CCA Step Savers—How to Minimize Backtracking
In the mail business, daydreaming plays to mixed reviews. The mental quietude on long, lonely stretches between mailboxes will either make or break a letter carrier. If you're a songwriting genius like dearly departed mailman John Prine, you might use these pauses to make up lyrics, then rhyme your way out of a satchel for good. But in the meantime, be careful. Your daydreaming, and mine, can spiral out of control and have us frantically retracing steps, killing off precious clicks to fix the eff ups made while off in la la land.
There is no cure for daydreaming. It is not a virus where an injection will prevent its infection. It cannot be sanitized. Masks and gloves will not stop its spread. No, it is a congenital illness for many postal workers, a birth defect that plagues a broad spectrum of letter carriers, from upstart City Carrier Assistants to veteran satchel swingers with 30 years plus.
At first, I was going to give this article the subtitle "How to Prevent Backtracking," but then I thought - what kind of high apple pie in the sky nonsense is that? Backtracking cannot be prevented. There is no stopping it other than to replace us with drones, and we don't want that. Do androids dream of electric sheep? - Sci-Fi writer Phillip K Dick once asked. We don't know for sure, but hard-wired robot brains probably don't long for lost loves, they don't pine about the perfidious past, they don't fantasize about false fortunes from future lottery winnings. Instead, their mechanical heads are strictly business. So, if we don't want human letter carriers to go the way of the dinosaur, I suggest we get our heads on our business too, at least long enough to get the right mail in the right box in the right sequence. Then we can all go back to our regularly scheduled daydreaming.
Think Ahead, Not Behind - A Summary of Postal Backtrack Reduction Procedures
Because Google likes lists, I am providing one here for your quick review. This is basically a bullet point summary of backtrack minimization techniques, to be discussed in greater depth below.
- Bridge The Gap - Watch out for residences with no mail. Match the mail in your hand to the number on the house.
- In your satchel, line up the small parcels in delivery order.
- Line up big parcels in the back of your truck in delivery order, or alphabetically by street name if the exact order is unknown.
- Close the Gap - Beware of miscased flats (the false flat). If there is a glaring gap in flat sequence, double check the one underneath.
- Live to fight another day - examine the class of the mail you missed (First, Priority, Standard, Media Mail, etc.) and ask yourself if it is really necessary to backtrack.
Bridge The Gap
The reason this topic occurred to me is because a couple of weeks ago I committed the mailman's mortal sin. I put the wrong mail in the wrong receptacle, through a garage door slot. Now, be aware that if you at least try to fix this fatal eff-up you will retain your good standing with St. Peter, standing there with the shepherd's crook, deciding whether to use it to sweep you off the pearly gates. However, if you decide to let the error slide and move on, you are certainly destined for the postal pit.
Because no amount of Clorox can whiten my besmirched soul, I desperately tried to rectify the mistake. Fortunately, the resident with the garage door slot was home and I was able to get the mail back, no harm done, other than going in reverse to deliver the mail to the right house. But the incident made me consider just how mental lapses can effect the bottom line, that bank account of precious postal clicks that offers no return on investment when we have to go backwards, instead of forward. Meanwhile, the dreaded postal hundreths counter laughs mockingly as it ticks ahead in time.
I'm not worried about how the postal bottom line is impacted by your backtracks, so much as I am worried about how they are going to affect your bottom, which is going to get even skinnier, and perhaps redder from the spanking you are going to get when you return to office a couple clicks late. A couple clicks is all it takes to get you tied to the postal whipping post.
So here is CCA step-saving point number one: Bridge The Gap. On heavy mail flow days this is not going to be that much of a problem, but when the mail is light you are going to be skipping a lot of houses, you are going to be have a lot of islands in the mail stream. Great! - say you, oh woefully naive newbie. Less mail means less work, right? Not on Planet Postal. On Planet Postal it means that, in addition to the full route you are assigned to, you are going to be delivering big, dripping chunks of other routes. The merciless postal time clock is still going to own you, maybe even more so.
Therefore, keep focused on the address you are currently delivering to. Make sure the mail you have separated in your hand matches the number on the house, on the mailbox, or painted on the curb. Simple, right?
Not always. A lot of houses prefer to exist in anonymity. Maybe their occupants are on the run from debt collectors, angry ex wives, or the long arm of the law. Maybe they are conspiracy enthusiasts who think the government is spying on them, and believe that not having their address posted on their home will somehow deter intrusive government agents. Maybe these folks are just lazy, so they didn't fix the numbers when they fell off the stucco, or didn't repaint the curb when the the eroding effects of gutter water eventually washed them away. Maybe they think it will be easier for first-responders to find their address-less house on a moonless night, when someone inside is having a heart attack, or has fallen and can't get up. Whatever the case, a lot of people are weird this way, and don't maintain their house numbers. But these same folks will be the first in line to complain about misdelivery.
