Washington's Five Most Fascinating Post Offices How hard is it to get some service with a smile?

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(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

As a touring musician and owner of a small record label, I have not found fame and fortune, but I have spent a lot of time at the post office. Demo tapes, CDs, album masters, album art, press packets, promo posters, money orders from the road, gear sold on eBay—trust me, I’ve mailed a lot of shit and know exactly what I want from the blue-clad public servants I pay to handle my correspondence. Having spent hours in some of the worst post offices in our fair District and, I expect, our nation, I also know exactly what I don’t want.

Drawing on a decade’s experience on the USPS beat, I hereby proclaim myself postal-inspector-for-the-people and spotlight five of the region’s best, worst, and otherwise fascinating post offices for your benefit. These rankings are based on the following considerations:

1. Automated Postal Center (APC)

The best trips to the post office do not involve clerks. Is there an APC in the house?

2. Safety Glass

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“What was your question, sir? Can’t you hear me, sir?” No, I can’t—because there’s a 1-inch slab of scratch-tagged safety glass between me, the customer, and you, the clerk who is handsomely paid to serve me. Fuck safety glass. What—is someone going to steal the Forever stamps?

3. Prompt Service

Lines at the USPS can get longer than a Democrat’s dick when Obama’s on CNN. I don’t want to: 1) wait in USPS lines; 2) make small talk with other USPS customers in USPS lines; or 3) sympathize with other people’s complaints about how long USPS lines are while waiting in USPS lines. USPS supervisors, take note—you don’t wanna give me time to fill out that customer comment card.

4. Parking

Does your local post office have a normal-sized space for my Toyota Matrix stuffed with promotional CDs?

5. Service With a Smile

Many postal employees are, as Aerosmith might say, “living on the edge.” A smile from a clerk makes me feel good—like I might escape the post office without staring down the barrel of an automatic weapon. A category related to, but not quite the same as…

6. Triflin’ Factor

Whether it’s a clerk who wants to see my driver’s license before letting me use my credit card or a blue-haired lady holding up the line to buy one first-class stamp when he could use the stamp machine, there’s always some trifling motherfuckers at the post office.

7. Customer Comments

Postal customer, I give ye the opportunity to speak truth to power.

Fascinating Post Office No. 1: Cleveland Park, 20008

Location: 3430 Connecticut Ave. NW

Cleveland Park is an errand-running mother lode. A trip to trusty old P.O. 20008 offers a good chance to visit its notable neighbors: Yes! Natural Foods, Petco, CVS, Supercuts, and the Uptown movie theater, where I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety. But does the quality of the post office itself justify a sojourn west across Rock Creek Park into yuppie Mordor?

1. Automated Postal Center (APC)

Strike 1: If you’re going to do any serious mailing in Cleveland Park, you’re going to have to talk to a human.

2. Safety Glass

Fortunately for this post office’s ambience, Cleveland Park’s jet set rarely commits armed robbery. Not a pane of safety glass in sight!

3. Prompt Service

I groaned when I strolled into 20008 behind Northwest Washington’s oldest woman who, as luck would have it, was wheeling a grocery cart overflowing with approximately 1 million line-clogging packages. However, I was delighted to find not two, not three, but FOUR clerks on duty and was in and out in five minutes! Since I’ve visited post offices where no one—not one human being—was behind the counter, I’ve got to admit: Cleveland Park keeps it moving.

4. Parking

Cleveland “Park?” More like Cleveland “Keep-Driving-Around-the-Block!” Ha ha ha! Ho ho ho! Forget about street parking during rush hour, and don’t think you won’t get a ticket if you park in 20008’s lot behind the Uptown and try to run to Vace for a slice.

5. Service With a Smile

Though she’s waited on me for a decade, I doubt USPS cashier “Julia” knows my name. However, I nominate her as “Postal Employee Least Likely to Open Fire on Co-Workers And/Or Customers” for her even-keeled, semi-cheerful, high-quality service. I’ve never felt such a connection to someone who demanded to know if my package contained anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous.

