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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

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In Kids & Family Commentary

Touring the post office is fun. Who knew?

In Kids & Family Commentary

I don't think I was supposed to take photos, but my finger might have slipped on that little button on my phone with the camera on it.

Tour of post office gets stamp of approval from curious pen pals


A few months ago, I posted on Facebook / tweeted that I was looking for pen pals for my kids. A day later, thanks to a high school friend living in Switzerland, we had addresses for Nina and Arthur, ages 8 and 10, who live in Zurich.

Over the past few months, the kids have exchanged letters with their new Swiss pen pals three times. We've had fun sending and receiving cards, photos and dollar bills. We've enjoyed looking at the different stamps and air mail stickers.

After the last letter from Arthur, my son asked if we could take a tour of the post office and see how "mail works." I had never thought about it, but it seemed do-able, so I stopped at the security desk at the Downtown U.S. Post Office, 345 W. St. Paul Ave., and asked.

I was connected with Dominic Carini, an expediter for the post office, who was eager to set up an appointment. He was open to just about any day or time, so we picked one that was after school for the kids. I then had to check in with another employee (who probably did a quick background check on me?) and gave us final permission to tour the facility.

The tour, which lasted about an hour, was fascinating for all of us. The Downtown post office has eight floors, four of which are used for processing. The building, which was built in the late '60s, only has windows on the second floor. Carini said it was for security purposes.

The building location was picked because it was next door to the train station, and at the time of construction, mail came in on the rails. These days, it's transported mostly by air and trucks.

The Downtown facility, we learned, processes between 1 million and 1.5 million pieces of mail every day, and 98 percent of operations are now automated.

To illustrate this fact, Carini said that when he started working at the post office in the '80s, it took 20 employees to sort the mail in a particular area that now has one massive machine and two employees instead. I think this was one of the most valuable lessons my kids learned from this tour. It really drove home the point that technology – although it offers opportunity and information – replaces human labor and human contact.

We took a massive freight elevator between the four floors, and each time, Carini invited my kids to push the buttons – a highly coveted activity. He also asked repeatedly if they had questions, listened to them when they did (along with their tangent-y stories about recently seen movies) and made jokes.

Our first stop was at the Nixie Unit, which Carini described as the "hospital area" for damaged or unreadable mail that needs to get "fixed up by mail doctors." My kids found the concept of a postal infirmary quite funny. We made jokes about stethoscopes and such.

The second floor is the "return to sender area," which was slightly less interesting, but the third floor – oh, the third floor! – is worth the cost of admission. (Although, by the way, there is no cost of admission, it is free to tour the post office).

The massive warehouse space has twisting, winding conveyor belts from floor to ceiling transporting boxes and boxes of mail. They resembled water park slides or a roller coaster and are painted bright colors – the purple track is nicknamed "Barney."

Plus, there are flashing lights and big illuminated buttons and beeps and massive carts of letters being mechanically dumped before our very eyes. Who knew mail processing was so exciting? It was even more entertaining for them than a construction site or the roastery at Alterra.

Carini introduced us to numerous employees who showed us how various machines worked, like one that printed the bar code on envelopes. One was clearly amused that we were so interested in his work, but every worker gave us more information and answered questions. (I couldn't help but to think of the irony of the "going postal" stereotypes considering we came in contact with such cordial people).

Then Carini really won over the kids. He started talking about an anthrax scare that took place in the facility about 10 years ago. It turned out to be cosmetic dust, not anthrax, but he said it was pretty scary. The kids' eyes widened with fear and excitement. They had never heard of such a thing and they had so many questions.

We then stood in the middle of the plant and talked about all of it: that sometimes evil people send poison in envelopes and when that happens they shut down the entire operation and everyone leaves and the fire department comes and specialists transport the possibly poisonous letter to get tested, etc. It was better than a ghost story!

The fourth floor was my favorite. It is an entire floor of letters. I've always been a letter sender and my protected romantic side could practically smell the ballpoint pen ink and the faint scent of perfumed love letters.

The kids talked about email vs. snail mail, the pros and the cons, and then we saw more massive sorting machines. Carini asked us our zip code and then showed us specifically how our letters get processed. He then took us to the one small area left where human beings still sort the mail that for some reason was rejected by the machines. It was more like what I remember reading in Charles Bukowski's memoir, "Post Office," where people with big boxes of mail in front of them slide mailers and envelopes into little slots.

At this point, we actually found a piece of mail addressed to my son. (It was junk mail from iTunes.) Although there are over one million pieces of mail in the facility, we found one addressed to my kid. It was like a magic trick.

My kid asked if he could take the piece of mail with him, and Carini said no, but it would probably be in his mailbox today. I can't wait to get home and see if it is.

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