The absence of house numbers forces you, the slap-happy CCA, to do a little math. It means you have to make intelligent guesses, based on the incremental progression of the street numbers. For instance, maybe Elm Street's addresses are running 1006, 1014, 1022, 1030, 1038, then blank. Nothing. No number by the porch, nothing on the mailbox, and just a fuzzy, unreadable smudge on the curb. But based on past performance, where the numbers are increasing in increments of 8, a good guess would be that the unlabeled abode in front of you is probably 1046. Does the mail in your hand read 1046 Elm? Bingo! You win.
But what if the next letter gripped protectively in your clutches jumps from 1022 to 1038? Do not be a slave to sequence and deliver 1038's mail into 1030's door slot. Look up, read the bold, blaring 1030 digits, so big that they can be seen from the international space station, and save yourself before it is too late. Bridge the gap. Skip the mail-less 1030 and deliver 1038's mail to 1038, its happy little home.
Line 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out
Another common cause of those injurious, nettlesome backtracks are missed parcels. If you could turn back time, like Cher sang, you could redeliver them without wasting time, so this wouldn't be a problem. But Cher obviously couldn't turn back time because, have you seen her advancing crow's feet? Don't laugh, neither can you. Then again, if you really could turn back time you would return to High School, listen in class and make the grade, instead of skylarking in the parking lot with your no-account friends. Meaning you wouldn't be in CCA hell in the first place, worrying about backtracks.
Instead of digressing further about head-scratching postal conundrums, I'll give your some practical information that might help you reduce those dreaded retrograde movements. Notice I said reduce again, rather than eliminate. No matter how carefully you put everything in precise delivery order, some little prankster SPR with an attitude is going to slither out of its assigned space and send you off on a joyless joy ride. Way after you finish the swing it will suddenly turn up again, grinning at you deviously in the wrong spot. There are gremlins in the back of every postal vehicle that like to rearrange your mail, and no matter how much you delouse the cargo area you just can't stop them.
The most painfully obvious method for reducing parcel backtracks is to line them up in delivery order beforehand. This technique is so obvious you are beating yourself in the forehead, wondering why you didn't think of it. In order to do this look at the mail first, to get the layout of the land. Does the swing start with even or odd numbers? Years of training CCAs has taught me I cannot take the concept of even and odd numbers for granted, such is the failure of our public school system. Therefore, I will include that lesson here also, as a bonus.
From a postal perspective, even numbers are 0, 2, 4, 6, and 8. We can stroke our beards and philosophize if 0 is a number at all, but that discussion would be way beyond the scope of this article. Just accept it as such. Conversely, odd numbers are 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Armed with this newfound knowledge, take note whether the numbers on the mail are going up or going down. Do they ascend, like 1005, 1013, 1021, 1029, or do they descend, such as 1092, 1084, 1076, 1068. Figure all that out as quickly as you can wrap your postal pinhead around it, then line up the packages accordingly, there in your mail bag if you are park and loopin' or on the rack in your LLV driver's compartment, if you are stoppin' and hoppin'.
At this stage of the game you might not be able to remember all of the addresses you just lined up, so just recall the number of the first package in your bag. After that one has been efficiently dispatched, look at the second. This practice prevents blowing a fuse from memory overload, there in your harried head.
A very zippy CCA I know has a little trick to further enhance this process. In bold sharpie pen, she writes the house number on the top of each parcel, so she won't have to be squinting in the sunshine at the microscopic numbers the shippers use to save ink.
I'm not knocking her, because success speaks for itself, but to me this is a time wasting practice. I only say this because after 27 years on the job, I have a highly developed postal brain. I'm not bragging, there is an actual anatomical change to the cerebrum that happens after so many years delivering mail. This occurs quickly with some, slower with others, depending on how much spare brain space you have to begin with. The development of this extra ganglia of neurons, specifically devoted to postal tasks, allows the letter carrier to remember all of the packages on a swing, in their correct order, without wasting time writing swing numbers, house numbers, and the like. Most of the time.
Solving The Parcel Predicament
But what to do about those big boys that just won't fit in the satchel, those oversized obesities that have to be driven to the door?
Again, line these up in delivery order, but with a caveat. If you have a big package for an address you know you will be driving by on your way to the first delivery, drop it off on your way there. This will eliminate the drudgery of having to start the vehicle, put on your seat belt, drive back to that address after maybe doing a potentially dangerous u-turn, curb your wheels, park, stop vehicle, take off your seat belt, lather rinse repeat. All of these actions eat clicks like Pac-Man munching power pellets. Reduce them if you can.
One more thing that's been bugging me, you ask as you're reading along. I'm a fricking CCA, not a Regular. Three quarters of the time I don't know the correct delivery order of the packages on a route, especially in the first few months at a station. I use the load feature because I am ordered to but that's practically useless, because those six sections cover way too broad an area.
