As part of NY1's new series, "How New York City Works," reporter Roger Clark takes a look at how that letter you drop in the mailbox gets to its destination via the Postal Service's extensive network.
It's written in stone at the main post office across from Penn Station: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
Those couriers are the men and women who work for the United States Postal Service. Their job, simply put, is to make sure you get your mail. But delivering an average of 10 million pieces of mail to New Yorkers each day? Well, that's anything but simple.
Chances are good that you've seen how the process starts. A truck swings by, and the driver picks up your letter and whatever else is inside.
Letters mailed anywhere within the five boroughs make their way to a mammoth facility called the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center on West 29th Street in Manhattan.
The place takes up two city blocks, with thousands of workers stationed around the clock as mail moves in and out. More than 5 million pieces move every day, and close to 7 million move during the holiday season.
We met up on the loading platform with Lafay Woody, who runs the facility during one of its three shifts.
"Right now, we're receiving mail from all of the collection areas, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New York," Woody says. "Our job right now here on the platform is to break down that mail, whether it's Express Mail, Priority Mail, Parcel Post, Collection Letters, bundles, certified, and it's our job to break it down into categories and send it throughout the facility to its destination."
It's all headed in different directions, but let's follow those letters from the blue boxes. They get loaded onto conveyor belts as an unsorted mess, and gently move upstairs, where they'll go through a number of sophisticated steps to make them ready for their final destination.
First things first: the cancellation machine. After all, the Postal Service wouldn't want you reusing stamps, would they? Here, the letter also passes through a biohazard system that can pick up on dangerous content like anthrax. Lastly, it reads the address on each letter. A computer inside takes a picture of it and translates it into a unique barcode, which is then printed on the letter. This barcode has all of the information needed to direct the letter from here on out.
So what about those of us with terrible handwriting? Well, they've got a fix for that.
"It lifts the images, send the images to a REC site, which we have employees sitting down, the mail piece comes up, they're able to read the address with the naked eye and determine the city, the state, the zip code to where it's going," Woody says. "They will now do some keystrokes and send that image back to us, and we're able to process it maybe within an hour, our turnaround time."
Our letters now take a trip on the trayline, the seemingly never-ending system of conveyor belts that transports mail from one part of the building to another. That leads it to the Delivery Bar Code Sorter, which breaks down mail by its five-digit zip code.
"As you can see with the machine, it's going through a process," Woody says. "All of the mail for the city, the Bronx, it's basically being worked on this machine. It's going to separate the mail to zip codes like 10001 in a bin, 10002."
If you think it's amazing how all of this mail can be sorted by zip code, well, it gets even better. It gets even more specific. The mail is sorted by a machine in what the post office calls the walk sequence, and that's basically the route that your letter carrier walks, house to house, building to building.
Now that the mail is fully sorted, it's back down to the loading platform, where it all heads out to your neighborhood post office. In this case, I gave one of the workers a hand loading up the truck headed to zip code 10465. That's the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx.
It's a couple of minutes after 7 a.m., and we're following the mail truck, which is not allowed on certain roads because of restrictions here in the city, so it has to take a lot of the side streets. That's providing for a pretty interesting journey.
Around 45 minutes later, the truck pulls into the Throggs Neck Station, where the mail is brought inside. We all know the retail side of the post office, but there's a whole lot more that goes on behind the scenes.
The first thing I learned here at Throggs Neck is that your letter carrier, before they hit the streets, they're here for two to three hours sorting mail. That's because there's some mail that can't get sorted by the machines at Morgan, like magazines or large or bulky letters.
Letter carriers like Iris Galan can sort up to 5,000 pieces by hand each day. Iris is a veteran postal worker who's been at this station for 20 years.
Iris' route is a bit of a hike from the post office, so she drives a minivan to the Country Club section of the Bronx. She parks and places her first round of deliveries into her cart.
Iris will come back to the van for more mail later, but most other carriers just have their carts, and that's when green boxes called relay boxes that you see all over town come in pretty handy. Since carriers can't fit all of their deliveries in just one cart, mail is dropped off and waits for them at relay boxes strategically placed along their routes. The carriers then pick up their next round of deliveries, and off they go.
Back to Iris, who starts her deliveries on a day when the rain is really coming down.
Clark: What do you do to kind of fight the elements? You have a sweatshirt and two jackets on, right?
Galan: I got a T-shirt underneath, my regular shirt from the post office, two sweatshirts, a jacket, plus the rain gear.
Galan: I feel like I'm carrying my closet.
Along the way, Iris scans packages so the Postal Service can keep track of delivery and also keep track of her, making sure the letter carriers are moving along and getting those deliveries done.
Then, there's that age-old rivalry of letter carrier versus dog. For that, Iris and others are ready with doggy treats.
"This is how I keep all my friends like me, so they're all waiting for this," she says.
The human residents on her route are also waiting for her. After six years on this specific route, Iris has become a part of the lives of the people she delivers to.
"They want to talk, they want to show you pictures," she says. "I mean, it's not like we have the time to do all of that, but you become like a family to all of them."
Clark: Today is the type of day that if I had your job, I might just say, "I don't want to come in today." It's not very comfortable out here.
Galan: I know. You are absolutely right. It's not easy. I mean, probably a lot of other carriers think the same way you do. But like I said, the job has to be done, one way or another. So we all got to have a positive attitude and get up in the morning. So we got to do it and and get out there and get the job done.
Clark: Do you watch the weather the night before and say, "Oh no"?
Galan: Not really, because if I do that, I'll never going to be able to sleep that night.
We wouldn't want that, since we can sleep a little better at night knowing that people like Iris are on the job.
That's how the mail gets to your place, and that's how New York City Works.
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