6. Triflin’ Factor

Beware Cleveland Park’s subtle Eurotrash vibe. Since they can’t understand red-blooded American USPS culture, diplomats used to parking wherever they want get angry (and hold up lines) when forced to choose between certified mail and certified mail with delivery confirmation. The triflin’ ESL posse did not make an appearance at 20008 on my visit, but watch out for: 1) posh Euro moms with bratty Euro kids in tow trying to send an armful of packages to the Continent; 2) irked dudes in expensive Italian shoes wondering why they can’t send their “Mamma Mias” personal correspondence through media mail.

7. Customer Comments

“This place can be good and friendly, but other days, it’s complete hell,” says Jeremy Fowler , a Cleveland Park resident who filed a complaint after 20008 wouldn’t pay an insurance claim on a damaged eBay item. “I don’t mind paying extra to go to [private shipping company Parcel Plus] across the street,” he says. (I interject: Mr. Fowler must be desperate for quality service, as Parcel Plus is notoriously staffed by meanies—but that’s another story.)

Final Grade: No post office without an APC gets an A, and 20008 is driving its customers to the private sector? A solid B-.

Fascinating Post Office No. 2: Northwest Station, 20015

Location: 5632 Connecticut Ave. NW

Oh, Chevy Chase! Crown jewel of Upper Northwest! Are your post offices as well-kept as your traffic circles, as exclusive as your country clubs, and as decadent as those safety flags that people use to cross Connecticut Avenue?

1. Automated Postal Center (APC)

Not since Michael killed Anna Lucia and Libby in one episode of Lost has my world been so rocked: 20015 no longer has an APC. Even worse—there’s the faint outline of an APC against the wall where the APC used to be, and someone tried to obscure the clear evidence of the missing APC with a Selective Service poster! The least 20015 could do is spring for a paint job so I don’t have to be reminded of what Bruce Springsteen called those “glory days” that “pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.” After all, Benjamin Moore is right down the street.

2. Safety Glass

I suppose it’s possible that the world’s oldest woman and her home health aide might try to knock over 20015 while pursuing this P.O.’s “Framed Art” collection, but Northwest Station’s designers did not think the senior threat palpable enough to install safety glass for its employees’ protection.

3. Prompt Service

The kind of line I like is no line at all and, during a recent visit, that was the kind of line that Northwest Station had.

4. Parking

Street parking on Connecticut Avenue is hit-or-miss, and if it’s between 7 and 9:30 a.m. or between 4 and 6:30 p.m., rush-hour restrictions are in effect and you’re basically screwed. Also, if you find a spot, it’s 25 cents for 10 minutes, a full 33.3 percent less time than the 15 minutes 25 cents buys you in most other parts of the District. Meanwhile, the spacious Magruders/Benjamin Moore parking lot is reserved for Magruders/Benjamin Moore customers, and while I’ve never been towed from this lot when illicitly parking there…well, let’s just say I’ve never contracted a water-borne illness drinking unfiltered D.C. tap water either, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. So, if you want to park in the Magruders/Benjamin Moore lot, I recommend buying some broccoli and a pint of “linen sand” semi-gloss and becoming an official customer of those fine establishments. Why tempt fate?

5. Service With a Smile

Dearest “Makeda”: I guarantee that when you cheerfully call out, “Can I help someone?” I will cheerfully reply, “Yes, you can help me, and I need 20 Forever stamps.”

6. Triflin’ Factor

Though I didn’t witness any triflin’ at Northwest Station during my visit, I’m not convinced that there isn’t any triflin’ going on. You’re telling me that some mom pushing a stroller more expensive than my car isn’t going to go buck wild on a cashier after waiting in a long line on Dec. 22 when the cashier tells her that priority mail might get that iPod to her sister in Hyannisport, Mass., in time for Christmas, but that priority mail doesn’t guarantee two-day delivery?

7. Customer Comments

“This is a good post office,” a man with an Eastern European accent informed me outside of 20015. I had peppered this fellow with numerous questions about Northwest Station, but, perhaps because of KGB training, gulag trauma, or the Russian mafia’s “zero tolerance” for alternative-weekly reporters, he had yet to offer anything quotable. The remainder of our conversation is reproduced below in

its entirety:

“Is the service good, or bad?” I prodded.

“Sometimes it is good,” the man cryptically replied. “Sometimes it is bad.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Russia,” the man replied.