Hard to believe, Mr. or Mrs. Incensed CCA, but even we ODL Regulars get stuck in circumstances like this, when we come in on our day off to carry a new route. What I do in these situations is pull the mail down from the letter case, then use the case to put the SPRs in order, throwing them in like mail, then lining them up in sequence in trays when I am finished. If that option is not available, perhaps because some clueless supervisor obligates you to load all parcels at the back of the truck, then arrange them there in alphabetical order, by street name. No, unlike where I coached you up on the concept of even and odd numbers, I am not going to teach you the alphabet here. If you are lacking in the area of your ABCs, quit the Post Office immediately and go back to kindergarten.
NOTE: IN ALL CASES, IF YOU ARE HANDLING PARCELS MAKE SURE YOU ARE ON 721 (STREET) TIME.
The False Flat
Still another cause of catastrophic click carnage is what I call the false flat. A false flat is a piece of flat sized residual mail that has been cased way out of sequence. Maybe you did it, maybe the bozo regular did, but it doesn't matter. It's there now, and if you don't identify and deal with it accordingly, it is going to send you reeling backwards like Joe Frazier, when Muhammad Ali got him with a fourteenth-round flurry.
This time, instead of bridging the gap, you have to close the gap. There you are on endless Elm street again, with a heavy bundle of flats perched on your left appendage that is building your forearm to Popeye-esque proportions. In other words, it is not a light mail day, there are a lot of flats to go around for everyone. But suddenly, the next flat on your arm jumps from 1014 Elm all the way to 1092. That sucks, you say, I was hoping to drop off a few more of these suckers along the way to ease the load, but oh well. I fights to the finish 'cause I eats my spinach.
Finally you arrive at 1092, where you deliver that next flat in your bundle, only to discover, to your horror, that the one underneath it says 1022, then 1030, then 1038, so on so forth, you get the point. The point being, you now have to backtrack all of those flats you failed to deliver between 1022 and 1092, the ones concealed by the miscased, false flat. Naturally they are all probably first and second class, and it is a big bundle that cannot be discretely hidden among the throwbacks when you return. Meaning you are stuck, Chuck.
Of course, you could have nipped this problem in the bud by recognizing this glaring gap in sequence and closing it. All you had to do was check the flat underneath 1092 and recognize the miscase. If you were a regular already the gap in sequence would have set off a flashing, howling alarm in your head but alas, you are not, so it didn't.
Oh well, don't do it next time. It is an easily avoidable problem. From here on out, check these gaping holes between flats before you fall into a gaping backtrack hole yourself.
Final Words - Live To Fight Another Day
In closing, I propose one more backtracking reduction method, in the form of some self-searching, a bit of introspection. Ask yourself if you are a CCA who is practical, or pedantic? Are you a go-getter or a nit picker? Do you focus on the big picture, or sweat the small stuff?
If you are one of those people who is bedeviled by details, you better get over it. You are destined to get trapped in an endless loop of backtracks, forever agonizing over mail you think you might have missed, instead of focusing on the mail still in your possession.
What I am trying to say is save your strict attention to detail for the day you make regular, for when you have your own route. Then you can make sure all your i's are dotted and the t's crossed.
In the meantime, live to fight another day. Think about those letters and parcels you missed earlier and ask if you really have to backtrack at all. Are they first class and priority? If that's the case, the answer is probably yes, go back and deliver them. Standard, Parcel Post, Media Mail? One of those Chinese chunks that the gremlins rearranged into the wrong place? Maybe not.
Of course, if you have a whole pile of backtracks it will be an awkward and highly visible ordeal to return them to the Post Office without attracting attention. A good rule of thumb for postal survival is don't attract attention if you don't have to. If you can avoid it, stay off the phone to your supervisor. He really doesn't want to get involved with your backtracking issues. Learn to think for yourself and keep that whip cracker out of the loop.
Therefore, if you have one or two of those low budget jobs, my opinion is that their penny-pinching addressees get what they pay for. The cut rate SPRs can be brought back and quietly returned to the parcel hamper for tomorrow. Maybe your boss will see you do it, maybe he or she won't. Chances are, they don't want to spend overtime that costs more than the shipping of these packages, and will ignore or even silently applaud your action. Scan them attempted and bring them back. Just don't be stupid and bring it to their attention, if it's possible.
NASA recently found evidence of a parallel universe where time goes backward. If you are a chronic backtracker, maybe that's the place for you. In the meantime, before they start selling tickets to that universe, you're going to have to get along in this one. Follow the tips I suggested here, get your head out of the clouds just long enough to get the mail in the right spot, and you'll have plenty of time left over to indulge the fancies of your over-active imagination.