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July 29th, 2005

Binding Red Tape

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
I like the post office. Despite all the bad press they’ve gotten over the years, the cost of mailing a letter is still a great deal. It’s like getting a twelve cent can of pop, or a $5,000 new car. But it is a government agency, so one must expect the occasional … um … difficulty.
So it was when I went in to mail a manuscript to my agent. He lives in Washington state, so even in the worst of circumstances, mailing him my work of art (or my work of whatever) is a pretty good deal. Compare that, say, to driving it to his office. I’d spend more money just getting to the Indiana state line then I would at the post office, and that’s assuming I don’t stop for fast food.
So, as I have done many times, I bundled up my Precious, taped the box shut, addressed it, and took that two block walk to the USPS, where I asked that it be mailed at book rate.
The nice lady at the counter (I’m not being sarcastic, she really was nice) asked me what was in the box, as I’ve been asked every time before. You see, book rate is less expensive than normal mailings, so people have tried to sneak through things such as electronic devices, Uncle Mel’s ashes, or refrigerated body parts. So I informed her, somewhat proudly, that it was a manuscript.
She raised an eyebrow and asked if it was bound. No, I explained, it’s a manuscript. First somebody has to buy it, and then it will be bound by that someone’s company, which will also distribute it to bookstores and send me a nice check.
She explained to me that, in order for it to be sent book rate, it had to be a book. It was a book, I told her – it just wasn’t bound. In fact, editors won’t look at your manuscript if it’s bound. That want nice loose pages, so they can leaf through them easily and make red marks all over the pages. It was not only a book, I added, but a novel. The Great American Novel. Well, a novel.
She again explained that, in order for it to be sent book rate, it had to be bound. They’d taken my manuscripts before, but possibly she was the first one on the ball enough to ask, while the others had just assumed. So when I complained again, she brought out the Book of Manuscript Mailing Regulations, sometimes called BuMMeR.
I heard a beeping noise, and a forklift came roaring in, carrying the Postal Regulations with it. It was a stack of small print rules, six feet high. You could play soccer on the pages, complete with bleachers. They needed a special hydraulic page turner to get to page 45,231, or part 147, section B324, Mailing Alert Notes, also called BuMMeR, MAN.
Then a fantastic thing happened. As if alerted by the production of the postal manual, all the machines in the post office suddenly came alive and started dancing and singing, just like the enchanted houseware from “Beauty and the Beast”. Remember that movie? It was just like the song, “Be My Guest”, in which the castle’s plates and silverware greeted Belle, only with different words:

You are screwed, You are screwed
Now we don’t mean to be rude
But the rules are clear
They’re down right here
Don’t give us attitude.

We’re not trying to be cruel
But we must obey the rules.
For a government colossus
Doesn’t care about your losses.

Go ahead and complain,
This red tape you’ll never tame.
Doesn’t matter, if you whine or brood –
As a writer, your
Lot is to be poor
You are screwed, you are screwed
You are screwed!

Or maybe I imagined it.
I didn’t imagine the higher cost of the postage, but on the brighter side, I’m not going to be arrested by black suited postal agents.
So what did I do? I paid. Look, the people behind the counter don’t make the rules – I’ve been one of the people behind a counter, and they hate bureaucratic insanity as much as anyone. So I paid, and I got a column out of it, and that higher postage is still tax deductible.
Assuming the IRS doesn’t start singing something from “Pocahontas” … “The Color of Red Tape”, perhaps?

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