“Well,” I said, desperately searching for a pithy sound bite. “Is this post office at least better than a Russian post office?”

The man laughed. Then, he nodded. “Yes,” he said, and walked away.

Final Grade: Really? No APC? A solid B-.

Fascinating Post Office No. 3: Curseen-Morris, 20066

Location: 900 Brentwood Road NE

If you live in D.C. and you receive mail, you’ve gotta love Curseen-Morris 20066, D.C.’s enormous postal distribution center. Formerly known as Brentwood Postal Facility, C-M2K66 is hallowed ground: In October 2001, USPS employees Joseph Curseen, Jr. and Thomas Morris, Jr. died from anthrax exposure helping a copy of Card Player (a poker magazine to which I subscribed in the early aughts) get to my home in Mount Pleasant (sorry, guys, and thanks for the sacrifice). But does this USPS Golgotha do right by the honored dead for which it is named by carrying on a long tradition of high-quality customer service?

1. Automated Postal Center (APC)

A mail “processing and distribution” center sounds pretty official—certainly, more official than a mere “station” or “post office.” Thus, I expected C-M2K66 to be tricked out with numerous APCs. Yet APC service was not available and, if any APCs were on duty, they were out to lunch. Then again, I also think that an amusement park bold enough to name itself “Great Adventure” should have the largest amusement park ride in the world. (Wrong again: that ride is at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, which, incidentally, went for Bush in 2004. Sandusky, Ohio. The county, that is—not the park).

2. Safety Glass

At first, I was happy to see that Curseen-Morris—the national symbol of the USPS’ ongoing war against biological and biochemical weapons—does not have safety glass. Then, I remembered that two dudes died in this building sorting mail and thought, “Damn. Doesn’t this place need safety glass?” (If the financially-strapped USPS doesn’t wanna spring for new safety glass, I suggest recycling the useless/alienating glass at MLK Station, 1400 L St. NW, a notoriously horrible P.O. Take that, MLK, you bastard! [My use of the word “bastard” refers to MLK Station as an entity, not to its individual employees nor to Martin Luther King, Jr., the popular, well-respected, slain civil rights leader.])

3. Prompt Service

Here’s what I like: a short (short=fewer than five people) line staffed by two efficient cashiers and, in the event a line does form, a little waiting area with three chairs circled around a wooden table set with a vase of flowers (I might be making up the flowers, but I’m pretty sure I remember them). If you had tea, you could have a tea party in here! In fact, I’d way rather have tea at C-M2K66 than at some dumb 18th Street hookah bar. Hookahs: Who 1) wants them; 2) needs them? What does Adams Morgan think it is, 1,001 Arabian Nights or something?

4. Parking

Oh, C-M2K66—nothing turns me on more than an enormous, empty, free, front pull-in parking lot where I can park for free for 30 glorious minutes. Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me?

5. Service With a Smile

“Sandy”—thanks for packing that certified-with-return-receipt mail for me. I know it’s frustrating when unschooled M.F.s come in on Tax Day and don’t know how to deal with certified mail, let alone return receipts. Just to clarify: I do know how to pack up mail that’s certified-with-return-receipt. I have dealt with this type of mail many times over the years and, frankly, I have mastered it. However, I feel that it’s presumptuous to pack up one’s own certified mail in an able clerk’s presence, much like trying to speak bad French to a guy selling crêpes underneath the Eiffel Tower or bad Russian to a guy selling borscht outside the Kremlin.

6. Triflin’ Factor

Perhaps because of C-M2K66’s tragic history, there wasn’t much triflin’ goin’ on.

7. Customer Comments

“I just use the P.O. Box,” says Lewis Jenkins, who lives near C-M2K66 but rarely uses counter service. “And get packages,” he adds. (I know this quote sucks, but, truth be told, I really hate getting quotes from the “man on the street.” I mean, I go to the gas station all the time, but I don’t have an informed opinion about 87 octane vs. 89 octane for any reporters who might be hanging around. Also, “man on the street” quotes: 1a) don’t advance journalism because they are, by definition, anecdotal; and 1b) are usually uninformative; and 2) are very awkward to get on a really rainy day for a piece that would potentially criticize a post office that was at the center of a very tragic, very scary part of our great nation’s history—i.e. 9/11—and the dark days following.)

