you page someone?”

“No, I can’t. There’s supposed to be people working up here, but they don’t wanna be up here, so.”

“What about a supervisor? Can you page her?”

“She don’t wanna be up here neither,” the clerk said.

No Management

The basic problem with the Logan Square post office is management––or lack thereof. Window clerks are always disappearing back into the bowels of the operation to retrieve a package, or find a supervisor, or take a break, and never coming back. Every counter window has its own cache of stamps. If it runs out, then somebody has to go somewhere to find more stamps (usually your attendant), but they are never where they are supposed to be.

I went back to the post office after the holiday hubbub abated. There were only two people in line ahead of me, and one clerk working the counter. One of the customers said he’d been waiting for 15 minutes while his clerk went into the back to look for a package.  Two of the six windows were closed, shutters down and a display of postal packing rolled in front.

“Are those stations closed permanently?” I asked.

“Uh huh,” she said. “Something’s broken over there.”

“Like a computer?” I asked. She never looked up from stamping the packages.

“Mmmhmm,” she said. “Something like that.”

On the way out, I stepped on a dingy area rug covered with the grime of a thousand customers tromping across it in snow boots. “We appreciate your business,” it said, “United States Postal Service.”

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