No Return Address

To the “detectives” who solve the mysteries of errant mail, every letter is a human tale

It all started after I mailed a thank-you note that was never received. When I inquired at my local post office, the folks there told me to contact "the dead letter office," and that, to make a long story short, is how I met Vera Rodriguez Schneider, an energetic, black-maned native of Minnesota who works at the U.S. Postal Service's Mail Recovery Center in St. Paul. There are two other centers, one in Atlanta and one in San Francisco. Altogether, the three facilities employ more than 200 clerks who are committed to keeping that old promise to deliver the mail, no matter what.

After spending a day on the job with Vera, I can't imagine how anyone could be more committed than she is. Her shift begins at 7 a.m. in a windowless building that looks like the headquarters of a national association of pack rats. Stuff is piled up everywhere. When she tells me, after taking off her coat and picking up a retractable razor blade, that her job is "fun," I ask, "What's fun about it?"

She starts using her razor blade to slash open packages. It would be a federal crime for anyone other than a mail-recovery clerk to do this. But Vera has to figure out where all of those cartons and boxes — lacking return addresses and unaddressed, incorrectly addressed or unclaimed — are supposed to go, or where they came from. "You get to play detective here," she tells me, her dark eyes twinkling. It can be very rewarding, she goes on, because "when you return things, people are so happy."

During the 13 years Vera has been sleuthing, she has returned a great many things: Christmas presents; birthday presents; wedding albums; a grandfather's war medals; a mink coat; a boxful of family mementos; and Tom Nissalke's National Basketball Association championship ring, from 1971, when he was with the Milwaukee Bucks. The ring had been stolen 12 years earlier, Nissalke told Vera when she tracked him down in Salt Lake City.

If you have ever wondered where your errant mail ends up, this is the place: a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, half of it crammed with millions of pieces of paper, the other half a veritable bazaar. Last year, the Postal Service processed 200 billion pieces of mail. Of those, nearly 100 million ended up at a Mail Recovery Center, including 98 million letters and 1.2 million packages that contained computers, camcorders, stereos, x-rays, needlepoint pillows and cuckoo clocks. In one year, Vera sees enough office equipment to start a small company. She's seen a few other things too: drugs, guns, money. "If it's out there," she says, "we'll see it in here."

A plain brown package lands on her desk — a Christmas present, months late, without an address or return address. Vera opens it to find a wrapped box inside and a card that says, "To Bailey from Brandy." Vera then removes the holiday gift wrapping and discovers Brandy's address written on top of the box. She puts the wrapping paper inside with the present and then makes out an address label to Brandy. "Boy, is she going to be surprised," Vera says.

Another parcel contains a pair of running shoes. It is addressed to a woman in prison. Most prisons don't accept packages without return addresses, and this package doesn't have one. Inside with the shoes, however, Vera finds a box with an address. So she writes a note, rewraps the package and puts on the address she found. "It's probably a mother sending shoes to her daughter," she says. "Every package, every letter, is a sob story."

She slices open another bundle, this one full of clothes. No one by the name on the address lives at the designated residence, but inside is a typed list, two pages long, of people invited to the "Hickerson Family Reunion" in Boston with phone numbers. Vera will use that list to help her track down the right person.

After her break, Vera takes me to the back of the warehouse and shows me where all of the stuff that can't be returned or donated to charity is sorted for auction. An auction is held at each Mail Recovery Center every six to eight weeks. On the way, we pass stacks of unreturnable letters — 3,600 pounds of them are received here each day. They are headed for the shredder. "If you could see the love letters that end up in the shredder!" Vera says. "The romances that are lost! Sometimes they'll be signed, ‘Guess Who!!' Well, guess what? Shredder!" She shows me one of the envelopes — no address, no return address, no clues inside — and shakes her head sadly at the all-too-avoidable miscommunication.

At the loading bays, semitrailers are arriving, one after the other, and sorters are unloading them. Any parcel that is insured or looks personal goes to Vera or her coworker Barb. At the sorting belt, I ask Vera, Barb and several of their colleagues about the most unusual things they have encountered. Barb says it was an alligator skull still covered with flesh. Vera recalls coming across a Super Bowl ring that belonged to football coach Bill Parcells, who was sending it back to a jeweler to have it resized; the address label had fallen off, but Parcells' order was inside.

"A lot of things touch you," Terry says. "One time I found a diamond-and-gold brooch postmarked from Missouri but with no ‘To' or ‘From' address, only a note inside saying, ‘This was my mother's wedding gift from my father in 1898.' That was pretty sad to me." They kept the brooch for a year and a half, hoping someone would submit a claim. Finally, when no one did, the Postal Service sold it at an auction. They hold onto sentimental things the longest, Vera says.

Someone comes up and shows me two hand-written letters, stapled together, that could have inspired an O. Henry short story. One is written to a youth named Lee Sandro. The other letter is one Lee Sandro had printed in his childish handwriting and put in a bottle he tossed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey. Lee had the presence of mind to include his full name and address so the finder of his note could write back. But by the time his letter washed up on a beach in Florida two years later, Lee had moved and his parents left no forwarding address. His would-be correspondent, who signed the note only "Dreamer in Florida," neglected to provide a return address. Both letters ended up in St. Paul.

I watch Vera open a package incorrectly addressed to a person in Minneapolis. Inside is an old mandolin. There is no explanatory note or return address. Vera puts it on a shelf, where it will remain until someone calls or until she decides it's time to auction it off.

Every morning when she starts work and every afternoon when she leaves, Vera pauses by the supply shelf to pay her respects. There, between a case of sodas and a large bottle of aspirin, reposes a small bronze cremains box with the inscription "W.C.G. McLeod, 1891-1977." Vera introduces me to "Uncle George," as she calls him. He was there the day she first reported for work and she guesses he'll probably still be there when she retires. It's not such a bad place to end up, really, but each day Vera wonders: "Why isn't anyone looking for Uncle George?"

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