Final Grade: Honor the fallen! A+.

Fascinating Post Office No. 4: Southeast Station, 20003

Location: 600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE

Though I’d never visited Southeast Station before, a confidant informed in an e-mail in re: “A Particularly Painful Post Office” that this “Post Office [sic: Southeast Station is a station, not a mere post office] on Pennsylvania by Eastern Market really, really sucks balls.” What USPS reviewer wouldn’t want to investigate this testicular claim?

1. Automated Postal Center (APC)

I thought that a P.O. on Pennsylvania Avenue fewer than 10 blocks from the U.S. Congress and about 20 from the White House—a USPS facility built for the convenience of our nation’s public servants who walk their dogs on Capitol Hill’s lush lawns and push their well-groomed children’s expensive strollers down their exclusive neighborhood’s wide thoroughfares—would be rockin’ at least one APC, maybe two. I thought wrong.

2. Safety Glass

Southeast Station’s staff must implicitly trust the numerous other government employees this P.O. presumably serves—like the Grateful Dead, 20003’s cashiers operate “without a net.” (By “net,” I mean “safety glass.”)

3. Prompt Service

I was 15th in line at Southeast Station, a personal worst. Two cashiers at the front of a 15-person line and no APC? This place needs some TARP money.

4. Parking

Street parking only, and it costs a quarter for 10 minutes. I found a spot out front and counted myself lucky.

5. Service With a Smile

Evaluating the attitudes of postal employees on April 15, aka “Tax Day,” is a little bit like asking a woman giving birth if bringing another soul into the world is really worth the painful havoc that baby is wreaking on her pelvis, lower back, and genitals. Thus, though no clerks were particularly friendly during my rainy–Tax Day visit to 20003 (and, truth be told, I wasn’t feeling very talkative either), I’m inclined to give everyone a pass. This time.

6. Triflin’ Factor

I suspect most triflin’ M.F.s at 20003 aren’t behind the counter. Case in point: a “former House Committee” employee I interviewed about the quality of service at Southeast Station gave me a decent quote, then told me about the plan she has for constitutional reform called the “Serve Your Country Amendment.” This constitutional amendment would ensure that all members of Congress and the President—and, in fact, the entire Washington “establishment”—would be forced out of Washington “like every 12 years” so that they don’t become “entrenched.” While I applaud this worthy sentiment, I wondered how a woman I’d watched struggle with certified mail forms: 1) could successfully lead a movement to alter a historic document that doesn’t even have room for a basic Equal Rights Amendment (for women! for all women! for your mother! for my mother! etc.); 2) thought a Washington City Paper blogger with no business card or laminated press credentials could somehow help her organization-less, constituent-less, Web site–less cause.

7. Customer Comments

“They need more help,” says Paris Singer of Capitol Hill. “There should be a simple way to know how to get certified mail.”

Final Grade: My correspondent was right: This post office does indeed suck balls. F.

Fascinating Post Office No. 5: Ledroit Station, 20001

Location: 416 Florida Ave. NW

On the bleak polygon formed by the intersection of S Street NW and Florida, Rhode Island, and New Jersey Avenues lies LeDroit Station, as lonely a post office as one could imagine. King of its own curious, concrete island, 20001 stands alone at the center of a vortex of honking traffic and auto exhaust. What P.O. lies in this foreboding USPS no man’s land, and does it have customs forms?

1. Automated Postal Center (APC)

The designers of this miniature building left no room for advanced APC technology. Besides, the machine would block 20001’s army-recruitment poster.

2. Safety Glass

Since this P.O. is staffed by an intimidating, name-tag-less clerk, I was happy (for once) to see safety glass, as I felt that I was the one who needed protection. Also, said glass offered a convenient place to hang a picture of a local man wanted for armed robbery.

3. Prompt Service

Only one clerk at this bathroom-sized location, but she keeps the line moving.

4. Parking

20001 is equipped with a parking lot, but figuring out how to drive into it is sort of like stoichiometry—there’s a lot of possibilities, and you won’t get it right the first time. You might be able to make a right into the parking lot when traveling east on Florida. Then again, you might have to take Florida to Rhode Island, make a right, and then another immediate right. Then again, if you took Florida to New Jersey, you might have to take a left on Rhode Island, then make an illegal U-turn, and then sneak into the parking lot. (Be on the lookout for Rhode Island Avenue’s ubiquitous red-light cameras.)

