Holly Elder and her boyfriend, Terrence Hamner, have lived in the gentrifying McKinley Heights neighborhood for the past four years. They run Ice Cuisine, an ice-sculpting business, from their home on Geyer Avenue, so they depend on a timely mail service. Bills must come in; invoices must go out.
Their mailman used to arrive like clockwork each day, always friendly with Candy, the couple's boxer-Akita mix. Then, about eighteen months ago, he resigned.
"He was like, 'I'm tired of all the politics and baloney down at the Benton Park Post Office,'" recalls Elder.
But Elder and Hamner's mail misery was just beginning. New carriers began turning over with alarming frequency. The mail began arriving at all hours of the day, except for a two-week period in January when, according to Elder, nothing came at all.
Then one of the new carriers taunted Candy. "He started putting the mail in the slot, and then pulling it out and putting it back in, teasing her," Elder says. "She went nuts. Now any time mail comes through that slot, she shreds it."
The final straw: Receiving a bundle of mail addressed to eight different locations.
"We had stuff for Russell [Boulevard], for Allen [Avenue], for Missouri [Avenue]. I'm like, 'How does all that get to here?'" recalls Elder. "This is retarded, because my life revolves around the mail carrier now. We're trying to run a business, and we have to baby-sit the mail carrier every day."
Elder and Hamner are just two of many residents in the 63104 zip code who have complained. Residents of Soulard, Lafayette Square and Benton Park also report irregular service. Laverne Mahoney, manager of customer services for the Benton Park Post Office on South Jefferson Avenue, says she's received dozens of calls since taking the job in February. The main problem, Mahoney says, is the area's difficult terrain.
"We've got rear delivery, and a lot of other stations do not have this situation," she explains. "They have to go through gangways to make deliveries. Customers may call and say that their mail was placed on [the] porch, and the mailbox is in the back."
Whatever the excuse, McKinley Heights residents say mail service has bordered on the surreal. Jack Knapp came home from lunch one day to find a bundle of letters lying in the middle of the sidewalk.
"I thought it was trash," says Knapp, a construction contractor. "It turned out to be a bundle of mail for three houses up the street. I took it to those addresses.
"It could very easily have been someone getting a new credit card," he continues. "[That's] a security concern." Knapp also complains of missed credit-card statements, receiving his neighbor's mail and receiving his own mail as late as 8:30 in the evening.
According to Garry McMichael, a photographer who lives on Allen Avenue, the service "borders on disaster." He says he's seen at least twenty different carriers drop letters in his slot since the beginning of the year.
"I suspect a few of having reading problems," he says. "Either that or they're not paying attention."
McMichael shares his brownstone with long-time girlfriend Diane Tessman. For a few consecutive months, they didn't receive their phone bill, prompting the phone company to threaten disconnection. Recently, Tessman noticed that their temporary carrier seemed to be in quite the grouchy mood.
"Aren't you having a nice day?" she asked.
"Nope," he replied. "I can't wait until I get out of this hole."
McMichael says he contacted two different managers at the Benton Park Post Office. When the service remained poor, he penned an editorial for a neighborhood paper urging residents to contact their congressman.
Tessman, meanwhile, began inviting carriers into her air-conditioned foyer for cold bottles of water, hoping kindness might be the way to go. But so far nothing has worked.
Mahoney says McKinley Heights' problems started when the neighborhood's longtime mailman -- the one Elder and Hamner were so fond of -- requested a transfer.
A new carrier was assigned to the route. She was supposed to take over permanently, but she fell down a flight of stairs and could no longer walk the route. The carrier moved on to sorting mail and was never replaced.
"We have a contract with the union that we cannot take the assignment from the employee until a year after it's been determined that the employee can no longer do their job," Mahoney explains.
This explanation infuriates Elder. "OK, if they're out for a couple months, yeah, hold their job position. But if they're gonna be out for six months, freakin' replace her!"
Instead, the task of delivering the route fell to a series of temporary carriers, each of whom was required to handle McKinley Heights' mail in addition to servicing their own routes. As a result, they often wouldn't get to the neighborhood until late in the day.
This proved a recipe for disaster.
"Being a temporary situation, sometimes we have to put carriers in there who aren't as familiar with the routes as they should be," explains Mike Stancil, local spokesman for the United States Postal Service. "It takes a little time for them to learn the routes."
Mahoney insists that the residents' mail woes will soon come to an end. Because the injured carrier has been off the route for a year, the post office can at last replace her.
"The post office requires some work, and that's the reason why they pay us good," Mahoney says. "And that's why they require [carriers] to give their customers good service. Because, really, that's all customers want."
The temporary carrier currently handling the route, Nathan Bishop, seems less than thrilled to be there. "It's a difficult route," a sweat-soaked Bishop says near the end of his shift on a recent afternoon. "Mismarked boxes, people who move in and out who don't leave a change of address." Given his druthers, Bishop would prefer to stuff the clearly numbered boxes of St. Louis County.
Hamner says he's had enough and, as a last-ditch effort, has decided to offer a creative incentive: "I'll give an ice sculpture to anyone who stays on the job for a full year and does a good job."
Ironically, it was Hamner and Elder's business that provided a sculpture of the USPS logo for the downtown post office's Christmas party last year.
"And I delivered it on time," Hamner says.