GUEST COMMENTARY | Zombie Mail and Other Tales from the Tomb of the Unknown Letter

By Rose Gutfeld | Telluride

Ever wonder where mail goes to die? My husband and I know: Atlanta.

At least, Atlanta is the site of a U.S. Postal Service Mail Recovery Center, where, sad to say, at least three weeks of our “dead mail” has disappeared. Or so we were told; now, we’re not so sure.

Our saga began in suburban Washington, D.C., where in January we arranged – paid – to have our mail forwarded to Telluride each week. As of mid-March, though, we’d received just two weekly shipments. On the USPS website, we could see that three weeks of mail left Maryland on Feb. 17. It arrived in Denver on Feb. 19 but never made it to Telluride. This is the shipment that was later sent to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, according to emails from the USPS, which promised that our “dead mail” would be “searched for, and if found, forwarded” to us.

Having difficulties with mail delivery doesn’t make us unique in Telluride, of course. I recently met a long-time resident who once became wanted for arrest after failing to pay a New York state speeding ticket; the ticket, sent to her Telluride street address, naturally had never made it her P.O. Box. Still, our efforts to find our mail, now seven weeks long and counting, are worth considering as a cautionary tale of bureaucratic missteps, false leads and bad luck. If it happened to us, it can happen to you.

In our attempt to retrieve our mail we’ve:

  • Made well over a dozen phone calls to the Maryland post office and regularly visited the post office here.
  • Made three calls to the USPS Customer Care line, which advised us to contact Consumer Affairs.
  • Contacted two regional Consumer Affairs Centers. The Colorado office never responded. In fact, the phone recording offers no opportunity to leave a message. Instead it advised us to contact Customer Care, which we’d already done. After calling the Maryland office, we got a call from a postal representative who told us incorrectly that our forwarding service had been cancelled.
  • Called congressional offices in Maryland and Colorado.
  • Contacted the national USPS Consumer Advocate Office in Washington. It is through this office that we discovered our mail had been declared dead.

None of this effort produced our missing shipment, though it did inspire some bureaucratic finger-pointing about which part of the Postal Service was at fault.

Then Lisa A. Sims, the postmaster for Telluride, Placerville and Ophir, began connecting some dots. In large postal facilities such as the one in Denver, packages of mail get tossed on and off conveyer belts and from person to person, according to Sims, who said this treatment sometimes causes the packages to fall apart and the mail to fall out. When that happens, postal workers pick up individual pieces of mail and send them back to the original address from which they were forwarded. At her suggestion, we noticed that the second package of mail we’d received in Telluride contained some damaged envelopes and some letters that should have arrived weeks before, likely as part of the missing three-week shipment.

In short, the package that is listed electronically as dead mail probably fell apart weeks ago in Denver. The mail – as much of it as postal employees could retrieve – is working its way to us individually by way of the Maryland post office where it started in the first place.

Will we ever get all of our mail? Doubtful. But we’ve drawn a lesson from our experience: Next time we’ll be more patient – and conduct as much of our correspondence as possible online.

About the Author

Rose Gutfeld

Rose Gutfeld, a mostly retired journalist, spends as much time as possible in Telluride, where she loves to hike and skate-ski. During her16 years as a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, her beats included economics and environmental policy and legislation. Later she was an assistant managing editor at Congressional Quarterly and taught an undergraduate writing class at American University in Washington. Freelance gigs have included editing at Politico.com and writing for quarterly publications of The Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She and her husband have a grown daughter and son and live part-time in suburban Washington, D.C., where she is a co-teacher at Washington English, a school for adult immigrants, and volunteers at CollegeTracks, an organization that helps low-income students navigate the college-admission process.