5. Service With a Smile

Question: “Do I have to fill out a customs form to mail this CD to Germany?” Answer: “If I don’t know you, you have to fill it out!” Further discussion of this response below.

6. Triflin’ Factor

USPS rules clearly state that: “A customs form is not required on…non-dutiable First Class Mail International items that weigh less than 16 ounces.” Thus, I must conclude that a clerk who makes me fill out a form for a package that clearly doesn’t require one JUST because she “doesn’t know me” is triflin’. Final Grade: I don’t know any of these people! D+

Our Readers Say

This station doesn't just suck balls. It literally fries up the Rocky Mountain oysters. 15th in line on tax day? I question your calendaring skills as I've been 15th in line multiple times here, all year long. Picking up a package is a nightmare, parking is usually unavailable, and on occasion I thought I might have to get a napkin for the postal clerk's dribble and drivel.
I am so happy to see that other people feel the same way about the post offices in this area! What is up with every employee treating you like shit and moving at a snail's pace?? I'm sorry you hate your job but don't blame me. And that damn glass case that you have to lift up to slide your package through and then close it before they can open it and they yell at you if you open it too quickly or do something incorrectly.... The last time I went was to mail a package that happened to have a 1 oz bottle of perfume for someone's Christmas gift and I was stupid enough to be honest when they asked if there were liquids inside - the guy told me that since I didn't know the alcohol content of the perfume, I couldn't mail it. Now it's only FedEx for me.
I have had good luck going here weekday mornings around 10; usually the line is not too long and it moves fairly quickly. But it's kind of a no-frills experience. I expect most of those Capitol Hill workers you mention are using the post offices in the federal buildings; I think there's one in the Cannon building and I expect the Capitol's got it's own. No need for them to mingle with the common people! : )
I love the Ledroit post office and have never had to wait more than 15 minutes for service. The clerk has always been very courteous to me. For a one person operation its remarkably efficient. Maybe the bad review will keep folks away!
THE worst post office I've dealt with in DC (and I've been here since 1988) is the 20009 PO on 14th Street NW. This one is the epitome of northern charm and southern efficiency (ie. they're rude and slow). Lately I have noticed they've been staffing better so maybe there's hope...
omg...pleeeeeeeeeease go take a look at the post office in Silver Spring, 20907. They have a full staff of all the other post office rejects. I have never gone in there and not had to wait in line at least a half hour. It's also right across the street from a sunrise assisted living facility, so you're constantly stuck behind someone's grandma still trying to figure out how the post office works after all these years.

They do have an APC though...........
This is the third zip code I've inhabited in DC (20001, LeDroit Park). First was 20010 then 20009. Not being a fan of driving across town to go to the post office, LeDroit Park is my favorite. The one-woman-show is effective enough. She's a little surly but damn efficient. My experiences with DC post offices has me permanently emotionally disfigured, so ALL I ask for is efficiency and no bullshit.

A few months ago she tried to tell me USPS no longer does media mail. I calmly stated I mailed some media mail yesterday at a different post office. She looked at me flatly, and rang me up for media mail. Good enough.
The Penn Ave PO sucks. Don't go on a Saturday. You will be in line forever. Plus it is hot as hell in that place.
Requiring ID as a condition of acceptance for a MasterCard or Visa is a violation of the merchant agreement. The clerk can *ask*, but they still have to accept the card if you refuse to show ID. Lots of stores violate this rule, but I would expect the USPS to know better (snort, snicker).

Do your part: anytime a clerk demands ID as a condition of credit card acceptance, call the number on the back of your card and report them. You'll notice that any stores you report will stop asking for ID a couple weeks later.
Oh, and I can't believe the article failed to mention USPS's most grievous customer service move of all: no late-night counter service! Need to send a package after 9 pm? Sorry dude, you may be in the capital of the free world, but you ain't gettin no service. At least the station on North Capitol used to be open until midnight, but they started closing at 9 pm a few months ago. Pitiful!
Justin, thank you for exposing the heinous Southeast Station.

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